If you had to describe to someone a perfect example of a Franco Belgian Bandes dessinée, then you could do a lot worse than pointing in the general direction of Yann and Schwartz’s effortlessly cool Atom Agency Volume 1: The Begum’s Jewels from Europe Comics.
Publisher: Europe Comics
Price: £3.99 from ComiXology
Our hero, Atom Vercorian is a struggling detective (is there any other kind) who along with his sidekick Mimi investigates cheating husbands, but dreams of something much more meaningful. So when The Begum, (aka the wife of the world’s richest man, the Aga Khan), has per priceless jewels stolen, then Atom looks for a chance to make a name for himself and his agency. Recruiting former wrestler Jojo Top as their ‘muscle’ (however he prefers to be seen as a partner after helping them out financially) Atom and co are taken all over France in search of the missing jewels, crossing paths with sleazy gangsters and an enigmatic femme fatale know as the Red Panther.
Atom Agency is a glorious Gallic thrill ride of a crime book. Set in the late 1940s it is packed with vintage Frenco-Belgian chic, from the clothes to the cars to the glorious locations. It feels more like something set in the roaring ’20s or ’30s as the fashions are delightfully old school (smart suits and long socks), but also painfully sharp and elegant. It’s also set in an idealistic world of gangsters and molls and tough guy wrestlers, which lacks the irony and cynicism of the present day and feels more like a crime noir version of Tintin as a result. (But with extra violence!)
Every page is packed with intricately conceived panels, thanks to Schwartz’s exquisite artwork. He is a master of that Gallic style that sees highly cartoonish characters exist in a beautifully rendered world that manages to blur the line between these two disparate styles, creating something impeccably cool. With the detail and personality of Asterix’s Uderzo, but the grittiness of Darwyn Cooke this is more than just a twee attempt at a Gallic crime story. It reminded us a lot of Bandette at times, but it steers clear of the more lightweight elements of Paul Tobin and Colette Coover’s Eisner Award Winner and instead delivers a story with real meat to it. (We can’t imagine someone getting their throat slit in Bandette for example!)
With more text and detail in a single page than some comics manage in a three issue run, it’s a dense read which at times can be a bit over whelming as you crave a simple de-constructed spread or a splash page. However that is not the style for this kind of book, and would look out of place if they did include one. While the story may sometimes leap around a bit too much for our liking, the strength of the characters and the quality of the artwork powers it forward.
Atom is a fantastic plucky hero, trying to make a name for himself as a detective in the shadow of his senior police detective father (who is trying to prove his worth too). His over sized eye brows from his Armenian heritage give him a great look and makes him instantly recognisable in amongst the detail of the pages. While Mimi on paper should just be plucky sidekick but is continually trying to prove her worth to her partner and not simply trailing around after, making her a much more enigmatic buddy. And finally ex wrestler Jojo Top is perhaps the best of the three as the reluctant muscle who wants to be more than a simple punching bag. He is cast as classic tough guy wrestler in the vein of a Bruno Sammartino, from a time when wrestling was real, rather than a muscled up showman, and he feels like a cerebral Hulk or smart Ben Grimm type character who is an interesting foil to the other more clueless and ideallistic two.
Atom Agency Volume 1: The Begum’s Jewels is thoroughly wonderful read, that will have you eager from more the minute you reach the final panel. It is currently available at a criminally good price on ComiXology, so start investigating this Gallic delight today!