Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Garen Ewing – ‘The Rainbow Orchid (Vol. 1)’ / Goscinny & Sempé – ‘Nicholas’

At school, T. and I used to write an Asterix fanzine. We didn’t call it that, not having heard of fanzines, but that’s what it was: photocopied, with such news as was available at the time (the publication of Asterix and the Magic Carpet, a theme park opening in Paris... I’d never thought of this before, but could the whole magic carpet thing have been an excuse for a theme park ride?), padded out with various enthusings and even Asterix comic strips we made up ourselves. It went from being mostly T.’s thing to being mostly mine, which was fair enough, as he preferred Tintin anyway. When he grew up he got a job with the people who publish Tintin in the UK, and last year he switched from marketing to publishing proper. In a move which is enough to restore one’s faith in the fitness of things, that we are living in the best of all possible worlds, etc., the first book he has been involved in publishing is a comic album which is exactly the same as a Tintin book. Every last little detail, excepting only those curly movement lines Hergé would do when people were fighting or woozy from being drugged by bad guys (perhaps that will be amended for Vol. 2). Think I’m kidding? See for yourself.

I don’t mean to be cynical. For one thing, attempting to live up to Hergé’s art is actually a pretty ambitious undertaking, and this is a beautifully drawn book. Transportation-wise particularly: boats, trains and planes sit just so in the landscape, awash with detail. For another – did you ever think that Tintin was a little anaemic at times? That Asterix was better because there were more fights and better jokes*? The Rainbow Orchid isn’t anaemic at all. Tintin is an unrealistically straightforward kind of reporter, of the Clark Kent variety. He doesn’t do anything underhand: behaving correctly but inquisitively is enough to get him into exciting situations, and he can file reports on them if he feels like it (which is not often). William Pickle, the reporter in The Rainbow Orchid, is the opposite: he’ll do anything to get a story. Media is the story, to a large extent, which may be why it is set in the 1920s, allowing it to feature a film star (the fictional Lily Lawrence), who attracts reporters in droves. Pickle’s tenacity and goading wisecracks actively drive the plot.

Lily is to open the ‘fifth British Empire Exhibition’**, at which her father, Sir Reginald Lawrence, will enter the ‘world famous orchid competition’, which he won the previous year. This time, however, his chances look bleak because of a rare black orchid, to be entered by the splendidly named Urkaz Grope. Which matters because Sir Reginald has gambled his entire property on winning the competition: it is hinted that Grope might have drugged him to get him to agree to this, though he is something of an old soak so it could just have been the drink. Pickle irritates Julius Chancer (the story’s protagonist, a kind of antiques investigator) into admitting to the possibility that a rarer and more beautiful orchid exists – the rainbow orchid of the title. This becomes a challenge in the following day’s Daily News. Julius and Lily are prompted to mount an expedition to find it by Pickle’s story: it is not enough simply to know about the rainbow orchid. Things become real only when reported in a newspaper. This works rather well as an allegory for our own times, as a lament for the importance of the newspaper, but also as a comment on how the rapid turnover of published information affects events. More importantly, it also serves to make things happen really fast: The Rainbow Orchid is rip roaring stuff, and I can’t wait to find out what happens next.

Also included in the parcel with The Rainbow Orchid was a new edition of Goscinny & Sempé’s Nicholas, which T. did lend me once before, but as that would have been slightly over twenty years ago (gulp!) I can probably be forgiven for having forgotten absolutely everything about it. The new edition might be something to do with this film (merci pour l’info, Anne), though it doesn’t say so. It is completely brilliant, anyway, a sped-up, primary school version of Jennings, and it comments on almost nothing except the tendency of small boys towards fighting, eating and being messy. Here is some, it is all like this:

Finally, when we got round the corner, Alec took a cigar out of his pocket. ‘Look at that!’ he told me. ‘It’s a real one, not a chocolate cigar.’ He didn’t need to tell me it wasn’t a chocolate cigar because if it had been a chocolate cigar Alec would have eaten it instead of showing it to me. […] I wasn’t all that sure that smoking a cigar was a good idea, and I had a feeling Mum and Dad wouldn’t like it, but Alec asked me whether my mum and dad had ever told me not to smoke this cigar? I thought about it, and I had to admit that Mum and Dad had told me not to draw pictures on the walls of my room, not to speak without being spoken to at meals when we had guests, not to fill the bath to play with my boat, not to eat biscuits just before dinner, not to slam the door, not to pick my nose and not to say rude words, but Mum and Dad had never said anything about not smoking this cigar. (pp. 75-76)

Thanks, T., and – congratulations!

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* More numerous jokes, at least. To give Tintin its due, there aren’t many better jokes than the Thomson Twins’ ‘Those tracks can’t have been made by us: there are two sets of them, and we are alone’, when they are walking around in circles in Explorers on the Moon.

** The British Empire Exhibition was real, it says here, but ran for only two years, 1924-5. So The Rainbow Orchid must take place in 1928.

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