Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Review time! with ‘Metax’

“A pretty sight it seemed to be, an avenue of eternal peace; but he said, ‘What is here can soon burn down'”

Fantagraphics, purveyor of your finest weirdo European comics, brings us Metax by Antoine Cossé, a – wait for it – weirdo European comic! Funny how that works!

This comic begins with 22 consecutive wordless full-page splashes, which is both an odd and fairly cool way to start, as Cossé shows various strange images before we get to a herd of horses thundering through the streets of an ornate city, through the gates, and out onto the plains before one of them is shot and killed. It’s a breathtaking beginning, frankly, because Cossé does so much with a simple art style, as he uses few, bold lines and a gray wash to create the city, which is eerily empty as the horses run through it (perhaps because the populace knows they’re coming?). We see who killed the horse – a small group of people wearing masks, who then take a pill and transform into birds to escape. It’s very disorienting, but of course it’s meant to be. Exactly what’s going on is the plot of the book, after all, so Cossé has to have an inciting event in order to explore his world, which is called Ronin City.

Ronin City is powerful thanks to its possession of Metax (which is spelled a few times with l’accent aigu over the “e” but is generally not, so I’m not using it), which they mine outside the city. Metax is the thing that allows the people to transform into animals, but other than that, it’s a MacGuffin, as we never learn why that property of it would allow Ronin City’s king to become so strong. It’s honestly frustrating, because this is a bit of a science fiction story, but Cossé would rather write a rebellion story, as the masked people are fighting against the government. That’s fine, but the fantastical elements aren’t necessarily needed. What we have is a story of people who chafe under an authoritarian government and want to do something about it. After the stylish beginning, it settles into that simple plot pretty easily. Yes, there are some odd things about the narrative, but that’s to be expected when you’re dealing with a substance that transforms people into birds. Cossé doesn’t do too much with the characters, so the plot has to carry the book, and it just doesn’t. It’s too bad – rebellion against the government is always an interesting go-to plot, but there has to be something more to it than just a weird thing that alters reality. Cossé is using Metax as a metaphor, as transformation is part of the book (not only with regard to the plan to “transform” the government, but with the characters themselves), but it’s a bit of a simplistic metaphor, and doesn’t have quite the impact he wants it to have.

I don’t love his occasionally abstract art, because like a lot of European artists (yes, I’m generalizing, and no, I don’t care), he adds some characters that are drawn ridiculously, which doesn’t fit the tone of the book. In this case it’s the king’s security advisor, Wig, who has large oval, Orphan-Annie eyes and hair that sticks straight out all around, like a mane. He’s ridiculous, but he’s the most menacing character in the book, and it just feels … off. I know that’s probably the point – that evil doesn’t always come looking like evil – but he’s just so silly that it becomes annoying. Otherwise, Cossé’s art is weird and wonderful, as he uses bold, simple designs to create a world that feels cold and impersonal, which is helped by the fact that he often draws characters with utterly blank faces. He keeps the masks the characters wear simple as well, making them almost primordial, which fits a bit with what we discover about those people. Ronin City is an interesting mix of futuristic technology and medieval architecture, while the king’s police are the same way – some of them are kitted out in high-tech weaponry and sleek outfits, while others look like the Russians guarding the Czech border in Stripes. It’s an odd mix, but it works well in the fabulist way Cossé presents the story. His use of the gray wash is nicely done, and it makes the few times he uses watercolors to pop nicely. It’s not really the kind of art I dig, but I recognize that Cossé does it quite well. His storytelling, in other words, is quite good.

Metax is interesting in places, but it doesn’t quite cohere well enough to recommend it. It hides its simplicity behind some bells and whistles, but Cossé never pays off some of the things he brings up, or at least he does pay them off, but not in any meaningful way. It’s a nice book to look at because his art is distinctive and often interesting, but it’s in service to a fairly staid and simplistic morality tale. I’d be curious to read some of his other work, because it’s clear he has an unusual sensibility about him, but he doesn’t quite pull it off here. But hey, if you think it might be something for you, I linked to it below!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

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