As if my to-do list wasn’t long enough already, the new Titan Comic imprint Statix Press has forced me to add “Learn French” to the lineup. I’ve always known about the rich world of bandes dessinées, lingering just outside my lingual grasp, but this toe-dip into the voluminous back catalog of Franco-Belgian comics has piqued my curiosity so much that I’m installing Duolingo right now.
The next Euro import to find its way to my native tongue is Doctor Radar, from writer Noël Simsolo and artist Frédéric Bézian. Originally dubbed Docteur Radar: Tueur de savants (or Slayer of scientists), the English release foregoes the original French subtitle as an excellent example of something that sounds badass in one language but campy in another. Set in Paris in 1920, Doctor Radar follows gentleman detective Ferdinand Straus, an années folles Batman analogue. Much like Bruce Wayne, Straus is a rich guy who prefers to spend his money and spare time investigating and solving “convoluted crimes”. But rather than donning a costume and a pseudonym, Straus allows his prestige as a detective and war hero to precede him.
As the original French subtitle suggests, Straus has discovered a common thread linking the untimely deaths of Europe’s most preeminent scientists, and he’s set out to foil the mastermind behind the murders and prevent the untimely end of any more scientists. Fortunately, Straus is an ace gumshoe, using his cunning and guile to investigate witnesses, interrogate suspects, and interface with the Parisian underworld. Straus, for his part, is broodingly dramatic and fearlessly bold, comporting himself with a singular focus and a cocksure commitment to unraveling the truth. He’s not without his allies either, and is accompanied by a varied cast of companions while on the case, from his loyal driver to a bumbling police commissioner. The most compelling of his compatriots is the debauched Hungarian artist Pascin, who helps Straus navigate some of his seedier leads. Suave and cavalier, Pascin plays a perfect Robin to Straus’s Batman and serves as a counterbalance to Straus’s stiffness. I’m hopeful that he’ll return later in the adventure.
The book also features the phenomenally unique artwork of Frédéric Bézian. Bézian’s thin, frenetic linework manages to look simultaneously surrealist and cinematic, and each panel drips with a distinctive noir aesthetic. His sketchy style employs sweeping lines and sharp angles to form expressive, caricatured faces and pliable, organic figures. The book also commits to a 4-tier layout and uses it to fantastic effect. The most kinetic and suspenseful scenes break the action up into 12-panel grids, allowing chases and bar fights to unfold in a rapid staccato. And when the pace slows, Bézian uses the width of the rows to create sweeping wide-angle shots that give scenes a real sense of place.
I could write pages about Bézian’s use of color throughout Doctor Radar. He applies a limited palette to each scene, only using two to three colors on a given panel (one of which is the characters’ off-white skin tone). Blue and yellow dominate the majority of the book’s panels and represent darkness and light, respectively, while burnt reddish-orange signifies danger and appears whenever Bézian depicts the machinations of the book’s nefarious villains. Bits of green pop up, sparingly and almost imperceptibly at first, but it’s immediately unsettling as soon as Straus winds up in an environment bathed in the sickly green hue.
Docteur Radar was originally published in its entirety in Europe, but Statix Press has made the decision to split the book into two parts. While its $4.99 price tag definitely lowers the barrier to entry for something that’s already likely to be a niche product, I do wish I was immediately able to pick up the story in its entirety. However, I’m hopeful that the fantastic Francesco Francavilla cover art will draw in readers who might not have given the book a second look, because Doctor Radar is a compelling and atmospheric noir mystery. 4.5 / 5
(W) Noel Simsolo (A) Bezian (CA) Francesco Francavilla