Euro Reviews: Blake & Mortimer Enter The Valley Of The Immortals
by Richard Bruton
Edgar P. Jacob‘s Blake and Mortimer is a Euro classic, first appearing in 1946 and going on to become a classic of the ligne claire style. This latest volume concludes The Valley of the Immortals in fine style and brings us right up to date with the series.
Blake and Mortimer was created by the Belgium writer and artist Edgar P. Jacobs in 1946, a peculiar blend of Sci-Fi and colonialism, featuring the very English pairing of Captain Francis Percy Blake and Professor Philip Angus Mortimer, the dashing head of MI5 and a supposedly reluctant adventurer nuclear physicist.
Okay, I say English even though Blake was Welsh-born and Mortimer Scots because B&M has this wonderfully old-fashioned colonial Englishness about it, all doing things the proper way, a genial friendship of the sort found in Sherlock Holmes, afternoon tea first and saving the world second, that sort of thing.
Together, Blake and Mortimer have featured in 12 books written and drawn by Jacobs from 1950 to 1977, with the final Jacobs volume published posthumously with Bob de Moor completing the artwork. Since then, another 15 volumes have been produced, from various writer/artist teams.
It’s a series that can be difficult to get into, featuring as it does somewhat hackneyed old-fashioned storytelling, a real tendency to go dense with the dialogue, verbose and often ridiculously so, packing the pages with a mass of dialogue and captions explicitly telling the reader what they can clearly see on the page. For example… this, seriously… from The Secret of the Swordfish…
But, even with this, there’s still a delightful sense of hokum about it, the over-the-top nature of it all something to simply be accepted to enjoy it for what it is. And throughout it all, whether it’s Jacobs or many other artists who’ve tackled the pairing, the art is just gorgeous, a sublime clear line style that’s full of lush detailing, exotic locales, wonderful colours.
Frankly, I remain torn, despite having read a large part of the entire series, Jacobs and non-Jacobs, I can’t really make my mind up on it all. Like I say, there’s that love of the adventuring and over the top old school nature of it all. But there’s also, particularly with Jacobs’ original works, that sense of an antiquated style that just reads poorly. Having read Jacobs and Van Hamme and Sente tackling the adventures, I think I’m coming down on the side of Yves Sente as my favourite B&M writer – something that may well be heresy to many fans.
Now, coming back to this latest volume, The Valley of the Immortals Part 2, it’s the very latest translated volume, with Cinebook almost caught up, thanks in part to a Covid-19 publishing delay for new B&M books.
In Valley of the Immortals, written by Yves Sente and drawn by Peter Van Dongen and Teun Berserik, it’s an adventure that actually takes place shortly after the very first Jacobs’ B&M, The Secret of the Swordfish, bringing us right back to the post-WWIII world that that series detailed. In the first book of this 2-parter, we return to a China now torn apart by the clash between the Maoists and the nationalists of Chiang Kai-shek and find Captain Blake travelling to Hong Kong to protect the island from the Chinese.
One thing that often gets overlooked in the B&M adventures is how dark things started off in Jacobs’ first adventure, ‘The Secret of the Swordfish’. That involved a Third World War, the unspecified Asian superpower known as ‘the Yellow Empire’ versus the rest of the world, nuclear destruction, chemical weapons, mass destruction, horrendous loss of life. And yet it’s also something that both Blake and Mortimer end up treating as another jolly romp, as you get an idea of Mortimer’s reaction to the devastation in those images above – “Good heavens! Blake, how dreadful!”
And so it is here, the Third World War that devastated so much of the western world is barely referenced, there’s no real fallout – either in terms of mood or in very real nuclear radiation fashion. So what we get instead is Blake and Professor Mortimer both in China, Blake looking after Hong Kong, Mortimer following the trail of a mysterious manuscript that seems to talk of immortality and power. And it all ties into the nefarious plotting of General Xi-Lee, a ruthless warlord, to become the new Qin Shi Huang – first Emperor of China.
At the opening of Volume 2 of The Valley of the Immortals, Prof Mortimer is captured by General Li Hsi, whose aim is to get the manuscript that will prove his Imperial lineage and also to repair the Red Wing, the powerful RAF plane delivered to the Warlord by B&M’s arch-enemy, Olrik, as part of his escape from the events of the “Swordfish”.
But Mortimer is not alone – his old colleague, Nasir, is also in the clutches of Li Hsi, terminally injured. But one thing that is mentioned in the manuscript, possibly Nasir’s only hope, is a legendary pearl with the power of healing and immortality. While Blake searches for both Mortimer and a way to protect Hong Kong, Mortimer goes looking for the pearl – unaware of the incredible things he’ll experience along the way…
Okay, so it’s all very much in the spirit and template of the sort of thing Jacobs set up so long ago, and this volume by Sente definitely has all of that Jacob’s feel about it, with Sente writing very much in a similar style, wordy, old-fashioned, the works. But the actual album proved a good, dense, fun-filled read, with Sente hitting all of the Jacobs-ian moments with style.
But what really made this into something rather thrilling and fun was the art. It had something of a Tintin and the Blue Lotus feel about it, already referenced so beautifully on the cover of the first volume. And it’s so beautifully done, with the linework, the settings, the backgrounds, the lush colours all contributing to making this one of those books that are worth a look just to gaze lovingly at the artwork.
The two artists are certainly a superb fit for the style of B&M. I’m not entirely sure who does what as from what I’ve read they work in something of a strange fashion – each artist taking 27 of the 54 plates of the album to draw and then swapping and having the other artist edit and add to their work. Whether this means one does characters and one backgrounds, I’m not sure (it may have lost some meaning in the translation of the piece I read concerning this), but I also read that Berserik considers his strongest points to be the characters and technical aspects, whilst Van Dongen’s strongest work is on city sets – which rather implies it’s Berserik on characters and Van Dongen dealing with backgrounds.
But no matter quite how they split the work, it’s a fine, fine album for artwork, very much in keeping with all that’s gone before. I’m particularly loving the fine details and beautiful colour work that we see in the latter part of the adventure.
Overall, B&M is still a strange read for me. This latest volume definitely gets things very right in keeping the style and tone of all that has gone before and the artwork is a true delight to see. But I’m still prone to small moments of lost attention when I’m reading the dialogue-heavy pages and just wish that we could see some small innovation in future volumes that might actually break away from the past a little more.
However, this latest adventure did have my interest pretty much all the way through, giving us a rip-roaring old-fashioned adventure framed in very familiar terms. It’s not going to be something that appeals to the same mass readership of the likes of Asterix, Tintin, Lucky Luke or many more great Euro comics, but it’s beloved by so many and may possibly float your boat. Me, well I’m still rather on the fence with it all.
The Adventures of Blake & Mortimer – The Valley of the Immortals – Volume 2 – The Thousandth Arm of the Mekong. Script by Yves Sente, art by Teun Berserik and Peter Van Dongen, translation by Jerome Saincantin. Blake & Mortimer created by Edgar P. Jacobs. Published by Cinebook.