By Edgar P. Jacobs
“In a past almost, but not entirely, like ours, the world lives in dread of a new power, an empire centred in Tibet and led by a megalomaniac. When the inevitable attack comes, it destroys all opposition, and capital cities across the planet are left burning. But, in Great Britain, Professor Mortimer, inventor of a mysterious weapon named the Swordfish, and his friend and protector Captain Blake, have escaped the destruction, and must make their way to a secret base…“
The fifteenth Cinebook volume of Jacobs’ classic takes us right back to where it all began, with the very first Blake & Mortimer volume, published in 1950. And frankly, it shows. Not just in the uncomfortable racial profiling with the whole “Yellow Empire” thing, but in the strange pacing and distinctly post-war optimism of having any chance of surviving WWIII.
However, despite several problems with the book that really hampered my reading, there’s definitely something really thrilling and rather shocking in this first Blake and Mortimer.
I say shocking because nothing can really prepare you for just how quickly and brutally Jacobs drops you into the alternate history of this post-WWII world of Blake & Mortimer. We’re actually entering the narrative some way in, with the cold war fully in effect, although not one involving Russia, instead the East is a tyrant running an empire from Tibet, aided by B&M’s nemesis Olrik.
But you’re told that by Mortimer onpage 6:
Which rather forces me to criticise before praising. This sort of thing really puts me off Jacobs’ B&M, the huge dialogue exposition is one problem, the overdoing the captions to the same end is another. And the third is the problem of developing the plot as a series of this happened, then this happened, then this happened things and connecting the events with a sequence of coincidences and accidents.
I know it’s all part of the nostalgic charm of B&M and these tales particularly come from a far slower time, but this really does affect my enjoyment.
The thing is, following that page of text with Mortimer delivering the whole background to the political climate of this alternate post-war world, there’s actually a particularly intense and thrilling section which takes us from cold war to new world order in just 8 pages. It’s completely unexpected, fast, furious, and decidedly brutal; by page 8 the world is at war, page 9 sees the machines of death flying across the globe and nuclear strikes have devastated Moscow, Calcutta, Hankou and Rome, by page 10 Paris, Berlin, Paris and London are destroyed, and by page 13 we have a new world order in place:
Personally I’d be a little more upset than “How dreadful!”.
But again, that slight understatement is typical of the tone here. Jacobs sets everything up beautifully in these early pages, really creates a sense of desperation, a world in ruins, the only hope seemingly with B&M and the mysterious Swordfish weapon they’re just days away from prototyping. And following the devastation both men are hunted across Europe and Asia, by plane, by foot, by truck, by armoured car, shot down, captured, freed, escape, more allies, hijack a plane, shot down again… all a bit breathless really.
But somewhere along the line it goes from desperation and despair with a small band responsible for saving the world to two gents having a jolly good feast in the wreckage of their enemy’s plane. All a bit incongruous really, as if Jacobs has forgotten just how important their mission is, or just how bad the situation is. Again, probably overthinking this, and I know it’s probably one of those things to simply put down to the particular age and style of the strip, and no doubt B&M fans will want my head for this. But it’s a big part of what I came away from the book with.
However despite all that stuff, that start still impresses, as do the frequent action sequences throughout the book, especially airborne stuff, with Jacobs genuinely delivering some stunning artwork, something that looks futuristic (for the time), fast paced, and above all, thrilling. I’ve had a troubled relationship with B&M thus far, why should these early strips be anything different.
However, let’s finish on a high, and one of those great aerial scenes: