Doctor Radar #1,
Noel Simsolo, Bezian,
Translated by Ivanka Hahhnenberger,
This is one of those comics that I must confess I picked up for a quick browse largely on the strength of the intriguingly cool title and that fabulous Franco Francavilla cover artwork. A quick glance inside and I knew I was going to have to add it to my lunchtime reading pile from the new releases…
We open with an eminent professor, Gontran Saint-Clair, boarding a train in Paris. It’s 1920, and with the Great War over, he is finally free to travel to Berlin to confer with a German colleague once more. His assistant implores him not to travel, she’s had a premonition about his death in her dreams. Naturally our distinguished man of science scoffs at such superstitious nonsense… And of course he will soon come to regret ignoring that warning in such a cavalier fashion, with a complex murder-theft carried out on the moving train, involving daring escapades like climbing between the rattling carriages, using that old staple of early 20th century murder-mysteries, curare, and handing off purloined items to a speeding motorbike dashing alongside the train at just the right moment.
This, however, is not the first murder in the scientific community recently, several others, all seemingly working in very different areas and with little or no connection to one another, have been found dead, some obviously by foul play, others made to look like suicides. This draws the attention of Ferdinand Straus, a proper, wealthy gentleman detective in the classic crime fiction mould. He begins to investigate – of course showing utter disdain for talking to the actual police about these matters – and approaches Saint-Clair’s widow. He feels that all the scientists murdered so far had an interest in space flight, a notion scoffed at by some as fiction by Jules Verne, but this is 1920, it is pointed out, recent decades have seen miracles of science: telephones, radio, aircraft, Rutherford has just split the atom. Why not space flight, is it any less likely than those?
But why would someone be killing scientists with an interest in this field, and purloining their notes? He warns the widow to be careful who she speaks to and tells her to contact him at any time if she is worried or finds herself in trouble, before deciding to look into what other scientists may be working on the idea of space travel, with a view to tracking them down. If he can create such a list then surely the killer already is working from just such an itinerary already, and he needs to get ahead of him, leading to a desperate dash to try and beat the shadowy figure behind the gang carrying out the killings and robberies to their next victim. But this gang is very disciplined and trained to execute their plans precisely by their leader, the eponymous Doctor Radar. What if he is as swift-witted as Strauss?
This was an utter delight to read. The story borrows elements from various sources that, from Sherlock Holmes (is Strauss and Radar’s relationship one of Holmes and Moriarty?), and Agatha Christie to the pulp adventures of Mignola’s hugely enjoyable Lobster Johnson and those daft but brilliant adventure serial films of the 1930s. While the story crack along and is huge fun, the art by Bezian is just wonderful. It’s cartoony and stylised – although, minor criticism, I found a handful of panels too stylised, till it was actually unclear what was happening in them, but only a few times – with some brilliant playing around with perspective and angles, such as the slightly titled view of the railway station. Or the mirror-image facing pages on the train, a two-one-two-one panel layout on each, the gang preparing their dangerous mission along the outside of the moving train, the other the gang carrying out their odious deed. Fantastic use of atmosphere, art and colour here to convey night, speed, rain, the blue-purple of night pierced by the warm yellow of the train’s lights, the feeling of speed enhanced by the metal girderwork of a rail bridge speeding past feet from the train.
Doctor Radar is the sort of comic you read and then find you need to go back and read again, more slowly, poring over that artwork. One of the more unusual and downright stylish recent releases, for those of you who enjoy finding something a bit different in your comics pile.
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