Tripod to Titanic – Propaganda delves into the steampunk realms of D’Israeli and Edgington

Published On July 31, 2007 | By Richard Bruton | Reviews

This is Propaganda, I’m Richard Bruton and this is what I’ve been reading lately:

Scarlet Traces
Written by Ian Edginton
Art by D’Israeli

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This is a fantastic yet simple book; beautifully written, delightfully drawn, full of intelligently realised little touches and with a story that means it’s very difficult to put down. Scarlet Traces is a murder-mystery sequel to H.G. Wells’ classic science fiction novel The War of the Worlds (which the pair also adapted); where tripod encased Martians landed in Victorian England and were only prevented from conquering the Earth when they were laid low by a simple microbe, something we’d been immune to for years.

The genius of Scarlet Traces is to ask the simple question: what happened next? Once the Martians were defeated Victorian England suddenly had access to incredible amounts of advanced Martian tech. Within a few years the British Empire rules victorious over two-thirds of the Earth’s surface, Martian tech drives Victorian Britain’s march to world domination and London is a high tech wonderland of epic scale. Every street has Hanson cabs scuttling along on mechanised crab legs, power and energy is provided by the Martian heat-ray technology, the Martian technology has invaded and conquered every aspect of life far more effectively than the Martian’s themselves managed.

But whilst London basks in the glow of this new found golden age, the rest of the country is not so fortunate. Mechanisation and industrialisation has devastated the mills and factories of the North. The social divide is huge, with Northern people ignored, forgotten and brutally forced to die in poverty and squalor.

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(interior art by D’Israeli from Scarlet Traces, showing the retro-futuristic London gleaming alongside the squalor of a mudlark on the mudflats of the Thames)

Scarlet Traces explores the possibility of a high-tech Victorian England while simultaneously playing out a simple, old fashioned murder mystery. Bodies of several women, drained of blood are washed up on the shores of the Thames. Major Robert Autumn (war hero and gentleman adventurer) and his former Sergeant Major, now manservant, Archie Currie are drawn into the mystery when Currie’s niece goes missing after travelling South from her home in Scotland, searching for domestic work in the capital, the only alternative to starving or prostitution in her native Scotland.

Their investigation takes them from London’s gleaming spires and the gin palaces of the East End to the desolate North and finally back to the capital where they discover that the murders are part of a greater conspiracy, condoned by the highest in the land and seen as a necessary part of the next great leap forward. This time, the Empire has decided to take to the stars, using the appropriated Martian tech to launch an attack on Mars itself.

This mix of social investigation with criminal investigation proves a winning combination; the plot to uncover the truth is rounded out wonderfully well with details of Victorian-Tech. Simple, yet effective touches are dropped into the story yet never distract from the unrelenting pace of the investigation. Little flourishes abound; the lack of horses in a mechanised London, where every vehicle, from Cabs to baby carriages is mounted on crab-like legs. The tiny robots patrolling Trafalgar Square on tripod legs, carrying out pest control with Martian heat-rays. The sheer scale of Victorian London with its overground elevated railway and the huge buildings dwarfing Big Ben and the remains of London’s prior existence. All of these touches and flourishes go a long way to making this simple murder mystery one of the nicest books I’ve read this year.

My favourite bit of visual flourish occurs as our heroes are resting in a classical Victorian dressing room, sitting in arm-chairs in front of a roaring fire, oak panelling on the walls and a whisky decanter on the table. Two pages of dialogue later a man-servant appears to inform us that we’ll be arriving in Glasgow and could the passengers please fasten their seatbelts for landing. D’Israeli pulls back, to reveal, in glorious detail, the vast, beautiful art deco styled aircraft we’ve been aboard all along. It’s a lovely moment and sums up everything that makes the book so very satisfying.

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(interior panels from Scarlet Traces by Ian Edgington, art by D’Israeli, published Dark Horse)

I’d never really read anything by Ian Edginton before, despite him being a regular at Nostalgia & Comics Birmingham where I used to work. His work always seemed to be something I had very little interest in; Predators and Aliens, that sort of thing. But in Scarlet Traces he’s found a perfect story. And he’s told it superbly well.

D’Israeli I’ve always loved. His art is an absolute delight on the eye and always has been. Obviously he and Edginton work well together with the sequel to Scarlet Traces: The Great Game already out from Dark Horse and the equally impressive Leviathan published last year in an impressive European style album by Rebellion/2000AD.

Scarlet Traces makes no claim to be anything other than a straight forward, fairly obvious Murder Mystery and yet it accomplishes much more, becoming a fascinating look at a society obsessed with technological advancement, at the expense of all things. An absolutely excellent book; highly recommended. Which brings us neatly to:

Leviathan

Written by Ian Edginton
Art by D’Israeli

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After reading, and thoroughly enjoying Scarlet Traces, I was really, really looking forward to Edginton and D’Israeli’s more recent book: Leviathan. The concept of it, encapsulated in these couple of lines from the blurb, is just spectacularly good:

In 1928 the largest cruise liner the world has ever seen is launched. With a crew and passenger compliment totalling nearly 30,000 people the Leviathan is bound for New York. However, it never reaches the Big Apple and simply … disappears!

And although it’s a really good book, it’s just not as good as it should have been with such a winning concept. And the simple reason it fails is because the damn thing is just too short. It needed to be at least twice the length it is to really work; to revel in the idea of a ship that is a mile long and half a mile wide. The scale of the ship is immense; the scale of the story about the ship should be equally impressive.

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(panel from Leviathan clearly showing the vast scale of the vessel; art by D’Israeli, published Rebellion)

I’d like to think it was limitations put upon the writer and artist by the publisher that made this such a truncated story and, in a perfect world we’d be looking forward to a director’s cut of the work coming out soon, but sadly, Leviathan will only ever be the book in front of me now, half the book it should have been.

The presentation itself is particularly well done, it looks and feels like proper Bande Dessinée, hardback, oversized and with an exquisite cover promises mystery and diabolical goings-on at sea. Disraeli’s art makes great use of the larger page size, perfectly realising the epic sense of scale and grandeur that a ship of such scale conveys, yet also perfectly capturing the sense of desperation and seediness found deeper down inside the ship.

Leviathan starts with a great few pages detailing the mammoth scale of the project to build such an incredible vessel; sixty million pounds, constructed in sections, twenty eight thousand passengers and crew, parks, ballrooms, cinemas and even a zoo are onboard. And D’Israeli gives us a double page spread that instantly manages to turn these facts and figures into reality for us with a tremendous visual of the huge ship. But instead of taking it slowly from here, giving us a detailed look at the ship and the society onboard, the story instantly shifts to the murder mystery that will speed the book along to its conclusion.

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(interior page from Leviathan with D’Israeli showing the seedy shanty town of the world below decks for the Steerage passengers; the chap accosting our hero in the lower right panel is a nod to the classic TV serial Boys From the Blackstuff)

Leviathan went missing in 1928. It is now two decades later and the ship still sails on, through a sky with no sun or stars. No-one knows where they are but many of the passengers fear they are in limbo or Hell. And the ship carries on, never ending, with no hope of reaching port.

On board, life is as you may expect from a 1920s British ocean liner. First, Second and Steerage passengers adhere strictly to the traditional divides of social class of the time. Whilst first class has spent twenty years behaving as gentlemen and ladies whilst slowly eating their way through the exotic menu provided by their onboard zoo, Steerage has become a lawless desperate place, a wild west below decks kept there by the stewards above decks.

But this uneasy status quo suddenly changes when gruesome murders begin happening in first class. The ruling executive of the ship, including it’s owner, Sir William Ashbless have tried to ignore the problem, but it becomes obvious it’s not going away as more and more bodies are found, mutilated, missing whole strips of flesh. Detective Sergeant Lament of Scotland Yard is brought in by the executive to solve the case; Lament is in his late fifties, obviously a career cop and he soon sets out his position to the executive:

If I may speak bluntly, ruling body or no, I doubt you have even the slightest concept of the kind of world that exists beneath your feet. The pit fights, the brothels, illegal stills and narcotics manufacture…. any and all vices that provide a distraction from our unnatural plight occurs within these metal walls.

Conservatively I’d estimate there’s at least four murders a week onboard….”

Lament then works simply and methodically, quickly peeling back layers of intrigue and mystery until he finds himself in the engine room and the secret that lies not only behind the Leviathan’s creation, but is also the reason for it’s twenty years of travelling these hellish waters.

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(Lament inspects the ship’s blueprints – the prominent 2nd Class sign he is forced to wear is a nice touch by D’Israeli to illustrate the class divisions)

And whilst the book’s ending is good, it’s certainly not as good as it should have been. I wanted this book to be so much more than it is, in every sense. I wanted to revel in the grandeur of this ship as big as a city, I wanted to be taken through some of the more bizarre areas of the ship, be told a few tales of it’s past and finally, when the murder mystery kicked in, I would have preferred it to be a deliciously slow boil mystery, taking Lament all across this hellish ship.

What there is in Leviathan is wonderful, a great concept, stylishly and intelligently realised. But there’s just not enough of it and I finished this great book feeling terribly unsatisfied. A real shame. It should have been fantastic.

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About The Author

Richard Bruton
- Started in comics retail aged 16 at Nostalgia & Comics, Birmingham. Now located in Yorkshire, he's written for the Forbidden Planet International Blog since 2007. Specialising in UK Comics and All-Ages comics, Richard's day job in a primary school allowed him to build the best children's graphic novel library in the country.

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