Comic Book Classics #2 Sambre
If comic books have a spiritual home, Belgium is the place. Ok, so press cartoons first appeared in Germany with Max und Moritz and were fitted with speech bubbles by Outcault in New York, but it was in Brussels where Georges Remi (Herge) elevated the newspaper strip to high art. Here began the art form known as Bande Dessinee –or BD– which took the cartoon into the realm of the album: a full-colour, hardbound book of 48 to 64 pages, printed on quality paper. This shift from newsprint to album, (a Belgian invention) allowed the cartoon to emerge as a true narrative art.
Sambre is an exceptional example of the sheer power of BD storytelling. It is not available in English translation and the whole story is as yet unfinished, but it still packs the kind of narrative punch that is hard to find in any other medium. Anyway, to the story. Set in 19th century France, Sambre tells the tale of a wealthy family and their tragic decline. It begins in 1848. Hugo Sambre, patriarch of the family, is dead. Hugo has spent his last years in a state of delirium, writing a book of prophecies entitled “The War Of The Eyes” (La guerre des yeux). In this book he warns that people with red eyes shall cause the downfall of all others with blue, brown or green eyes unless they unite against their common enemy. At his funeral, we meet his children. The idealistic Bernard, in his earl teens, shares the common view that his father was a raving lunatic. His elder sister Sarah, however, thinks of her father as a genius and takes it upon herself to finish her father’s manuscript. At the funeral, the siblings argue and Bernard runs off into the countryside to get away.
A storm erupts. Sheltering under a bridge, close to the Sambre family estate, he meets Julie a girl poacher with crimson eyes. She is achingly beautiful. He falls for her and she for him. Unable to express his feelings, he challenges her over a stolen goose (taken from his estate). Julie removes a ruby hatpin from her hair and stabs the goose through the eye, killing it. As the blood fills the eye socket, she declares that as both she and the bird now have red eyes, the goose belongs to her.
The potency of the imagery used adds a level of richness to the narrative that only comic books can deliver. Red circles (eyes, windows, rising suns and cherries) signify a forbidden love, and are lurking on every page. The goose also has a significance. Back at the Sambre home, they find one of the geese screeching. She is crying out for her partner, taken away by Julie. We learn that geese pair for life and find the absence of their partner unbearable. The geese thus become a cypher for loss and longing. There are many such instances of narrative invention. As a story it brings together a melodramatic tale of doomed love, madness, jealousy and the 1848 Revolution in an intricate narrative which pays homage to the spirits of Zola and Balzac. It is this richness in the storytelling that makes Sambre such a tour de force.
Sadly, the series has suffered a number of problems which detract from the overall genius of the work. Mainly this is down to the main artist and writer, Yslaire (Bernard Hislaire) who seems to have got sidetracked into a number of other projects and never got round to finishing the series (Balac only appears as a co-author in volume one). The first four volumes are exceptional. A fifth volume, which follows Julie some twenty years later, takes the story in another direction. Three volumes of a “Prequel” have also appeared, telling the story of Hugo Sambre and Julie’s mother, Iris. Yslaire has ceased to be involved in “Hugo et Iris”and ghost-writers/artists seem to have been employed to finish off this series. Another irritating feature of the Sambre series is that Yslaire has redrawn or updated the first four volumes on at least two occasions (I suppose as a kind of ‘directors cut’ of the whole series).
Sadly, there is nothing the we the true fans can do about this. We wait patiently for Yslaire to get his mojo back and finish his master work. We can only return to gaze at his earlier genius, falling in love, as Bernard did, with the ravishing Julie and muttering Hugo Sambre’s warning under our breath.
The War of the Eyes is eternal and without mercy.