Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Review time! with ‘Centralia’

“Every night watching the fires crawl slowly down the valley”

My latest book for review, Centralia, is published by Living the Line, from which I’ve gotten quite a few nice comics this year, so good for them! Centralia is by Miel Vandepitte, and it was translated by Christine Braun and lettered (the English lettering, that is) by Sean Michael Robinson. Let’s give it a look!

I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned the beautiful town of Centralia, Pennsylvania before on this blog (or at least the old one), and Vandepitte, a Belgian comics creator, has also heard of it, as he bases this book on the phenomenon of Centralia. As you might know, Centralia (which is not too far from where my wife grew up in Pottsville) is pretty much a ghost town because a coal fire has been burning underneath the town since – wait for it – 1962, and it’s poisoned the air and made the earth ridiculously hot. A few people still hang on there, and the government is just waiting for them to die so it can move in and claim the mineral rights. It’s all a decades-long plot by the guv’mint, I knows it! Anyway, Vandepitte was inspired by the story to create Centralia, which takes place in a strange world but the central city – named Centralia, of course – has the same problem: a coal fire that’s been burning for decades, but because the factories in town dumped toxic waste into the coal, strange things happened in Centralia that didn’t happen in Pennsylvania (and because, you know, it’s a fantastical comic book). Meanwhile, in the rest of the world, a war has been fought, and Lonca – that fellow there on the cover – has grown tired of it and gone to a small settlement not far from Centralia. However, the town has financial problems, so he decides to go to Centralia, where a treasure is supposed to be hidden. He’s accompanied by Ace, a war reporter who wants to find out the story of the city, and Charden – a scientist – and Jack, who doesn’t speak much and is the bodyguard/jack-of-all-trades on the expedition. The soldiers Lonca fought against, who are called the Simia Nasalis and who wear odd red, giant-nosed masks (hence, I suppose, their name), are also in the city, on some kind of mission that doesn’t become clear for a while. So everyone is having an adventure!

This is a strange book, for several reasons. Centralia is a very large city, so our heroes are able to travel over rooftops because the asphalt is very much too hot to walk on (early on, some of the Nasalis soldiers melt as they get close to town) and the river is poisonous. The Nasalis walk around on stilts, but Lonca and his crew don’t have access to those. They find inhabitants of the city early on, and most of them are horribly mutated. The most memorable is probably the guy with the giant hole right through his torse who gnaws on his own intestines. Later, as they head deeper into the city, they discover even more strangely mutated creatures, who aren’t even remotely human. Birds in the city follow them, trying to eat their flesh, which is no fun. Eventually, they find that even the city’s structures are twisted and mutated thanks to the heat, and they’re also able to ride the hot air currents because they’re so strong. Lonca is focused on getting the treasure, but the city is beginning to affect him, as well (and his companions, of course), but he stubbornly stays on course while Ace is more interested in interviewing the more human inhabitants of the city to find out what’s going on. Eventually, we find out the big plan of the Simia Nasalis, and Lonca realizes he needs to fight once again the war that he abandoned. There is, of course, danger and excitement!

It’s an odd book, because Vandepitte kind of edges around some deeper themes but never lets them get in the way of telling a fairly old-fashioned – but lively – adventure story. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, and the book zips along, but the oddness of the surroundings seem to point to deeper metaphors, but it does feel like Vandepitte just wanted to write some weird stuff into a rousing treasure hunt, so he did. We can get some of the war-weariness from Lonca, of course, and as he heads deeper into the city, his exterior begins to mirror his ravaged interior, and the masks the Nasalis wear are bizarre and creepy and allow us to dehumanize them like one side in a war always tries to dehumanize the other. There is, of course, the horror of corporate greed and industrialization, as Centralia’s very architecture is warped because of humans’ desires and foolishness. None of this gets in the way of the story, but it’s there, and it seems that Vandepitte simply wanted to let us know that he had these things on his mind. Whenever I read comics that have been translated from a different language, I’m wary of looking deeper and I also notice a kind of disjointed rhythm to the story, which I’m not sure if it’s due to the nature of European comics or the translation. Part of this book is a bit disjointed, in other words, as some interactions feel a bit odd. It’s hard to explain, so I apologize, but occasionally, when I’m reading European comics (not as much when I’m reading Japanese ones), it feels like the people are talking in a weirdly formal and even formulaic manner, and I don’t know if the translation bogs down right there or if that’s just the way Europeans write sometimes (I mean, to be fair, it happens in English stuff, too, but it seems to be a hallmark of European comics). It’s not all the time, so I’m not sure what it is. Charden has an interaction with a mutated human in this book that just feels weird, for instance, and there are a few other spots of strangeness (the beginning of the exchange is above, but that’s not the weird part). It certainly doesn’t ruin the book, but it’s just a bit off-kilter occasionally.

Anyway, Vandepitte does a marvelous job with the artwork. Obviously, he’s working in the European ligne claire tradition, so his line tends to be a bit thin and his characters look a bit cartoonish and this could easily fit into a Tintin book, but Vandepitte uses a lot of hatching to roughen up the scenes, so Centralia looks like a grungy, decaying city. His details are amazing, from the weird characters to the hauntingly beautiful buildings, and his Simia Nasalis are both goofy and menacing. Both his design sense and use of perspective give us a wondrous tour through the town, as Lonca and his crew experience it from high above, so we’re always getting vertiginous views of the ground and we’re seeing intricate rooftops and balconies and staircases as they navigate through it. His odd creatures manage to be both a bit silly, a bit scary, and a bit tragic, which isn’t easy to pull off. His layouts are interesting, as he uses oddly-shaped panels quite often to disorient the reader (without disrupting the flow of the narrative), and he uses double-page spreads judiciously, including one with a lot of the city’s inhabitants in it that is quite breathtaking. It’s a beautiful book, which is pretty keen.

As an adventure, Centralia works nicely, and despite some of my issues with the story, it’s generally very enjoyable. Living the Line is putting out some nice books this year!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆


  1. Peter

    I really do like so much of what Living The Line is putting out. Great reproduction of line art all the time, and their projects are often quite off-kilter in a good way. I had not heard of this before, but as a PA native, the title alone intrigues me and I might have to pick it up even if the story is nothing groundbreaking.

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