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The Hunting Party

My exposure to European comics has been rather limited, and it’s only through the occassional issue of Heavy Metal that I’ve gained any knowledge that comics exist in places other than America and Japan. But then, Humanoids Publishing came into being a few years back (ironically taking over Heavy Metal) and began collecting and publishing some of the invariably popular titles available in places like France and Italy; titles like The Incal and The Metabarons written by some fairly big names in the comic industry like Meobius and Jodorowski. Recently, Humanoids has become a publishing division of DC Comics, still collecting Europe’s finest and bringing them to the American fanperson, only now adding “DC/” as a prefix.

While some may object to the smaller company being absorbed by one of the Big Two, the money behind DC is helping bring more of the European comics to American readers, and more European talent (the English don’t count as European; sorry Warren Ellis). Talent like Enki Bilal.

Bilal has been working as a comic artist and writer since the mid-seventies, and is best known for his Nikopol trilogy, the third volume of which (“Equator Cold” or “Froid Equateur”) was named Book of the Year in France, which is nothing to sneeze at considering it is the first graphic novel to do so in France, and I can’t think of an American comic book that has reached an equivalent level of national prestige. So when I saw a copy of Bilal and Pierre Christin’s The Hunting Party…well, honestly I didn’t really have any interest in the book, but figured it would make for some fine review material so I grabbed a copy.

Something happened while reading it that has rarely ever happened to me while reading a comic book: I knew that it was a well-written, well-researched story with excellent artwork that had several intellectual levels to it’s plotting and structure, and I still didn’t like it.

The problem may arise from the subject of the story. The Hunting Party stays true to its name as it is the story of a hunting party during the 1980s, composed of various leaders of the politiburo and Communist Party of the Eastern Bloc nations. The focus of the party is Vassili Chevchenko, a patriarch of the party whose career dates back to the time of Lenin. The various members of the party discuss the career of their comrade, now stricken with facial paralysis and unable to speak, and praise his achievements while hunting various types of game and fowl. But the hunting party is made up of the most ruthless politicians the communist party has ever produced, and some among them are playing a deadlier and bloodier game of intrigue than the mere hunting of animals.

While the above description seems to label this graphic novel an easy “thriller,” it really is not fast paced enough or possessed of enough tension to warrant the brand. Instead, this is more of a political history put to pen and ink of the various communist activities after the Bolshevik uprising, following the different hunting party members as they recall the roles they played within the CCCP. World War II features heavily in the flashbacks of some members; one recalling his internment in the Warsaw ghetto, others recalling an assortment of events and uprisings that occurred before the fall of the Eastern block in the late 80s. All this political muck and mire is almost always threaded neatly with the characters’ associations with Chevchenko, and it’s actually Chevchenko, the only member unable to speak, who has the most to say.

Bilal punctuates each flashback with some well water-colored scenes to accentuate the tone, but when he renders Chevchenko’s thoughts in image, when others are describing the events, we come to understand Chevchenko. He is a man ultimately filled with regret over the many horrific things he has done in the name of the politburo, chief among them is the death of Vera Tretiakova, a woman long dead that haunts even his waking memory. Bilal uses two colors exclusively to represent the thoughts of Chevchenko: red often appearing in place of water and/or scattered around an otherwise innocuous landscape, creating a chilling feeling that a blood covered veranda will engender. He also uses yellow often, sometimes to simply highlight a character or a character’s actions, differentiating it from the rest of the panel, but sometimes doing something else that suggests “yellow” has a deeper meaning that eludes me.

Either way, the wordless story that Bilal tells with images of Chevchenko’s mind is excellently done, and helps to pull the reader more into the political story that, at times, appears too dense to navigate.

Christin’s text is well researched, and his characters are all fleshed out well enough, but the lack of danger, of tension, keeps the reading slow, and while I enjoy a meticulously written text under normal circumstances, the sheer density of some of the historical and political content is such that I felt like I was one Soviet History degree shy of being able to fully understand the piece. It must be said that he does create characters that are somewhat accessible to the reader, mostly in the form of the young French translator pulled into this den of bastards through circumstance, as we see him react to the stories they all tell.

While I consider all the political elements rather boring, I have to admit to them being intricately researched: how often will we see the Prague Spring brought up in the same comic as the Trotsky problem? If only the party assassination plot had been treated a bit more ominously, it would have seemed more horrifying and less mundane than it came off on the page. It’s well written, just in need of some better pacing.

This is a comic definitely worth the time of a history major, budding socialist, or fan of European artwork. As for the rest of the American comic reading community…it’s a tough call. The Hunting Party is a good graphic novel, and better than a hefty amount of what’s out there on American racks, but the heavy Russian historical references make it alienating to the casual reader. It’s up to you, readership-that-I-assume-exists.

The Hunting Party

Robert Sparling

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