Writer: Xavier Dorison
Art: Christophe Bec
Rob N: Over the next few months we here at the PCG will be delving with our sticky chocolate-smudged fingers into the back catalogue and upcoming new releases that make up the exciting but also sometimes frustrating world of European comics. Anyone who has ever been on a spontaneous weekend break to Paris with a new girlfriend who worryingly insists on ordering the really expensive bottles of wine in a restaurant, will no doubt have stumbled on quaint bookshops during the daytime, displaying the alternative world of a comics industry that seemingly hasn't heard of superheroes. Masked men in spandex punching each other in the face just doesn't seem to do it for those curious Frenchies and their pastry-loving Italian and Belgian counterparts, and instead the comics scene across the Channel is comprised mostly of Fantasy, SF, Crime, Horror, Historical, Thrillers and so on, much like the strange world of 'books without pictures'. Where they also differ from the American market is that their output is predominantly written as standalone 'graphic novels' – a term I've never personally been very comfortable with, and yet I have to admit it seems very relevant in terms of European writers and artists.
The Humanoids imprint has been steadily translating and reprinting many of the big names from across the Channel, and over the last year or two I've been watching their growing back catalogue with great interest. Not only are these smartly presented and affordable editions, but they're written in English too, which means I no longer have to consider learning a foreign language to read them. That's important that is, because like many comic fans I'm inherently lazy.
First up then is Sanctum, by the writer/artist team of Xavier Dorison and Christophe Bec and straightaway the subject matter is immediately recognisable as soon as you scan the back page copy. It's obvious right from the outset that the book is tapping into familiar stereotypes (and I'm not using the word in any derogatory sense, but rather in the sense that nowadays many 'pitches' to editors and film companies have to offer comparisons to similar recognisable works in order to be heard) such as Alien, Prometheus and The Abyss, all layered with thick marzipan-coated Lovecraftian overtones of 'Dark Eldritch Things That Man Was Never Meant To Know Or See'. This immediate familiarity is both a blessing and a curse because in a sense I picked this book up from the review pile chiefly because I knew what I was going to get (so it worked in that sense) but on the other hand the sense of familiarity means that from the outset you have the distinct feeling you've been through all of this before.
Skip through an introductory few pages setting the scene in World War 2 where signs of an ancient horror are discovered (again, familiar enough territory to fans of Hellboy – we all know that the dark days of WW2 were a hotbed of occult conspiracy) and we're introduced to the crew of the USS Nebraska submarine as it picks up a distress call that leads them through a network of deep underwater caverns to the wreck of an old Soviet era sub, found floating beside a vast stone carved cliff side (also underwater) that seemingly predates our known history. From that moment on we can pretty much compile a list of things that are going to happen. Yes, they send out a small crew to investigate, and they get cut off from the mother ship. Yes, weird things start happening, and yes, random members of the crew get mysteriously infected, begin to go mad and kill their friends and/or sabotage parts of the Nebraska. It's the isolation horror genre familiar to anyone who has seen it before or played the Playstation game. And here we feel like we're simply ticking off boxes in a conventional plot structure list.
If like many people you found fault with the plot structure of Ridley Scott's Prometheus, then you're probably going to be frustrated with this as it follows the same linear line of a never ending series of crises that cripple and endanger the crew of the sub in quick succession. And of course there's something vast and ancient and evil behind it all, simmering away, mostly unseen, like shy, blushing Lovecraftian Elder Gods tend to do. There's a sense that Sanctum desperately wants to be a big budget summer blockbuster, but like big budget summer blockbusters it lacks clever, unique characterisation. The crew members are thinly fleshed out, mostly serving to fill expected roles within this type of story, and the dialogue is at best functional. There is a lot of exposition with grim-faced crew members giving one another essential updates as they struggle to come to terms with the danger they find themselves in while water leaks through cracks in the sub wall. There are far too many panels of crew members staring at monitor screens with perplexed expressions on their faces while they say things like “All the hieroglyphs are supposed to be mistakes. Separately they are everywhere and untranslatable. But if you put them together...” Essentially then this book has tied itself so tightly to the conventions of a genre it wishes to emulate, that it hasn't managed to find some unique way of making itself stand out from the herd. And if this sounds particularly damning, it's not meant to be quite that harsh. As a graphic novel it's not bad... but, as you turn the pages, you desperately yearn for it to do something original, or perhaps offer characters who can interpret the events in some unique manner that might make this story more than just the sum total of several good (and not so good) films. It is possible of course that the dialogue may be crisper in the original language, and that is always a problem with translated material, but even so, at times the characters seem very interchangeable.
Much of the art is very dark, and the colours are equally muted, often making it hard to remember who is who (I found myself thinking – that's the one with glasses. And he must be the Captain... and that's the ship's cat...). The art, like the story itself, comes across as competent but frustratingly unremarkable. At times it felt too much like a series of static storyboards for a film, and you longed for some dynamic movement. Instead you get endless scenes of people standing around with solemn expressions, plus lots of close ups of faces (also very solemn).
To sum up then, Sanctum aims high but struggles to offer anything that isn't simply a familiar cliché of its various source materials. It's not by any means bad – it does after all give you exactly what it promised on the back cover - but it suffers from too few original ideas and a number of characters who for the most part fail to engage with the reader, making it difficult to care for their fates. 6/10