Written by Benoit Peeters
Art by François Schuiten
When I was a teenager I was given a pile of Cheval Noir comics. Oh how I wish I still had them now.
For those of you who don’t know (which I’m imagining is most of you) – Cheval Noir was a black-and-white anthology comic book published between 1989 and 1994 by Dark Horse Comics and it was wild. Looking back it feels a little bit like I was given a barrel of fine Irish whisky or something when really I probably should have been only drinking soft drinks.
(In fact I think it might have ruined me for other comic books a bit).
Like I don’t want to go too overboard but the quality of the strips they printed in Cheval Noir was high. It was basically some of the best ever European comics all squeezed in next to each other side by side: there was The Forever War by Marvano in stark black and white. Lone Sloane by Philippe Druillet which was like Flash Gordon if he was French and got spliced with Lovecraft. Jacques Tardi’s The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec (which actually I never really got on with – but lots of people think it’s marvelous so whatever). The Roach Killer by Jacques Tardi and loads loads more (the whole thing ran for 50 issues).
And then there’s Benoît Peeters and François Schuiten’s Les Cités Obscures / Cities of the Fantastic series which is basically like – oh my god – wow.
I find it a little difficult to properly explain what these books are and how they work. Partly because they’ve been a part of my mental architecture for more than most of my life. So trying to put them into words is a bit like trying to describe the sky (“Erm. It’s big and just kinda hangs over everything”). But then also: these are comic books that don’t really function in the same way that other comic books do.
I mean: there’s a part of me that wants to say that they’re kinda dream-like in how they’re written. But I’m not sure that that’s quite right. Because when I think of a comic that’s dream-like I think of the Incal by Alejandro Jodorowsky and Moebius which (for me) is dreamlike in all the worst ways – everything just kinda spills into everything else with no real rhyme or reason. Everything just kinda flows and swims around from place to place with no clear end goal. Just a bunch of random things happening one after another.
But with Benoît Peeters and François Schuiten: it’s more like the kinda dreams that I actually have. Everything is weird and strange and existing in a different reality where objects don’t behave as they usually do and everything is slightly off and yet but still: there is a structure and a logic behind everything that means that everything makes sense even tho I don’t quite know what the sense is.
Take The Tower for example (which they’ve been threatening to publish for about two or three years now and now finally finally finally has come out in a lovely new paperback version).
I mean without wanting to give too much away: The Tower is a story that doesn’t quite fit into the book in which it’s told. You keep seeing different aspects of it but you never ever really get to see the whole thing. At the start you kinda get the feeling that it’s set in the medieval ages or something but then as it moves forward everything kinda moves forward in time a bit so all of a sudden it’s like you’re in The Renaissance and then it keeps pressing forward until you end up somewhere else entirely like – well – just like a dream.
And well yeah – for me this is what the best stories are like. And – dare I say it – there’s a sense in which it’s a bit like Kafka and a bit like Borges. It’s not really sci-fi or fantasy – it’s much more elemental than that. Like you’re reading something that’s always existed and is just being uncovered now – directly from the dark side of your brain.
And yeah a lot of this is due to François Schuiten (the artist) who is basically on another level when it comes to the whole comic book art stuff. I mean I already said that reading this as a kid might have ruined me for other books a bit and yeah the quality of the artwork is a big part of the reason why. I do try my best not to look down on most American comic books but it’s a bit like watching a Stanley Kubrick movie in a cinema and then watching a TV show on VHS. His work kinda reminds of those old copies of Dante’s Inferno with all of those lovingly detailed depictions of every last circle of Hell.
I’m guessing that before he did comics he was an architect because yeah it’s very obvious that he loves buildings and very large spaces. Maybe for some people it’s a little bit too cold and austere and yeah at times it does feel like he’s showing off in terms of “look at how fucking talented I am.” But god – isn’t that what art is about? Don’t you want to see someone’s skills and just feel impressed?
If you’ve never experienced it before then I envy you. Although I have no idea how a 2022 comic book reader will respond to it. I mean even at the time it felt like something from a different reality but now it’s old too and yet still: I can’t help but feel there’s something timeless about it too. Even if that’s obvious what it’s aiming towards – I still think it’s impressive that it manages to pull it off. At the risk of sounding too curmudgeonly – too many modern comics read like they’re first drafts of TV shows or they want to get made into a movie: they’ve read all the screenplay books and they know how to construct protagonists who are cool and likeable and build worlds which are bright and colourful and dynamic. Going from books like that to The Tower is a little like listening to pop music all day and then trying to understand an old folk song: the sound is different, the rhythms aren’t the same and it doesn’t do any of the things that it’s supposed to do – but if you’re willing to let it carry you along there’s a whole new experience waiting for you.
And ok yeah – maybe it’s not as deep as maybe it should be (what is this book even about? Like I dunno – towers and stuff?) but who cares when the aesthetics of the artwork and the type of story it’s telling are so mesmerising? Like a think one of the things that I really love about comics is that each comic book is a beautiful object – you open it up and there’s all of these lovely pictures and if you read it properly then this whole story will appear inside your mind. Well – The Tower is definitely more lovely than most. It’s weird and strange and idiosyncratic and completely itself.
What else could you want?
Wow, I remember this book! I used to travel around Europe with work a couple of times a year, and would seek out comic shops and end up with a motley lot of books in languages I couldn’t read. And then, IIRC, NBM books brought out English translations of the series. This, as I remember, was about the best of the ones they did. The art is insanely detailed and precise, and the people a bit less wooden than in some of the earlier ones – he was clearly best suited to drawing architecture.
The story, as I recall, didn’t make a lot of sense, but more so than stuff by Druillet, for example 🙂
PS: fun fact – the author Benoit Peeters has been professor of comics studies at Lancaster University for several years.
But sense is overrated right? I think one of the *many* modern curses of storytelling nowadays is how fixated people are on making sure that everything makes sense. That the worldbuilding is consistent and would work in real life. That there’s no unexplained plot holes and we can put everything on to a graph and map it exactly. Boring.
Comics especially I think should be more liberated in how they approach dull and ugly ideas like “consistency” and “logic.” I mean unlike novels which have to laboriously explain everything with – urg – words (words are stupid) comics can just throw cool images at you and leave you to work it all out. Which I think is one of the many things The Tower does so well. It never really bothers to explain anything. It just keeps throwing all these gorgeous images and ideas (same difference right) at you and your brain just eats it all up. It’s only when you get to the end that you realise that it didn’t really make sense – but hey at that point who cares right?
I wish that there were comics like this were still being made nowadays – but it mostly seems to be a lost art. The only thing I can think of that comes close is Rob Davis’ superlative Motherless Oven trilogy.
Yeah, there is something dreamlike about the Tower (and buildings are a core part of dream imagery). IIRC, the buildings moved or grew sometimes? They’d go to sleep, then wake up and things were a bit different. And it pulled it off well, some psychedelic/dream stuff can be tedious.
The Motherless Oven narrowly escaped explaining things with the third book – the bears are actually dead oligarchs! Everyone’s been made out of psychic plasticine all along! Using the book within a book as a way of overexplaining, and drowning it all with lashings of top-notch puns, made it work. And yeah, it’s one of the best books I’ve read in the last ten years
Isn’t all imagery dream imagery?
Although the description of buildings moving around when you’re asleep reminds me of the (very good) story from The Sandman about the guy who gets caught in the dream of the sleeping city.
I think that helps to keep The Tower from being tedious is that the main guy (who apparently was played by Orson Welles? lol) has a very clear aim and goal and is very active in trying to get to where he’s going to. Like basically if your main character is probably solid and clearly defined then it doesn’t really matter if the world is accelerating through different time periods and architectural styles. Humans are much more solid than reality anyway.
Would also recommend Fever in Urbicand too which is my other favourite Cities of the Fantastic book. (Although sadly it looks like that hasn’t been republished yet which is a shame – hopefully they’ll get around to it soon).
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