Sunday, August 24, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #236: Isaac the Pirate, Vol. 1 by Christophe Blain

Every so often, I need to read French comics: to remind myself that this artform can be about adults and their lives, set in realistic worlds, and break out of all those US-specific genre straitjackets. I'm sure not all French comics are in that mode -- every country has cheap crappy entertainment -- but the French comics that make it over here in translation tend to be the good ones, the ones with something to say to readers who aren't simply thrilled to see Batman punching someone new this Wednesday.

This week, that book was Isaac the Pirate: Vol. 1: To Exotic Lands, a collection of two French albums from 2001 and 2002 by Christophe Blain, translated and put into one US volume in 2003 by NBM. It's the first two-fifths of the story to date -- there's a second NBM volume (which I haven't seen) that collects the next two French volumes, and then one lonely book, still only in French.

I don't know a whole lot about Blain: I've seen his art in some of the Dungeon books written by Lewis Trondheim and Joann Sfar, and I enjoyed his Gus and His Gang (which I reviewed for ComicMix in 2008, published several years after the Isaac the Pirate stories). This is pretty clearly earlier work: Blain's page layouts are blockier and more workmanlike, with less of the lightness and design sense of Gus.

But the art in those panels is expressive and engaging. And the story Blain tells here is even better: the twinned tales of Isaac and Alice, two young lovers in Paris sometime in the hundred years or so before the French Revolution. Isaac is a Jew -- this is important, since his family disapproves of Alice, and the reader suspects his life would be much easier and simpler without her -- and a painter, obsessed with the sea and with naval battles. Alice is more practical: her odd jobs are what keeps their small household running as much as it does. But then Isaac has a chance to go to sea, to draw from life, and he's the kind of impulsive artistic type that we know he will take it.

And, from the title, we suspect he won't be coming back quickly, or that his voyage will be simple and uneventful. That does turn out to be the case. Isaac is at the center of most of the book, but Blain does return to Alice several times, showing her finding a new position as first the cook/housekeeper and then the private secretary for a rich man -- a rich man who has some connection to Isaac's adventures, as well.

This is not a complete story; each of the original French albums pauses -- on a good emotional point, yes, but nothing like an stopping place -- rather than ends. There may not be an ending for years, or at all: the fifth Isaac book came out in 2005, and I can't tell if that was the end. (And, even if it is, it has not been translated.) Even with all that, Isaac the Pirate is deeply worth reading, an immersion into its own world, by turns serious and amusing, full of thoughts about exploration and art, fidelity and love, eschatology and friendship.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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