Comic review: The Other Side of the Border by Fromental & Berthet
The Other Side of the Border - Jean-Luc Fromental & Philippe Berthet
Although it's set in 1948, The Other Side of the Border comes at an opportune time, a thriller set on the US border with Mexico showing how life, the problems and crime in the region probably haven't changed a lot over the years. Other than efforts at hardening the border under the most recent US administration, the issues and inequalities remain much the same for people living on either side of the border, and in such a place crime is not just inevitable, for some it's a necessity, a way of life.
The 2020 graphic novel one-shot The Other Side of the Border by scripted by Jean-Luc Fromental with art by Philippe Berthet highlights the discrepancy between the two cultures immediately, bringing in a French/Belgian perspective through an author of detective novels living in the Santa Cruz valley. Known as "the French Edgar Wallace", François Combe lives a free and somewhat reckless lifestyle at the Stallion Farm. Although married with a young child, it's common knowledge that he also has a mistress living under the same roof with his family, his secretary Kay Doucet, and even the servants have to watch themselves around him.
One such reckless activity that Combe indulges in is taking Kay to the Cielito Lindo, a classy brothel in the Arizona border town of Nogales, where François introduces her to Rachel, a young and pretty 19 year old sex worker known as 'Querida' to take some photos for "documentary research". Querida however is murdered the same night, the first of a series of murders by the Nogales Ripper. Jed, a playboy friend of François was the last person seen with Querida and the next victim, so Combe finds himself involved in a real-life murder investigation to find the real killer.
Since we've already seen the killer - even if we don't know who he is or what his motivations are - there's not really any mystery to the investigation. As the story is largely narrated by Combe's maid Estrellita, the intention is more to give a perspective on the contrasts between how life differs on both sides of the border, in the divide between rich and poor. There's also a divide between how people deal with the reality of life. For François these people's lives are potential material for a new thriller he is writing, as well as wanting to help his friend get out of trouble, but for the sex workers from the poor border towns, the criminal aspect of this society affects them much more directly.
The social angle is a little obvious, the detective plot is fairly conventional, and it feels like there's not much to lift The Other Side of the Border above the average European graphic novel. It flows well however and there's definitely a building intrigue, but there are one or two other elements that make this a little more interesting, One is that, much like how Fromental created a fictional intrigue around Graham Greene's involvement with the British Secret Service in The Czech Coup, here François Combe is based to some extent on another writer, George Simenon, the author of Maigret, who was indeed resident in for a period in Nogales in 1948, and whose life was indeed the subject of some notoriety.
Berthet's artwork too captures a sense of US border towns and the old ghost mining towns well in beautifully rendered locations and colours. The style is somewhat reminiscent of Jaime Hernandez (Love And Rockets), if perhaps a little stiffer. Even if the creators just use George Simenon as a way of exploring the life in border towns as a murder thriller, this fresh Belgian perspective on life and crime in this part of the USA does successfully manage to tap into the nature of the people and the social divisions there and perhaps even highlight why it's still a contentious area today.
The Other Side of the Border (De l’autre côté de la frontière) by Jean-Luc Fromental & Philippe Berthet is published in English in eBook format by Europe Comics. It's also available from Amazon Kindle & comiXology.