A man washes up on a beach. He’s suffering from amnesia with no indication as to who he is or where he’s come from except for a strange ‘XIII’ tattoo on his clavicle and a photograph of a woman in his pocket. This guy is rescued and nurtured back to health but is soon tracked down by assassins who try to kill him. Our amnesiac hero escapes and quickly realises that he’s a highly trained operative with James Bond skills, a past unknowingly filled with a kaiju-esque wake of destruction and shady government assassins hunting him down.
Sounds familiar right? That’s because this is The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum a Franco-Belgian comic book series called XIII (Thirteen). Which despite having spawned a movie, a TV show and even a video game voiced by Mr "X-Files" Duchovny himself, chances are that you’ve never even heard of it.
XIII is effectively a best-selling thriller in the form of a graphic novel and, as you might expect from any thriller featuring a highly trained amnesiac, there’s a conspiracy and it goes all the way to the top. Which means high profile enemies and enough lies to let Pinocchio sniff the moon. Add in a cacophony of henchmen, exotic backdrops and a bunch of grey suits in grey rooms discussing moral grey areas and you’ve got a pretty good idea of what you’re getting yourself into here.
Like all good thrillers, XIII has more twists than a bag of fusilli pasta in a hedge maze. The beauty of these plot twists is how the writer, Jean Van Hamme, uses them to explore vastly different aspects of the political world. These twists are a brilliant ride (though slightly repetitive) and serve to keep the story consistently fresh as every other episode seems to end on the big revelation that our protagonist is actually someone completely different… One minute he’s Steve Rowland the guy blamed for the murder of the President and then suddenly he’s actually Marty McFly, a time traveller or maybe he’s John McClane, a rogue cop, no wait, actually he’s... You get the idea. Although I should point out that XIII [SPOILER ALERT] doesn’t feature Alan Rickman’s German accent.
XIII is written by Van Hamme, the insanely prolific Belgian writer responsible for other popular Franco-Belgian comic series you’ve may have never heard of such as Thorgal and Largo Winch. XIII is arguably the most political of all Van Hamme’s work but it’s a lot of fun and, despite being a child of the 80s, it still has all its own teeth and no hint of crows feet yet. The writing and the political intrigue feel as fresh today as it would have done thirty years ago and even the pop culture references that pepper the later episodes still hold up as relevant, with nods going to everything from the Punisher to Bugs Bunny. As a series, it’s fast-paced and should come with its own health warning for the potential addiction. However, XIII is a story that you have to earn - the dialogue can be tough going and the chatter to action ration isn’t as high as your typical superhero monthly. This is no bad thing, but it does mean that a modicum of effort and concentration’s needed from the reader.
XIII also has a lot of characters and a convoluted plotline to complement them. This can sometimes make it difficult to follow when some of the more minor characters get involved or one of the many, many "old guys" starts a monologue. Fortunately, Van Hamme does re-cap where necessary including one episode (appropriately enough: 13) which is effectively a big reiteration of the story so far. It also helps that the key supporting cast are all strong characters and easily recognisable. Personally, I’m a big fan of The Mongoose - a relentless but geriatric assassin with a hilariously stupid name. I also love Major Jones, the Robin to XIII’s Batman. While she’s occasionally been the damsel in distress, Jones is a highly trained military strategist who is tougher than a rhino made out of anvils and one of the few people XIII can trust. Jones is also one of the few truly decent depictions of a black woman in comic books that I can think of.
The art by Vance aims for realism with a neat, detailed and a heavily lined style which is typical of much BD (French-Belgian comics) artists such as Rosinksi, who also drew the above mentioned Thorgal. Fans of Marvel or DC superheroics may find the art slightly soporific as the colour scheme is generally muted, sticking closely to beiges, greens and greys. Panelling rarely strays from rectangles and there are few - if any - splash pages.
So why don’t more people know about XIII? It’s hard to say but XIII certainly didn’t have the best start to English life with the first two attempts at publication resulting in cancellation (first by Marvel, in fact) before finally being released in full. It is currently published in English by the ever-brilliant Cinebook. XIII’s lack of popularity in the Anglophone world may be a matter of simple awareness, but it could also be that it slips through the cracks of what’s deemed 'saleable' right now - there’s no super-powered escapism with merchandising opportunities (but that’s another article). I only stumbled upon it myself last year, thanks to a French friend insisting that I give it a go. Here’s me passing on the favour.
The bottom line: if you are looking for something a bit harder than the traditional cape-clad comics; something fun, filled with fast action and with impressive writing chops - XIII is your gateway drug to a new world of graphic fiction.