Reviews: glorious wartime adventure in Gibrat’s Flight of the Raven
I first saw Gibrat’s Flight of the Raven as Le Vol du Corbeau several years ago in a bookstore in the Saint Michel area of Paris that was stocked with an enormous range of bande dessinee. I had never read Gibrat before, but I knew a little of his work (thanks to our own Wim educating my Anglophone reading world with his Continental Correspondent columns over the years). Even among the large array of graphic albums in this store this stood out, from that striking cover of our plucky heroine Jeanne (sister to Cécile, a heroine of some other works by Gibrat) clinging to a ladder above the rooftops of Nazi-occupied Paris, to the utterly gorgeous interior art. I’m very glad that quite a few years after first seeing it in a Parisian bookstore it finally received an English language edition, giving Anglophone readers a chance to enjoy this wartime tale of daring-do and to luxuriate in this beautiful slice of comics art.
We open with Jeanne under arrest, left to stew overnight in the local police cell, understandably anxious and yet at the same time sort of relieved it it the police who have grabbed her, not the occupying Germans. Especially as the search of her room revealed not only black market items, but a revolver, explosives and fake papers. She’s obviously Resistance and as such should be handed over to the occupiers right away. But as the middle-aged commissioner tells her, she’s a problem – he’s in trouble if he doesn’t inform the Gestapo but at the same time he doesn’t fancy turning over a resistance fighter to the Germans and possibly earning himself several bullets in the back as he goes home on the Metro some evening… And then there’s the fact the Allies have just landed at Normandy, so it’s clear that the Germans may not be calling the shots soon (and he doesn’t want to seem too close to them, but can’t openly cross them either, a tightrope to walk).
Enter François, gentleman thief. Caught red-handed and locked up in the same cell as Jeanne, he works some sleight of hand and takes advantage of the confusion of an air raid to escape, taking Jeanne with him, and this is where we get that wonderful scene on the cover from – with the entrance below well-guarded the pair escape via those iconic zinc-plated roofs of Paris. Gibrat paints Paris beautififully, especially in these rooftop scenes, the city from above. In fact his depictions of the city are so lovingly detailed that I could identify a number of the locations as ones I had walked through in my previous days visiting Paris (in fact a couple of scenes were literally across the road from the bookstore where I first saw the French edition of the book).
(Parisian landmarks like the ancient Pont Neuf adorn the pages of Flight of the Raven and Bouqinistes’s stalls line the banks of the Seine)
The city is very much a character here, lovingly detailed by Gibrat, not just a backdrop, it is suffused with the feel of a vibrant, living city; Paris is Paris, after all, even when enduring Occupation, and Gibrat brings it to life so beautifully that if you know the city you will recognise streets, bridges and buildings, packed with details, from locals cycling past to occupying Germans on leave painting street scenes (because that’s just something you do in Paris, even as an occupier) to those distinctive little lock-ups of the Bouqinistes by the Seine, and Gibrat depicts it by day, by night, in golden spring sunlight and with those rooftops glittering with rainfall, and by the four colour gods, it’s just an utter joy to behold, from the large scale depictions to the small details (a man under the awning of the wine shop, glass nearby, his dog by his side looking up at him).
After injuring her ankle on the daring rooftop escape Jeanne, an idealistic resistance member with little time for François’ freebooting life of crime (despite him helping her escape), angrily tells him to leave. And he does, much to her annoyance (how dare he actually do what she said when she obviously still needs help!). But something compels him to come back, and it isn’t just because Jeanne is stunningly beautiful, with piercing eyes in Gibrat’s art, and a carefully arranged lock of hair over one eye, like Veronica Lake (the elegance of the fashions of the period suit Gibrat’s brushes so well), he obviously feels some responsibility, perhaps there is something else going on there too, but you would need to read the whole thing to find out if that’s the case or not (no spoilers!). François takes her to his friends Rene and Huguette, a very likable couple who run the barge Himalaya with their son Nicolas, affording both Jeanne and François a moving shelter as they sail the canals and river, glancing over their shoulders all the while, trying to figure out who betrayed Jeanne to the authorities and how to contact her friends to warn them.
(it’s not just the occupying Nazis, Allied warplanes roam the skies attacking transports like trains or barges like the Himalaya, and ordinary families get caught in the middle)
This is no straight game of cat and mouse however, while maintaining a healthy dramatic tension Gibrat also takes his time to build the settings, the characters – even the homely Himalaya becomes a bit of a character too – and this means that although he takes more time it pays off because the reader becomes far more enmeshed with the lives and problems of these characters. Jeanne’s idealism is tempered with the realisation of what can happen in the real world when fighting the good fight, François’ cynical but lovable rogue thief act (part Han Solo, part Errol Flynn with a dash of Clark Gable) softens, not just around Jeanne (in a delicious will-they or won’t they? back and forth in between narrow escapes) but in his interactions with his old pal Rene and his family, it brings out the warmer, human side of him and also acts as a reminder that while François and Jeanne lead their unusual and dangerous lifestyles, even in wartime many ordinary families just try to get by as best they can and still have a good family life.
All of the characters are given room to develop and breathe – even an enemy soldier, despite attempting to do some very unpleasant things, is still shown to be human, his nights tortured with dreams of what he saw on the Russian Front, clearly suffering PTSD (it doesn’t make him a good guy but it does make sure we still see he is vulnerable and human) or the police commissioner are allowed to be real people, not just cut-outs. Again there are wonderful small detailed touches which help make the whole thing feel so believable and real, from the details of the breakfast table on the Himalaya to the way he depicts young Nicolas, his features clearly marking him out as the son of Rene and Huguette (that’s a small but clever detail, again grounding events, making the characters more believably real to us).
(it’s not just the Parisian cityscapes, Gibrat also gives us lush French countryside as a backdrop)
There’s danger, daring escapes by the skin of the teeth, a hunt by the bad guys, the sneaking crafty moves of the good guys, there’s drama, humour, maybe even some romance, there’s family life,the small-scale soap opera against the grander wide-screen opera of the war and occupation. And through it all that ravishing Gibrat artwork that has you falling in love with the characters by the end, and longing once more to explore those Parisian streets.