The Ligne Claire Style – “Ciel de Guerre”

Story – Philippe Pinard

Illustration – Olivier Dauger

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“Ciel de Guerre” introduces an artistic style I haven’t discussed in depth yet – ligne claire. This method of illustration was pioneered by Hergé, the artist who created “Tintin.” Ligne claire features dark outlines around each character and object (“Comics in French: The European Bande Dessinée in Context,” pg. 122). Ligne claire comics usually feature very monochromatic colors that produce a crisp, clear image as seen in the following panels from volume one.

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“Ciel de Guerre” tells the story of a French fighter squadron, “Les Diables Rouges,” between May 1940 and 1942. The story is spread across four albums, and Individual copies are available on Amazon.com for about $25 each. A collected edition is available on Amazon.fr for about $63 plus shipping.

The artist, Olivier Dauger, depicts several esoteric aircraft including the H-75 fighter. However, the planes are rather immaculate compared to the worn and weary aircraft in the stories illustrated by Romain Hugault. In fact, everything appears to be too neat and orderly because uniforms are never dirty or stained, even when the pilots are stationed in the desert.

There’s ample aerial combat, but it’s far less heroic and dramatic than what we saw with Hugault. The pilots often make mistakes and combat is portrayed in a more abstract manner. For example, in the following image, lignes de movement are used to convey a sense of speed as the planes move through the air.

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In this image, emanata are used to convey a sense of surprise or shock, such as when an enemy pilot performs an unexpected maneuver in combat.

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As a result, Dauger’s execution of the ligne Claire style doesn’t really appeal to me because the visual elements are too flat and abstract. However, the story is much more satisfying than previous bande dessinée I’ve reviewed.

“Ciel de Guerre” covers several often-overlooked theaters of World War II, including Operation Exporter – the Allied attack on Vichy-held Syria and Lebanon in 1941. The last volume also portrays the well-known Allied in invasion of North Africa in 1942, “Operation Torch,” from the French perspective.

The main characters are Etienne de Tournemire and André Marceau – two pilots in the “Diables Rouge” fighter squadron. De Tournemire is a conservative while Marceau is a communist who fought in Spain with the International Brigade. Writer Philippe Pinard tells a rich story as the two men struggle to interpret the “strange defeat” of May 1940. He does a good job depicting the confusion and despair that came after the armistice. De Tournemire and Marceau also clash over the definition of duty and honor. They must eventually declare allegiance to either the Vichy regime and Henri Pétain, or the Free French forces lead by Charles de Gaulle based in London.

“Ciel de Guerre” is also a relief from the male gaze which was so prevalent in the first two bande dessinée reviews I recently published: “Le Grand Duc” and “The Final Flight.”

Male characters dominate the story, except for de Tournemire’s cousin Caroline. She serves as marrainne de guerre, a kind of military godmother, to the pilots of the “Diables Rouge” squadron. Instead of becoming a sex object, Caroline instead contributes to the plot of “Ciel de Guerre” by flirting with collaboration.

However, the story can become too technical and dry at times. Even readers who are relatively fluent in French will probably have to look up a few of the more obscure vocabulary words that refer to different pieces of military hardware or equipment. That might prevent less dedicated readers from comprehending or enjoying the series. Pinard also tends to focus on the technical factors that led to the French defeat in 1940, such as the under-powered engines used in the H-75 and the bureaucratic red-tape of the French procurement system. As a historian, I tend to avoid deterministic analysis that traces causation to a single factor, and I prefer much more multi-faceted accounts.

The first volume, “Les Diables Rouges,” also includes several interesting supplements at the back of the album, including several short biographies of French pilots who served in the Groupe de Chasse II/4. Several profiles of innovative French aircraft that arrived too late to prevent the defeat of 1940, including the wooden VG33 fighter, are also included. There’s even a very short essay about how French intelligence officers calculated aerial victories. More casual readers will probably not be too interested in these additions, but serious aeronautic fanatics will enjoy them.

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