Saturday, 25 July 2009

The Rainbow Orchid Volume 1 review

I hate Garen Ewing.

Like a lot of British kids growing up in the Seventies and Eighties (and I know that Ewing is one of them) I read a lot of translated Franco/Belgian comic books (“albums” in France and “graphic novels” in today’s elitist parlance). Translated series like Rene Goscinny and Albert Uderzo’s Asterix; Lucky Luke by Goscinny and Morris; and the slightly more obscure Ompa-Pa by Goscinny and Uderzo; and Goscinny (again!) and Tabary’s Iznogood were borrowed from the local library, or occasionally bought with birthday money. But my favourite, above all, was Hergé’s Tintin.

There were three reasons why. Firstly, the adventures in strange, far-off, exotic lands grabbed my imagination—and have held it ever since. Secondly, it was Hergé’s meticulous attention to detail that brought these tales of derring-do to vivid life. The facts, politics, countries, people, costumes, etc. were so carefully researched. The vehicles and settings seemed so real because every car, plane, boat and building was real—precisely investigated, drawn a thousand times, at a thousand different angles to understand its mechanics, and eventually put into the strip. This brings me to the final reason for the love of Hergé’s work—his art. The Belgian creator managed to develop an iceberg of simplicity with his drawing. On the surface this seemingly uncluttered “ligne claire” or “clear line” style—as it became known—looks deceptively like something that anyone with basic drawing skills could knock off fairly easily. But underneath the surface lies a vast amount of unseen work that involved drawing, and redrawing, and redrawing, and redrawing panels until the perfect line was achieved, plucked out from the myriad of scribbles, and inked.

Consciously taking his inspiration from Hergé, E.P. Jacobs and others in the ligne claire school, Garen Ewing has just released The Rainbow Orchid Volume One. Originally a black and white self-published strip that first appeared in 1997, which then evolved into a webcomic, and is now finally published—as it should have always been—in a full-colour album. The years Ewing has spent honing his craft and storytelling have paid off in spades. Set in the 1920s, the story chronicles the adventures of WWI veteran Julius Chancer, an assistant to Sir Alfred Catesby-Grey an “antique collector”, in the same way that Dr. Indiana Jones is an archaeology professor. The two get mixed up with a British actress, Lily Lawrence—recently returned from Hollywood—her publicist, Nathaniel Crumpole; and her father, Lord Reginald Lawrence; who is faced with losing his estate to the mysterious—and wonderfully named—Urkaz Grope.

The principle macguffin—the search for a mythical bloom—the Rainbow Orchid—so that they can win a flower show and save Lord Lawrence’s estate—is an obvious red herring, and great fun is derived from trying to second-guess the villains’ true nefarious intentions. The story has it all, from lumbering henchmen; a sexy—but devious—“flapper”; and sumptuous country houses, to classic cars and a well thought-out mystery.

While each page initially appears dense and packed to the gills with panels and prose, it’s to Ewing’s credit that he keeps the pacing and storytelling tight, and the tale tears along at a pace. If there was any “criticism” it was that I read it too fast and can’t wait for the next two volumes!

In the folly of my youth, when I thought I could draw, I tried creating my own Tintin-inspired stories and failed miserably. Whereas Ewing has successfully mastered everything that makes a great adventure comic strip—engaging characters, a rattling quest with intrigue; meticulous research; and a deceptively simple and communicative art style—and yet he has managed to retain his own unique signature style and freshness. Where I felt flat on my face, Ewing has created a thing of beauty that is destined to be beloved for generations to come.

And that’s why I hate Garen Ewing.

The Adventures of Julius Chancer: The Rainbow Orchid: Volume One is released by Egmont in the UK on 4 August (£6.99). You can find out more at:


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