Well, this was one of the most fascinating books I’ve read in a long time. It tells of a brief romantic interlude in the lives of two young people that have the good and ill fortune to live in exceedingly interesting times. Their characters are less than fully fleshed out, but this is really no great hindrance to the tale, since the setting is so incredible as to render character and plot relatively unimportant.
The book has the atmosphere of an alternate reality, as depicted by Michael Moorcock or Bryan Talbot (or Iain Banks in his most recent novel), but its settings most astonishing characteristic is that it is real. How historically accurate David B’s representation may be, I couldn’t say, but the story takes place in a historical moment of great flux immediately after WWI, a time when so many possibilities were in the air that Europe really did resemble a nexus between a multitude of possible worlds.
The place is the Croatian city of Rijeka, which in the immediate postbellum period was a predominantly Italian city, and bore the name Fiume. It was briefly ruled, in defiance of the treaties that brought WWI to a close, and of international negotiations over its fate, by a proto-fascist anarchist/ futurist poet called Gabriele d’Annunzio. At this point, nobody knew what fascism was going to mean, and there was a brand of romantic nationalism in Italy that looked to the future with great glee and creativity, bringing what seem from today’s perspective like incompatible ideologies into a febrile, ultimately tragic, but briefly beautiful dialogue. This was the era of Futurism and Dada, both of which are powerful structuring discourses in David B’s work.
Black Paths is a gorgeous work of narrative art. The drawing style is a sort of sketchy expressionism, showing a strong influence (in roughly equal measure) of both early Hergé and Picasso. The latter’s obsession with African ritual masks (as echoed in the former’s The Broken Ear) is particularly in evidence.
Everything is provisional and ephemeral in the moment that David B shares with us. Every character is just passing through, and d’Annunzio’s free state lasted only from September 1919 to January 1921. There is a wonderful scene in which his advisors debate the form and policies of their government, and literally nothing is off the table. Eastern mysticism rubs shoulders with machine fetishism, anarchism with socialism and nationalism; it was an era when the aesthetic was a politically charged arena, and art was a matter of life and death.
The book is sometimes confusing, but that’s a part of what it seeks to represent. It’s a very beautiful piece of work, and a very rewarding read. French avant-garde comics don’t seem to stay in print for long in English translation (just try finding anything by Enki Bilal), so if I’ve tickled your fancy, check this out soon.