Thursday, May 8, 2014

Weapons of Mass Diplomacy (Quai d'Orsay) by Abel Lanzac and ChristopheBlain

Heads up: Quai d'Orsay (Weapons of Mass Diplomacy) was originally going to be reviewed by Ralf (who couldn't be bothered anymore;-), so I (Lawrence B Vossler) will finish it for him. The few paragraph summary was written by him and I'm leaving it untouched and will pick up after it.

- What the hell is "Quai d'Orsay"?

Well, it's a street in Paris where the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs is located and has become a metonymy for the latter.

- Frankly, I'm not a francophile and don't know anything about the inner workings of French politics, so why should I care?

Great question. For one, Quai d'Orsay won the Grand Prize for best album at the Angouleme Comics Festival in 2013, which alone is reason enough to pick it up (More precisely, it was the second part of the original French version. SelfMadeHero are publishing it as a one-volume edition). But more importantly, you can replace "Quai d'Orsay" with "Harry S. Truman Building" or "King Charles Street" or wherever else your respective Foreign Ministry or actually any other political office is located since the machinations behind politics Lanzac describes here are universal.

Lanzac is the pseudonym of an assistant of former French foreign secretary (and then prime minister) Villepin, who famously led the coalition of nations who were against the war the US began against Iraq in 2003. - Ralf

Quai d'Orsay explores the beginnings and built up to the coalition through the eyes of various characters and we read about their contributions to the coalition. Quai d'Orsay is also one hell of a funny comic; it's a comic that relies heavily on comedy.

Comedy is a hard thing to pull off in any medium but in comics, you have to have a mastery of timing and pacing. When you read a comic whatever pages are in front of you can be potential spoilers and ruin whatever mystery or comedic set-ups/payoffs you have in mind. Lanzac and Blain understand this predicament and use it to their advantage. They fill the page with comedic set-ups and payoffs through dialogue or the character's motions/reactions; Lanzac and Blain overwhelm the reader. Every page has three or four (some lasting multiple pages, some only a couple panels) comedic set-ups/payoffs that look like a jumbled mess when you first come across it. You're brain can't process what's going on and so you're forced to read the individual panels instead of staring at the overall layout. Once you start reading the panels, what seemed chaotic is now structured. The complex workings of the jokes, payoffs, set-ups, slap-sticks all live and feed off each other. Blain does a beautiful job setting up his panels into a six to twelve grid structure that gives him have a tighter control over time and pacing. Sometimes Blain goes borderless with his panels and it makes the joke have a stream-of-consciousness feel to it.

Throughout Quai d'Orsay we're introduced to a wide range of interesting characters, each with their own idiosyncratic look, expressions, and manner of speaking. What blew me away was how every character in Quai d'Orsay is given their own unique look, each character is radically different. Even characters that only get one panel screen time are given their own unique look and personality. This due to Blain's amazing skill as a cartoonist. Blain doesn't go the lazy route and give us characters that have the same face/body structure with small differences; no, he builds all the characters from the ground up. What we get is a comic full of diverse characters.
Quai d'Orsay relies heavily on dialogue. There are times where the word bubbles just fill the page and panels and it overtakes the characters and readers. Just like the break-neck pacing the comic moves in, the dialogue comes at us at an even faster speed. Terse and hard-hitting, Lanzac's dialogue feels like it could fit into a crime/hard-boiled novel. The image below shows us how overwhelming and fast the dialogue can come at you. Blain does a smart job by taking borders away from the panels, this allows the character and dialogue to breath and move around without restriction. The borderless panel also gives it a stream-of-consciousness feel to it, that we're moving from one flow of thought to the next with De Vorms, and it gives us a sneak peek into his thought process. Even when the dialogue is within the panels, it feels like it's going to burst through the panel borders and overwhelm the page.

Though we're being pushed forward at break-neck speed throughout the comic, Lanzac and Blain know that this speed can make burn a reader out. Lanzac and Blain take little detours or have character moments that allows us to breath and take in what we just read and explore the characters more. The image below Lanzac and Blain do a beautiful job exploring an aspect of De Vorm we rarely see. Lanzac and Blain take a step-back from the chaos that surrounds Quai d'Orsay. When De Vorms meets up with Jeffrey (Colin Powell) they have a somewhat terse conversion about what's going on their lives and the politics around them. Right away we see that De Vorms & Jeffrey lose their defensive postures and they're comforted by each other. Though this page is used to show what type of relationship De Vorms has with Jeffrey (which is important later on), it's also used as a breathing space between the chaos and insanity. Lanzac and Blain uses close-up shots to show how intimate these men are and to drive how comfortable they are around each other. It works beautifully and allows us, the readers, to relax with them.

As a teenage I used to watch a show called Fist of the North Star. The main protagonist, Kenshiro, uses a move called Hokuto Hyakuretsu-ken (which translates to Hundred Cracking Fist of the North Star). It's a technique which "consists of numerous rapid punches that result in the illusion of several arms appearing at the same time" that Kenshiro uses to obliterate his enemy. When in Hokuto Hyakuretsu-ken mode, Kenshiro releases a battle cry which goes like, “AH-TATATATATA!" and finishes off with a “You are already dead." The funny thing is that throughout Quai d'Orsay Villepin is portrayed in almost an exact way Kenshiro is during Hokuto Hyakuretsu-ken. It makes me wonder if either Lanzac or Blain or both were influenced by Fist of the North Star and this is their take on Hokuto Hyakurestu-ken. Which would make sense because when De Vorms goes into that mode, he usually gets the final word. In a way, he's figuratively obliterating everyone with his knowledge, and shows them time and time again that he's one to three steps ahead of everyone. Then again, this just could be ramblings of a mind-addled reviewer whose spent too much of his life reading and watching Fist of the North Star. Influenced or not, Lanzac and Blain have created a stunning comic that shows us the complex world of French and international foreign politics through a Pythonesque view. - Lawrence B Vossler


  1. Thanks much for this kind review. I'm really glad you singled out the dialogue for praise. When translating, I worked closely with the writer to hone it, sometimes even rewriting or reinventing certain jokes and lines.

  2. Thank you for the kind words!

    Dialogue was the one aspects of the comic that caught my eye right away. It was something I could easily imagine real politicians in that situation or everyday sounding like; as stereotypical as that sounds.

    What jokes or lines did you have to reinvent? I'm fascinated by how translations especially in comics.