The French-speaking world must have been making terrific thrillers since the dawn of time. French literature features some of writing’s greatest adventure stories; French cinema defined and is still used to describe some key genre elements like noire and policier; and the European graphic novel industry never got tarred with the censorship issues that left English-language comics languishing in the kids’ section. XIII is a classic example of what can happen when a mature genre crosses into comics without any perceived need to dumb it down for the medium’s readers.
Without going into too much detail and spoiling the whole thing for you, what readers of the first volume could be forgiven for thinking might be a long story of discovering identity over the course of XIII‘s 19 volumes, is rapidly realigned here. XIII quickly finds out exactly who he is and why he’s being hunted. However, the plot thickens as he realises that the identity of the man he was doesn’t complete the full picture, and that finding what he presumed he was looking for has only opened a whole new level of mystery and complication.
Jean Van Hamme is clearly a master of episodic drama. The pace of the unfolding mystery isn’t dropped for a single page, as a corkscrew of twisting discovery and new mystery is coiled around the core plot.
There’s a small amount of jarring, dated technology in the book, when XIII turns to a young computer whizz to find some geographical information from the network connection to the boy’s school computer – it’s an interesting extrapolation of what someone in the eighties might have presumed was around the corner, but it just looks weird in our post-Google age.
William Vance’s characters are stiff but effective. XIII sometimes looks like he’s been hewn from stone and, while you could argue that this probably isn’t far from what Vance intends us to think about the character, few of his other figures look much more flexible.
What he excels at, however, is creating a broad sweep of distinctive characters, maintaining their appearance throughout. Despite a complex and ever-increasing cast, Vance seems to have an infinite pool of faces to draw from. This is an issue that can cause confusion when attempted by lesser artists but Vance pulls it off with aplomb.
XIII is a true classic of eighties European graphic novels. This second volume only goes to further cement the reasons why it’s achieved this status. It’s well worth a look if you like a cinematic rollercoaster of a thriller, and really, when it comes down to it, who doesn’t?