Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Review time! with ‘The Treasure of the Black Swan’

“Sit my friends and listen, put your glasses down; sit my friends and listen to the voices of the drowned”

In 2007, an American company called Odyssey Marine Exploration found a wreck in international waters, from which they extracted a vast sum of gold bullion and other valuables. The Spanish government figured out that the wreck was that of Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes (otherwise called the Mercy, because English is so much better than Spanish!), and they sued to get the money back. If you don’t think a lawsuit is the basis for a gripping comic book, Fantagraphics, along with Paco Roca and Guillermo Corral van Damme (and translator Andrea Rosenberg) have news for you, as they fictionalized it into The Treasure of the Black Swan. Let’s take a look!

From the book, we learn that the Mercy was one of the ships that, in 1804, was bringing as much booty as could be carried from Spain’s New World possessions because the government was afraid that they would need ready cash to fight with Napoleon – in an alliance they didn’t really want – against the British. When they had almost reached Spain, a British convoy stopped them and planned to detain them, which was a violation of international law, as the two countries weren’t at war. According to the book, before anything else could happen, the British fired on the Mercy. A cannon ball struck the ship’s powder magazine and blew it up, sinking it quickly with 250 dead, including many civilians who were hitching a ride home. Spain had no choice but to enter the war on France’s side. The Mercy was far enough out to sea (still close to Spain, but in international waters) that it became very hard to find and recover.

The comic begins with the discovery of the wreck in 2007 by a man named Frank Stern and his company, Ithaca (not Odyssey, because this is fictionalized, but that’s a clever substitution). Meanwhile, a young man named Álex Ventura goes to work at Spain’s Ministry of Culture, and he becomes our POV character, as he gets the phone call alerting him to Ithaca’s discovery before it becomes public. He and a woman named Elsa, who works in the research library of the ministry, figure out that the ship is the Mercy, and the Spanish government swings into action to retrieve the treasure! (It’s called the “Black Swan” early on because of that bird’s mythological aura – it’s a wreck that is basically intact, which hasn’t been plundered yet and which hasn’t been scattered by the ocean currents.) Obviously, it’s not the most action-packed story, but it is gripping, both because Álex and Elsa have to do interesting detective work to find out if the ship is, in fact, the Mercy, and also because it’s unclear how the story will end (we assume it ends with the Spaniards getting the treasure, and if you want to read up on the case, you can, but I didn’t, so I wasn’t sure if it would end that way). Meanwhile, there’s something fishy going on with the Spanish government, as intelligence agents talk to Álex a few times about dropping the case, which is odd, and there’s some shenanigans when the Spaniards actually try to move the treasure out of the United States. The writers (Roca is a comics guy and Corral is a Spanish diplomat, who may or may not be in this book under a different name) do a nice job moving through the process, keeping the tension up in what is, basically, a diplomatic and bureaucratic wrangle, and giving us good insights into how this kind of thing plays out. Álex feels invented (or at least an amalgam), as he’s the new guy to whom people can explain things so they’re explained to the reader, and Elsa is a woman probably (and, also, possibly an invention or amalgamation) so they can have a little romance (although, of course, she could have been a man and the romance could still have existed!). They make a good team, because they give us different perspectives on how the attempt to regain the treasure went, from both the investigative angle and the diplomatic angle. There’s a bit of action, too, which feels a bit incongruous due to the “real-world” aspect of the story, but also make a bit of sense because lots and lots of money makes people do weird things. It’s not a edge-of-your-seat thriller by any means, but it’s still a pretty gripping read.

In the same way, Roca’s art does the job well without being spectacular. His characters are easily identifiable, which is handy in a book like this, and he does a nice job making Álex and Elsa look like actual people, not ridiculously hot ones, and their romance feels more real because of that. The way he visually explains some of the technical points in the book is well done, and the scenes at sea allow him to be a bit bolder with his line work. The two flashback scenes are nicely done – in the one about the Mercy‘s voyage, Roca drops holding lines to soften the art and uses sepia tones, and when one character talks about his past, he switches to flatter brown and white coloring and slightly rougher line work, as the scene is set in the desert. In a book with not a lot of opportunity to dazzle, visually, Roca has a nice touch when it’s called for.

The Treasure of the Black Swan is a good read about an interesting event, which isn’t a bad thing. It has some nice adventure, solid sleuthing, and a touch of romance. There’s nothing wrong with that!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆


  1. square

    I loved this book. Roca is something comics desperately needs more of: an artist capable of exquisitely telling down to earth stories.

    The story itself wasn’t near to my heart, but it was very good. I ended writing a similar length review, maybe with similar conclusions to you, but a higher rating. I just don’t read many comics this well constructed.

    1. Greg Burgas

      It seems you do like the book more than I do, even though I do like it quite a bit. You make some very interesting points about the art, especially the coloring, that I didn’t, so thanks!

  2. JHL

    Okay, wait, so the treasure was made up of stuff acquired by Spanish colonies. Which, to me, implies that the Spanish government’s logic was, “we stole it first, so dibs”. Wild.

    1. Greg Burgas

      Yeah, pretty much. I mean, European countries have always been a bit blind when it comes to “their” colonies and other “less civilized” places around the world, so it’s not surprising Spain would feel this way!

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