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Friday 5 December 2014

FFB - Hungarian Rhapsody & Orient Gateway

Four years separate these two graphic novel stories by Vittorio Giardino (original publication dates 1981 and 1985, then later translated from the Italian), but the quality of Giardino’s artwork doesn’t differ – it’s a joy to look at. Both books feature Max Friedman, a former spy who becomes embroiled in the secret machinations preceding the Second World War.

HungarianRhapsody (89 pages, 1986) begins with a quotation from Graham Greene: ‘Danger was a part of him. Not like a coat that one gets rid of from time to time, but like skin. One dies with it.’ The story leads up to Hitler’s Anschluss in 1938. Friedman is blackmailed into helping ‘The Company’ to discover the Abwehr’s undercover strategy in Budapest. Pipe-smoking Friedman is a sympathetic, realistic character: this hero actually has the shakes after a shooting or bombing incident – such mortality is endearing. Gradually, as we and Friedman get sucked into the plot, encountering double-agents and provocative people, it is obvious that Friedman is being manipulated. The reason why is kept concealed convincingly until the end. He becomes romantically involved with the only survivor of a secret cell, Ethel, who slowly transforms from a timid, freckled bespectacled pawn into a sensual, brave yet vulnerable woman. Perhaps other characters possess less depth, exhibiting the stereotypical traits of 1930s/1940s villains, but the air of menace they engender is almo0st palpable. Indeed, the only wood to be seen is either the furniture or the trees: the physical movements of all the characters is fluid, their dialogue is generally realistic. Inevitably, because of the obligatory plot-twists and double-crossing, the plotline is complex for an illustrated story.

Written and illustrated by Giardino, it’s obvious that the artist only uses text where necessary, to add either character or plot; the pictures say a lot without words; indeed, panel captions are a scarcity, employed merely to denote time-shifts or scene changes; words are often not needed to create mood, for the detailed artwork, vital facial expressions and hand mannerisms, complemented by superb colouring amply supply the appropriate ambience. Attention to detail is outstanding without dominating the story; all the clothes, vehicles and buildings seem to be of the period, while the colouring is rich and varied, even to the intricate patterns of carpets!

The sequel, Orient Gateway (61 pages, 1987) is also set in 1938 and involves the Russian NKVD’s search for one of their engineers, Stern, who has absconded and is hiding in Istanbul. Friedman is mistaken for a French spy and is sucked into the intrigue. Beautiful Magda Witnitz seems to be entwined in the plot too, and provides him with romantic interest and an additional problem: is she for or against him? Throughout, Friedman maintains a calm cynicism: he only trusts himself, though he does admit to starting to trust Magda…
The details of the old Istanbul are as eye-catching as the earlier Budapest, and repay study. The gallery of exotic characters encountered suggest that Friedman’s cynicism wasn’t misplaced: few people are what they seem. But even Friedman discovers that in power-politics there are depths still to be plumbed.

In their subtle way these two stories seem to be saying that the loss of innocence began with the build-up to the Second World War. Though interestingly, perhaps it goes back to 1936 – Giardino has also produced a three-volume graphic novel about Friedman in the Spanish Civil War, NoPasaran!

If you appreciate good illustration, you’ll enjoy these books. They’re virtually story-boards for films, but more detailed.

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