Category Archives: François Boucq

Review: BILLY BUDD, KGB by Jerome Charyn and François Boucq

Yuri and Stavrogin: It is a matter of trust.

In Herman Melville’s last novel, “Billy Budd,” we follow the fate of an orphan plucked from adversity and conscripted into the British Royal Navy. In the graphic novel by Jerome Charyn and François Boucq, the lost little orphan is carted off into the service of the Soviet Union. Like Melville’s main character, there is something special about this boy. As we find in much of Charyn’s work, we have a protagonist of limited means compelled to honor his great potential. However, as we begin, we have only an emotionally stunted, ignorant lad with a hideous harelip. It is 1954. Stalin is in power. Yuri cannot resist all that is offered to him by the Soviets. In fact, he has no choice. “Billy Bud, KGB,” originally released in France in 1990, has recently been re-issued, with a new English translation by Jerome Charyn, by Dover Comics and Graphic Novels.

Four graphic novels by Jerome Charyn, available from Dover Publications.

Mr. Charyn’s literary career began in America in 1964 with his first novel, “Once Upon a Droshky,” a story of underdogs fighting to remain in their tenement apartment. After 19 prose novels, including the Isaac Sidel crime noir series, Charyn decided to adapt one of his stories into a graphic novel. That led to more. It all began with 1987’s “The Magician’s Wife,” with artist François Boucq. They also collaborated on 2014’s “Little Tulip.” Another graphic novel by Charyn in a similar spirit is 1991’s “The Boys of Sheriff Street,” with artist Jacques de Loustal. All four of these stories have multi-layered plots, primarily set in New York City, and filled with offbeat characters.

Yuri encounters the spiritual realm.

Our main character, Yuri, seems to be a typical malleable cog but something burns inside him making him go astray. He is far too innocent and ignorant to be in command of his intuitive desire to rebel. All he knows is that there must be more to life than what his Soviet handlers are telling him. Luckily, Yuri stumbles into a friendship with an instructor that will inform the rest of his life. Comrade Grigori’s unique artistic skills and broad knowledge have made him an asset over the years at the KGB training camp. But that same treasure trove of knowledge makes him very dangerous to the Soviet agenda. As a tutor, mentor, and friend, he provides Yuri with a key to unlock his soul.

It’s not easy being a spy.

By fits and starts, Yuri emerges as material for a competent secret agent. The KGB arranges a few encounters with prostitutes in order to, in their view, make Yuri more worldly. And then he’s shipped off to America. His new identity, a knowing nod to Melville: William “Billy” Budd, the lost soul. It will be up to the newly minted Billy in New York City to struggle with his life’s purpose. Stavrogin plucked him out of a ditch and gave him a future. Grigori opened his eyes to life’s possibilities. And Red Eagle, a Native American mystic, may offer him the salvation he’s hungered for all along.

Yuri gains a deeper spiritual connection.

Both Charyn and Boucq work in such a synchronized and nuanced manner that was as rare a treat then as it is now. Such pairing can only happen when the time is right. Today, readers in America and in general, are far more receptive to this level of quality. While a unique challenge, some creators choose to control all aspects of their work alone. But, as this graphic novel collaboration makes clear, the results can be stunning when writer and artist work together. We can all thank novelist Jerome Charyn for being a true trailblazer in adding his unique literary talent to the pantheon of exemplary work in comics. This book is a mesmerizing story and comics of the first order.

BILLY BUDD, KGB by Jerome Charyn and François Boucq

“Billy Bud, KGB” is a 144-page full color trade paperback. For more details, and how to purchase, visit Dover Publications right here. You can find it at Amazon right here.

Also note a Kickstarter campaign going on now thru May 21st for a deluxe reprint of FAMILY MAN, a collaboration between Jerome Charyn and Joe Staton.

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Filed under Comics, Dover Publications, François Boucq, Graphic Novel Reviews, graphic novels, Jerome Charyn, Russia, Soviet Union, Spies

Review: LITTLE TULIP by Jerome Charyn and François Boucq

LITTLE TULIP by Jerome Charyn and François Boucq

LITTLE TULIP, a graphic novel recently reissued by Dover Publications, by Jerome Charyn and François Boucq, is definitely not something that is cooked up overnight. No, on the contrary, like anything worthwhile, this is a work that is carefully constructed with meticulous precision. It only looks effortless, and it is the sort of comics that I prefer.

Paul, the master, teaches Azami, the apprentice.

This graphic novel immerses the reader in Soviet prison tattoo culture. Within the Russian underground community, these unique tattoos formed a service record of a criminal’s transgressions. Skulls denoted a criminal authority. A cat represented a thief. And, in the case of our story, a tulip represented a young person joining the ranks of a gang. Today, these same tattoos have become fashion statements because of their mystery and fierce beauty. They were, then and now, a way to step beyond the ordinary. For our main character, Paul, they were also a way to step beyond the horrors of the gulag.

Page from LITTLE TULIP: New York City, 1970

Our present setting is New York City, 1970. There is a serial killer on the loose. Paul runs his own tattoo shop and is also a police sketch artist. His work with the police is more than just a gig but a calling, a way to seek justice. Not only does Paul have that uncanny ability to render a likeness based upon a witness’s verbal description, he also has a sixth sense about criminals. He will often act as a medium for hard to crack cases. There may be honor among thieves but, for Paul, there are crimes that compel no mercy.

Paul came from an American family that chose to live in Moscow for a while. The timing could not have been worse since this was the 1950s during the reign of Stalin and the secret police. One misunderstanding too many and the whole family gets shipped off to Siberia where they are immediately separated into a gulag. But, just as all hope may be lost, Paul, now Pavel, has inherited from his father an artistic sensibility that will help him endure the worst.

Page from LITTLE TULIP: Train Trip to Siberia

This is a story as much about one man’s journey among hardened criminals as it is a story about how life and art commingle, how art can save one’s soul. This is a multi-layered masterpiece of a script by renowned writer Jerome Charyn; and a breathtaking, bold, and completely enthralling work of art by renowned artist François Boucq. The structure of this graphic novel is just impeccable: a story told at a easy and natural pace with room enough for metaphysical musings.

More more details on LITTLE TULIP, and how to purchase, visit Dover Publications right here.

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Filed under Comics, Crime, Crime Fiction, Dover Publications, François Boucq, Graphic Novel Reviews, graphic novels, Jerome Charyn, New York City, Russia, Tattoos

Review: THE MAGICIAN’S WIFE by François Boucq and Jerome Charyn

Velvet Verbone warms up to the case.

Velvet Verbone warms up to the case.

Ever since its publication in 1986, it has developed a cult following. It’s been out-of-print in English for 30 years. And THE MAGICIAN’S WIFE has not lost any of its magic. This is a prime example of what is possible in comics in the graphic novel format. Thanks to Drew Ford and Dover Publications, it is back! As your guide through comics, I strongly recommend that you put aside everything, your morning coffee, your late-night rendezvous, whatever, and seek this book out. It will change your life.

THE MAGICIAN'S WIFE by François Boucq and Jerome Charyn

THE MAGICIAN’S WIFE by François Boucq and Jerome Charyn

All these French masters who took an American art form, the comic strip, and transformed it into the graphic novel: Bilal, Boucq, Blutch, Tardi, Masse, Liberatore, and Loustal. I was in Paris in that heady time, circa 1988, and I most vividly recall as a very young aspiring cartoonist and writer that something very different and exciting was happening. In that same year, Drew Ford, as a youth, would stumble upon a copy of “The Magician’s Wife” in a secondhand shop in upstate New York. Drew Ford would go on to see that book get a proper reprint at Dover Publications after being out-of-print in English for oh too long. So, what is so exciting, and magical, about this particular comic? Well, it speaks to that desire for a truly ideal and satisfying entertainment. It manages to actually realize that dream of a comic that is perfect down to each and every panel. A fantastical story that strikes you with its poetry and poignancy. And there’s supernatural things going on to boot. Rita, the magician’s wife, could quite possibly be a werewolf.

Our story makes its way to New York City.

Our story makes its way to New York City.

Much in the irreverent and artistic French spirit, this is a story that simply is. In some sense, is it both a complex and straightforward visual treat. It is also a splendid work of surreal, absurd, whimsy. And, in the end, it is a very well-structured, undeniably tightly-knit story. It feels like a dream that goes on forever and yet you sense that it is also quite a lean and determined piece. Silly, fun, but also deadly serious. Full of symbolic impact. With a squarely-in-the-eyes shot to the deepest recesses of your mind. Graphic novels come from the city and this is very much an urban story full of gritty elements. Yes, this definitely has mature content. But, like in the best work of this kind, there is a certain level of restraint that makes this suitable for young teens and up.

Verbone continues to track down clues.

Verbone continues to track down clues.

Edmund, the magician in this story, is a cross between an amazing wizard and a cowardly ne’er-do-well. It is a struggle that will consume him and those that come into his orbit. Things move at a relatively steady clip in a work of comics. However, there a number of reasons to slow down the pacing: to convey a mood, to reinforce an idea, to thoroughly establish a setting. This comic manages to keep things moving while seeming to have all day to do it and all in a tidy 82 pages. I maintain that a comic need not run longer than 80 or 100 pages. You find your sweet spot and you don’t need to pad things up.

Edmund futilely attempts to show everyone who is boss.

Edmund futilely attempts to show everyone who is boss.

Consider the above page. Not too much obvious movement but you can quickly sense a rapid energy at work as well. This is a pivotal moment for Edmund: he is momentarily in full control and in the process of consolidating his position, and then he must confront a huge setback and a taste of what’s to come. We first find him emerging from a restful pose; then a full-figure attentive pose; followed by arm raised in confrontation; right in the center, an indignant look; his former lover defies him; he escalates the situation; finally, his new lover puts him in his place.

Edmund. Rita, Detective Verbone. Ah, all the misbegotten jockeys from Saratoga Springs. The gals at the diner. The regular group of cops too concerned with hamburgers. And the hoodlums from the Lower Eastside led by the monstrous Ross. And, for an added literary touch, Dolores, a name that keeps floating in and out of the narrative. At varying times, it belongs to someone’s sweetheart, an animal, and a maid. If only Dolores could be pinned down for just a moment, she might have something quite insightful to reveal. But, not to worry, perhaps the jockeys will carve up another horse. And everything rendered in this glorious semi-realistic style that floats along perfectly with great distinction–and such vivid color. Yes, this is it. This is the graphic novel you’ve been waiting for all your life. Get it at our friends at Dover Publications right here.

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Filed under Bande Dessinée, Comics, Dover Publications, François Boucq, France