The first part of the next Spirou adventure (which now goes by the title Le Groom de Sniper Alley, “The Sniper Alley Bellhop”) appears in this week’s issue of the Journal, and next week’s installment is already in the hands of some subscribers. (A number of pages can also be previewed on Izneo, where many of the pictures in this post are from.) So let’s have a sneak peek. (SPOILERS follow!)
The story begins as the former dictator of Aswana (somewhere in the Middle East) is eliminated by a drone strike, and Western troops take control of the country. In a New York jail cell, Don Antonio Contralto is delighted by the news, and he contacts a certain relative on the outside…
… Which turns out to be his nephew, Don Vito Cortizone, who shows up at Fantasio’s house to recruit him and Spirou for a treasure hunt. While serving a life sentence for a bloody bank robbery, Uncle Tony has apparently become something of an amateur archaeologist, and he’s long been on the trail of the legendary Treasure of Alexandria. Now that Aswana is no longer closed to foreigners, he needs someone to go there and track down the last clues to pinpoint the precise location. As Spirou owes Don Vito a favor (from the last album, Dans les griffes de la vipère), and the mafia boss isn’t averse to applying a bit of pressure, the duo reluctantly agree to take the job.
In order to gain access to the country, which is still under occupation and highly unstable, Spirou and Fantasio pretend the trip is to entertain the troops, despite being personally critical of the invasion. Fortunately, as comic book heroes they turn out to be childhood idols to the Franco-Belgian task force. Less fortunately, they are ambushed and separated, and Spirou is forced to dodge insurgent bullets in the infamous “Sniper Alley” of Aswana’s war-torn capital…
Initial impressions, based on these 14 pages, are something of a mixed bag. The first nine pages are almost entirely set-up, heavy on exposition as characters explain background information to each other, often narrating over imaginary “documentary footage”. That the first three pages all offer alternative “intros” also makes the story seem slow to get started, with almost a full page devoted to heavy-handed political commentary (crowbarred in rather inelegantly).
However, the concept is intriguing (the pretext for the adventure resembles nothing so much as one of Don Rosa’s Scrooge McDuck treasure hunt stories), and once Spirou and Fantasio make it to Aswana, the pace picks up considerably. Besides, there is some rather successful comic business throughout, particularly around Don Vito’s henchmen.
On the art side, Yoann continues to develop a personal Spirou style, which may not be to everyone’s taste but is starting to look increasingly natural (though the one female character present so far looks like she’s dropped in from another comic entirely, which she kind of has…).
A few panels look a little rushed, with some perhaps excessively sketchy inking, and several people have complained about mistakes and inconsistencies in the drawings – a book with the front cover on the wrong side, a bookcase that grows and shrinks by several shelves between panels, a duplicated sound effect… – although others might consider this nitpicking. (Fred Blanchard, background artist and designer on the previous albums, is not credited so far, but was most likely also involved in creating the environments.) The most important thing is that the main characters look good, with Yoann offering a particularly fine take on Vito Cortizone.
Where this comic falls down entirely is the coloring: It is nothing short of a disaster. Hubert, who colored all the previous Yoann & Vehlmann albums, has been replaced by Laurence Croix (who did a good job on La Femme-léopard and Le Groom vert-de-gris, among a long list of other credits). Croix has chosen a color scheme with bright reds and oranges against pale blue-greens, and while the result doesn’t look too terrible on a computer screen, on paper it is unbelievably garish. One almost suspects some sort of printer calibration failure. We can only hope it will be balanced better for the album version (or at least that it looks better on higher-quality album paper).
One curious aspect of the story so far is that it not only includes Martin, the diminutive archaeologist from Les Géants pétrifiés (“The Petrified Giants”), as well as his wife/girlfriend, but that it makes direct reference to that adventure. Yoann and Vehlmann are thereby retroactively inserting their one-shot into the continuity of the main series! This strikes me as a dubious idea (the one-shot fits awkwardly into the universe of the series, not to mention into continuity – never mind the art style!) and a bad precedent. If, say, Tarrin takes over next, should we expect Le Tombeau des Champignac (“Tomb of the Champignacs”) to suddenly become canon?
While we can examine and critique individual details, it’s too early to tell whether this adventure will hold up as a whole. Coming weeks will tell. At best, it may join “In the Clutches of the Viper” as a modern, dynamic Spirou adventure. At worst, it will only be one dud in what promises to be a long tenure.