Thursday, October 20, 2022

William and the Lost Spirit by Gwen de Bonneval and Matthieu Bonhomme

One of the things I'm coming to appreciate about the European comics scene is how nearly all of the creators are both writers and artists, even if they generally take on only one role for a specific project. It's a dynamic that's subtly different from US comics, where the Big Two (and various hangers-on) still mostly follow the old industrial-production method, with separate pencilers, inkers, letterers, and colorists (plus at least one writer, and sometimes separated plotters and scripters), all of whom are assigned to a book by some boss editor, and there's a stronger force to keep them all "in their lanes." Euro comics seem to be more on the regular-publishing, freelance basis - a team has a pitch, and if it's accepted, they do that thing.

(I imagine the longer-running Eurocomics, like Spirou, are closer to the US model, with new seasons of sharecroppers hired by the owners - there, I think the difference is that the owners tend to be the descendants of the original creators rather than the successor corporation to the original publisher, which is at least slightly preferable.)

So I find that I see names first in one role or the other, and then they pop up doing the other one. Sometimes I'm following along someone's career - there is definitely a tropism to start off drawing someone else's story, and then advance to writing your own stories for someone else to draw, but it's not all that consistent - and sometimes it's just what I happen to see or the vagaries of translated publishing.

All that to say: I know Gwen de Bonneval's name, because I've seen him draw things before: Last Days of an Immortal and two "Saturday and Sunday" books (one, two). But he's the writer here, and that is totally normal and expected for Eurocomics. I think this is slightly later in his career than those other projects, but only slightly.

William and the Lost Spirit is written by de Bonneval and drawn by Matthieu Bonhomme, who I would not be surprised to see writing something else, entirely different, in another couple of years. It reprints what was a trilogy in the original French publication, three bandes dessinees that came out between 2006 and 2009 and were translated by Anne and Owen Smith for this 2013 US edition.

William is young, just on the verge of his teens, somewhere in medieval Europe. (First guess: France!) His aged grandfather is the local count, and his beloved father has just died, putting the family into turmoil. His mother is remarrying quickly, to the old count's seneschal, and moving house back to the central court - it sounds like William's father was put in an wild and/or obscure corner of the county, to help tame it but it has remained wild and untamed, plagued by bandits.

William's sister Helise has run away: she believes their father is still alive, and is trying to find and save him. The story doesn't emphasize the point, but all of the women in this family have some kind of magical or mystical powers, so Helise may not be entirely correct, but she's not obviously misguided: she says their dead father talk to her, and that is entirely plausible.

This is the story of how William and Helise run away, make allies, search out the true reasons for their father's death, and make it back home - not entirely in that order. The three books are clearly distinct: they tell the overall story together, in sequence, but they do so in somewhat different ways - the second book most obviously.

Lost Spirit is also full of the folklore, beliefs, and social expectations of the time - myths of Prester John and the gryphon on the cover, questions of how the magic of this family's women connects to Christianity, things like that. This is not a vague fantasyland; it's much more grounded in real medieval life.

It was published in the US for a YA audience, so there's some material after the end of the story, to explain those medieval details (where various titles fall in the hierarchy, those mythological figures, religion and gender details, and several pages of discussion questions, presumably for classroom use rather than book groups). None of that is necessary, especially if you're not actually twelve at the moment, but it's thoughtful and useful and (maybe more important) easily skippable if you want to.

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