(This review was written for Comics Bulletin's Wednesday graphic novel reviews, but due to the editor being away, they haven't been uploaded this week, and since the book was released this week, I've chosen to gazump my bosses just for once. The review will still be posted at Comics Bulletin, probably next week.)
Writer/artist: Garen Ewing
Publisher: Egmont Books Ltd
When I was young, I thought Tintin was British. I had no idea that there was such a thing as translated comics back then, and Captain Haddock, Thomson and Thompson all seem very British indeed, so it did come as something of a surprise to eventually discover the series' true origins. The Rainbow Orchid, despite the very continental ligne claire (literally, "clear line") style, is most definitely British; in fact it is produced about twenty miles up the road from where I am writing this review. This is the third and most high-profile release of the book thus far; after a self-published black and white run which apparently goes for shedloads on eBay, there was a limited edition hardback, and now this remastered and retouched version from, appropriately enough, Tintin's UK publishers. It is certainly a handsome volume, and there's just something very right in having the story in this familiar format.
The story starts with a gentlemen's wager, which swiftly escalates into a madcap race towards the Hindu Kush, and the possibly mythical flower of the title. It is a good solid adventure story in the vein of the pulp periodicals and the (good) Indiana Jones films, ramping up from a somewhat sedate beginning to an exciting and literally uplifting cliffhanger ending. I do not claim to be an expert on European comics, but even so I can detect a significant difference between The Rainbow Orchid and its more obvious inspirations; the average Tintin or Asterix story is over and done in sixty-four pages, but the pace here is a little more relaxed, and it is quite easy to imagine two or three further volumes of this. Even at such a pace, there is a lot going on, with a large cast, some of whom are not fully introduced at this stage, a number of mysteries and subplots, a wordy script, and an average of about twelve panels per oversized page.
With all this content, it is perhaps all the more surprising that the book does not grind to a cluttered and stodgy halt, and it is to writer/artist Garen Ewing's credit that it does not. Of particular note is the art, which shies away from the dynamic post-Kirby style common in English-language adventure comics; there are few fancy angles and no idiosyncratic panel layouts (although Ewing does show off occasionally with the odd establishing shot here and there), and a superficial critic might even call it "flat", but it's more that there is (to get all Scott McCloudy for a moment) a different visual language being used. I am always astounded by how well the ligne claire style can work, especially in terms of conveying depth and distance, as there is usually little or no difference in line thickness, shading is largely ignored, and yet everything remains, well, clear. It is a difficult technique to master, and I suspect that Ewing would say that he has not, but to my relatively uneducated eyes, he is certainly very close.
It is fair to say that part of the joy of The Rainbow Orchid, for me, is that it has a massive nostalgic pull, taking me right back to the days when the only comics I could get from the library were these colourful cartoony things from artists with unusual Gallic names. Yet a greater part of my enjoyment of the book, enough to get me to buy it a third time, is that it's just very well put together, an exercise in a type of storytelling which we do not see too often in English nowadays, and a cracking adventure yarn populated by compelling characters. The obvious comparisons will continue to be made, but this is a great comic on its own, very significant, merits.