“And when I grow old, well I know I’m gonna be, I’m gonna be the man who’s growing old with you”
Magnetic Press, which always publishes interesting European comics, has Adrastea by Mathieu Bablet, which has been translated by Mike Kennedy and is, perhaps not surprisingly, an interesting European comic!
The story begins with a young prince of Hyperborea (which means, I guess, that this book is in Conan continuity?) who happens to be immortal. He grows to be a man, but stops aging when he’s still young and virile (immortal people are never old and infirm and just don’t die), and then he has to watch as his family and kingdom die around him. After a thousand years, he decides to leave the ruin of his city and head south to Mount Olympus to ask the gods why he’s immortal. And so he does. He encounters many strange creatures along the way, some of whom try to hinder his quest, and he meets people who have heard rumors of an immortal man and want to know his secrets. As he walks, he tries to remember his life, which is becomingly increasingly difficult for him. He reaches Mount Olympus, but doesn’t quite get the answers that he wants. Eventually, he comes to a conclusion about his life, and the books ends. The end.
It’s not, in other words, a ridiculously complicated book, plot-wise. The man (who is never named) walks south and has mini-adventures. It’s more a meditative work, as he tries to figure out why he’s immortal and no one else is, and why anyone would want to be immortal when he’s lost everyone who ever meant anything to him. He meets a queen who’s cursed in a different way than he is, and he tries to help her (her curse is kind of tied into immortality, but I don’t want to give it away, so I won’t). There’s also the idea of the gods and whether they’re able to help him or are possibly indifferent to his plight, which brings up the idea of whether the gods are worthy of our worship or whether they’re even necessary. The idea of worship is something that Bablet can easily tie to immortality, and he does, as he shows a world that feels like it’s falling apart and people who are desperate for salvation that they’re not getting from the gods or their leaders. It’s a dark and frightening world, and our king is confused about why he’s such a focus when it seems like the people should probably be worried about other things. Bablet’s ultimate conclusion about immortality isn’t the most unique idea in the world, but his journey to that point is nicely done, as he comments fairly subtly (and, occasionally, not so subtly) on humanity’s obsession with living forever and why that’s not the greatest idea in the world. Obviously, we can guess at his epiphany, but Bablet does a decent job getting us there.
The adventure parts of the book are well done, too. It’s a meditative book, sure, but there are still adventures to be had! Our king has to solve a sphinx’s riddle before zombie soldiers tear him apart, he has to fight Polyphemus, who’s pretty damned big, and, thanks to the cover, you can probably puzzle out that at some point he has to fight Talos, which he does. And, of course, there are the many humans who wish him harm. It’s not an extremely bloody book (there’s some, but not necessarily where you expect it), as Talos, for instance, doesn’t have blood, and it’s not ridiculously violent, but there is a good amount of action. It helps the philosophy go down more easily!
The art is stunning, and it makes the book work extremely well. Bablet has kind of a Gabriel Walta vibe going with his line work (or vice versa; I’m not sure who came first or if they’re even aware of each other), with the same somewhat angular style but with a thinner, finer line. His people are fascinating – he gives the king a good, world-weary look, fitting for someone whose family died a millennium ago, and he gives the man who “befriends” the king (with the intention of finding out if he can steal the immortality) a slightly glassy-eyed, crazed look, even when he’s calm, so it’s only a matter of time before he snaps. The cursed queen has a haunted look, making her a kindred spirit to the king but still someone who doesn’t understand his loneliness. His creatures are superb, too. When the sphinx appears, he gives us a nice reveal that slowly turns her from a welcoming face into a rapacious monster, while both his cyclops and mechanical guardian are wonderfully realized. Polyphemus is a terrifying brute, while Talos is so big and ancient that it has its own ecosystem. Where Bablet really shines is with the landscapes. Even if the man-made parts of the world are decaying, the natural world is fecund and gorgeous, with our king traveling through rich forests and over towering mountains. When he comes across human habitation, it’s either abandoned and ruined or decrepit, even if it’s occupied. The cities of Greece seem to be fighting a losing battle against the spread of nature, with greenery poking through every crack and crevice and seemingly held back only temporarily. The cities that are still being used are impressive, with “many steps and columns,” to quote Alex Winter, but Bablet makes it clear that, like the Europeans after the fall of Rome, the people living there are only occupying them, and they were built in the distant past by a more skilled civilization. Eventually, the king makes it to the underworld, which is beautifully rendered as well, as a place still of the world, but strangely out of it thanks to its peculiar geometry and architecture. The details in the art make this a beautifully rich world, and Bablet’s colors – a heavy use of green, of course, but crucial reds in some scenes and blues in Olympus – also make the art pop very well. There are many pages with little or no dialogue, but you don’t zip past them because there’s so much to see in the art, which is pretty cool.
While Bablet’s story in Adrastea isn’t the greatest, his philosophical musings are pretty good and give us insight into the way we live our lives, which isn’t a bad thing. It’s certainly an exciting and heartfelt tale, and Bablet’s art pushes it over into excellence. Give it a look!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆