After previewing the new edition of the French album, By The Numbers from Humanoid back in December, I felt it was time to post a well overdue review of this 200+ pages album after a well earned Christmas break (and the inevitable Christmas cold) having finally got through this meaty tome of a book.
By The Numbers collects together 4 separate, but connected, volumes that revolve around the accidental adventures of seemingly timid accountant Victor Levallois as he falls into globe-trotting hijinxs not of his making. Set over a number of years, starting initially in 1948, this may well be the story of one man and his own development as a lover, fighter, and even as a criminal at times, but it is set against a backdrop of a crumbling colonial France in its last death throes, all beautifully, yet seemingly simplistically illustrated by Stanislas with more than a hint of Hergé (which the creators do recognise and acknowledge in a cheeky little one panel comic strip in the back of the books, where a number of unused pages, panels and sketches are to found). This is no better illustrated than in the first two volumes, where the suitcase he was entrusted to get to Marseilles is stolen and Victor finds himself in Saigon, and under colonial rule where he soon finds himself taking advantage of a loophole in the currency exchange rates as well as getting entangled in the civil unrest of the period when the Viet Minh were on the rise and fighting for an independent Vietnam, leading to the Indochina Wars (1946 – 1954) and the ousting of their unwelcome arrogant French rulers.
As such, Victor becomes the conduit through which we observes these events from his point of view. As I read of Victor’s exploits I was reminded more of Forrest Gump than a French James Bond; a man thrust by fate, rather than by design, into situations not of his making, but dangerous nonetheless. And, just like Gump, I felt that Victor was somewhat detached from it all at times (ending up in a Vietnamese village and taking up with them with no real rhyme or reason behind this decision really, other than acting as a stopgap on his way to carrying out an act of revenge against a local gangster) while more often being very much in the thick of it, such as his love affair with a local girl and her gangster buddies. And, as each adventure is played out, the level of intrigue and espionage is ramped up more and more, turning Victor into a somewhat reluctant hero and a man who is no longer the innocent desk-jockey of volume 1.
And, like Forrest Gump, this is a story, under the penmanship of writer Lauren Rullier, that spans the years and can, therefore, be rightly describes as an epic of sorts. I love these kind of stories, that focus on an almost Everyman kind of character (Victor is introduced as a rather 2 dimensional character at first, but develops with each entanglement that comes his way, or rather, that he gets caught up in) and we even get a glimpse or two of an elderly Victor, recounting his past exploits to his colleague, Theo. And, through the lens of Stanislas, the world of the past is magnificently and accurately presented. From the colonial buildings of Vietnam to the docks of Marseilles and beyond. Many of the wide shot panels that litter this collection (and this is certainly a book that makes effective used predominantly of longshots and mid-shots to convey the scale and international flavour of the story) could stand alone as a snapshot of the period; a picture postcard of a past that does not shy away from the real world politics of the period. Victor Levallois is a more mature Tintin (he even sports the same red hair) for us grown ups, if I may be so bold as to once again compare him with Herge’s famous boy reporter, which is clearly intended. A Tintin who becomes tarnished with each adventure he stumbles upon and a character not afraid to get his hands dirty or to even, rather foolishly I felt, get embroiled with the local gangs and all that could lead to.
By the end of the fourth volume, Victor is a stronger individual, both mentally and physically, but one with a moral compass that doesn’t always point North, shall we say. He has changed and seen the belly of the beast, and has come out alive and well. The same can’t necessarily be said of the many, many characters he rubs shoulders with along the way. A cracking good read in the style of a classic Boys’ Own Adventure from yesteryear, but with a real face of colonial misrule underpinning much of its narrative.
By The Numbers is out now in all good comic books shops (hey, they’re all good, right?)