Kessel, the birth of the Lion
by Cyrille Charpentier and Jörg Mailliet
Comic strip arenas, 208 p., €23.90
Joseph Kessel hated his first name. He preferred to be called Jef. It is the diminutive that the authors have chosen to make the great reporter writer the hero of an album between biography and fiction. But how to approach, without suffering too much from the comparison, the figure of the one who recounted with mastery his time and his many travels; his life, shaken by a thousand splinters; his myth, already immense during his lifetime? By transforming him, from the places and characters actually encountered, into a paper hero borrowing a lot from Hugo Pratt’s Corto Maltese and the desert scorpionsanother series by the Italian master: charismatic ink strokes, tense silences and dreamlike atmospheres.
The album brings together eight slices of life from the first years of the writer, who was first in the military, each time introduced by a short historical text for context. His expedition to Vladivostok in 1919, conducive to evoking his childhood memories, his arrival by boat in the United States in 1918, a secret mission in Siberia during the Russian Revolution or, as a journalist, his report on slavery in Abyssinia , guided by Henry de Monfreid. Adventures of men, often soldiers, lost and drunk.
Both inspired by Pratt, but also by Tardi (Adele Blanc-Sec), the elegant line of Jörg Mailliet, enhanced with the deep colors of Émilie Rouge, brings a lot of breath to the story. In superb plates recounting Kessel’s report on the Casablanca Dakar airmail line, the sand surrounding Fort Juby changes into heavy waves, the beginnings of a crossing over the sea which almost proves fatal.
The album also immerses us in the Paris of the Roaring Twenties, from the slums of Pigalle where the fiery Jef is guided by his criminal lawyer friend Henry Torrès to the plush offices of the Gallimard house, his faithful publisher, where he meets Jean Cocteau, Raymond Radiguet or Paul Valéry.
Some of these adventures, told too briefly, sometimes lack a bit of consistency. We like to imagine a long-term series which, with the same atmospheres, would project us further into the heart of the reports of the “Lion” of French letters. Still, this album is an aperitif of choice before succumbing to the two recent volumes of the Pléiade (Gallimard) bringing together all of Kessel’s novels and stories. Something to quench our thirst for strong emotions.