Speed Abater |
by Christophe Blain
Opinions are a dime a dozen. Here are two of them:
The Speed Abater is the best graphic novel of 2002, according to the attendees of the world's largest comics convention in France.
The Speed Abater is not the best graphic novel of 2002, according to Michael Vance.
The back cover "blurb" says that The Speed Abater is about a huge, ancient and obsolete boat, a destroyer. It is war, and the ship is dispatched to find an enemy submarine. Three novice sailors descend into the lowest reaches of the tub and discover its gigantic reduction gears. That summary is true.
That same blurb claims that this is "a deeply human and highly unusual suspenseful tale by an exciting new talent." Uh-huh. It is human, it is unusual, but it is not suspenseful, and I am not excited by this new talent.
This graphic novel is interesting but flawed. It is ponderous, not suspenseful, and a touch boring. In addition, its art looks like a doodle on a canvas that is greatly enhanced by color. Intentionally or unintentionally, the art looks Impressionistic in style.
If, as I suspect, this story is allegorical and one layer concerns Deism (the idea that God wound-up the world like a clock and then left it to run by itself), then Speed Abater is also a flawed allegory about a flawed theory. The flaw is that the allegory is boring. Boring is never good in literature. To his credit, however, the author seems to debunk Deism.
If this review seems harsh, real potential deserves real guidance, and Speed Abater, even with flaws, is more than worth a read.
The Speed Abater is a set of gears that regulated the speed of old steamships. It may seem a small focus for a story, but those gars move living cities, vast islands of metal and an interruption in their work is the ship's equivalent of an earthquake.
Christopher Blain's tale is about those small gears, physical and otherwise; the small gears that power a ship and the small, individual sailors who run it -- and the havoc they can cause when they slip out of place. Following three sailors in their unpleasant lives on a French military vessel, Christopher Blain first seems to be telling a rather dull story, though an sense of impending disaster lurks around the edges of his gorgeously painted panels.
Blain's simplified lines allow for dramatically graphic compositions. His colors are used for drama more than accuracy, and can change an entire setting from a sterile office to a nightmarish trap, or divide scenes as successfully as a page break. Painted in flat, sometimes garish hues, the crew of the Bellicose slowly pales from humanity to undead pallor, reinvigorated only by outbursts of panic or rage. From the imposing hulk of the Bellicose to the deafening stillness of the machine decks, the settings are presented here as their emotional selves rather than in cold technical correctness. It turns the sailors'journey through the Bellicose into a strange trip through Wonderland, and distinctly sets life on the ship apart from the more naturalistic pace and color of life on shore.
The Speed Abater is a wonderful example of why graphic art cannot simply be replaced by live action; no cinematographer could convey quite the level of emotional drama or personalized view with real world settings that come through in garish red scenes of panic or glowing yellow shadows.
The story of the good ship Bellicose and its small, crucial gears is a brief one, and could work for most formats -- but Blain's art turns it into an epic, and a distinctly graphic one. If you have the good luck to find a copy, or the good sense to buy one, enjoy your journey along The Speed Abater.