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Graphic Novel Review: “Crusades” by Izu, Nikolavitch and Xiaoyou

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One of the things I like most about European graphic novels is the wide range of genres on offer. Some of these are very different from what you can find in American comics, where you very rarely encounter historical epics. In France though, you can find stories set in the Middle Ages, Ancient Rome, Renaissance Italy, Byzantium or set in the Middle East during the crusades. Indeed, my understanding is that the French are crazy for stories set during the crusades.

On these shores however, stories about the crusades are extremely thin on the ground due no doubt to the mental contortions and self-censorship required by any entertainer seeking to tell a story premised on the struggle between Muslims and Christians. Probably Jack T. Chick has knocked off a few pamphlets, but beyond him I can’t think of anybody who’s gone near this rich subject matter.

So how do the French handle it? Fortunately we have an opportunity to learn as recently Humanoids published a handsome hardcover translation of a European series entitled Crusades. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect- would this be one of Humanoids more cerebral titles, or generic fantasy? The art, by Zhang Xiayou looked good at least: lots of gore, severed heads, eyes popping out of skulls etc.

It was pretty clear within the first couple of pages however that I was not about to experience a dry historic reconstruction; I’ve read about the Crusades and don’t recall any supernatural entities lurking inside fortresses, which we meet very early on in the book. There also seems to be some kind of  possession going on, which the Pope- a shady character- dispatches a member of the Knights Templar named William of Sonnac to investigate. He hopes to use the “alchemical quicksilver” responsible to his own ends…

It’s clear then that Crusades is a genre work, and historical epic is only one of them. It’s also a mystery, a conspiracy tale, a horror story and a magnificent seven type buddy quest as William of Sonnac recruits a motley group of collaborators to accompany him on his quest. You have a truculent Scot, a feisty princess, a betrayed brother and even a heathen warrior…. unfortunately the writers Izu and Alex Nikolavitch forgot to invest most of the supporting cast with much character, and so when the ones who are destined to die start getting whacked, it’s hard to remember which dead dude was which.

Still, Crusades is a highly entertaining read- a romp, you might say. I haven’t seen that many well depicted severed heads and mangled bodies outside of the manga freak fest Gantz. Towards the end the book becomes particularly enjoyable, as the authors toy with vaguely Lovecraftian themes, (old HP is much beloved of the French), but they mix in time travel, medieval anti-Semitism and a hint of Indiana Jones.

In conclusion: I have no idea whether ultra-violent Science Fictional horror epics about the crusades are popular in Europe, but the fusion works surprisingly well. Verdict: 77 mangled corpses and 3 severed heads. I’m not sure what the top of that scale of measurement is since I just invented it… but the book is nice n’gory, believe me.

Daniel Kalder is an author and journalist originally from Scotland, who currently resides in Texas after a ten year stint in the former USSR. Visit him online at www.danielkalder.com
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