Comic review: Venezia by Lewis Trondheim and Fabrice Parme
Venezia - Lewis Trondheim and Fabrice Parme
I really enjoyed Lewis Tronheim's Bourbon Island 1730, the versatile writer of the Lapinot series, autobiographical strips and long-running Donjon/Dungeon unconventional heroic fantasy series turning his hand to longer-form historical fiction with wonderful results and still retaining his own blend of absurdist humour. His anthromorphised characters don't suit every story that the prolific writer creates, so often he enlists or is teamed up with other artists, collaborating with the greats of the French indie scene like Blutch, Sfar, Blain and Larcenet among others on the various Donjon series spin-offs.
The same principle applies to his work on lighter mainstream comedy series, and for the historical spy comedy Venezia created in 1999, Trondheim's witty, twisty espionage plotting benefits from the elegant, dynamic cartoonish artwork of Fabrice Parme. The series appears to only have run to two standard French 48-page volumes - both are collected together for this eBook edition from Europe Comics - before the duo went on to work on the similarly themed Tiny Tyrant (Le Roi Catastrophe) series, which appears to have offered more scope for their comic collaboration.
Set in 16th Century Europe is in a period of great political turmoil, with wars and alliances going on and Venice is there as an important centre of trade, commerce and political intrigue. And spies. In the first part of the Venezia storyline, Triple Cross, the Doge of Venice, Grimani is planning on doing business with the Mamluk Sultanate, welcoming their aide de camp Tufu to discuss a trade route to the Indies, so Charles Quint, the Holy Roman Emperor of Austria and Francis I of France have sent two spies to Venice to find out what is going down.
Crossing paths before they even have hired a gondolier to take them into the centre of Venice, Sophia Cantabella and Giuseppe Pintorello very quickly develop a deep animosity to each other. Cantabella is there incognito as a singer putting on a recital for the Doge, while Pintorello is there ostensibly as an artist painting a portrait of the Doge. They quickly take to calling each other the Pest and the Prig, but the delight they take with putting each other down suggests that there's an underlying attraction there that they won't acknowledge. That attraction becomes even more evident when they adopt their secret spy identities, Sophia transforming into the Black Scorpion, Giuseppe becoming the dashing Eagle.
Since we're in Italy on the 16th century in the second adventure Codex Bellum, it's only right that out two competing spies get involved in a Da Vinci Code intrigue of their own. Being retained in Venice, the Black Scorpion and the Eagle catch wind of a transaction that the Doge's assistant Carpaccio is carrying out to obtain a secret artefact, but the rival spies have to still come up with some tricks and ingenuity to find out what exactly this mysterious object is. That ingenuous Leonardo Da Vinci has however left clues to the whereabouts of his Codex Bellum tattooed onto the heads of three prisoners housed in the dungeon during Da Vinci's time there in 1500.
What they even do with the Codex Bellum when they find it is of little concern, since they don't even know what it contains, the two quarrelling rivals really more interested in showing who is cleverest, bravest and the natural leader. The love/hate relationship between Black Scorpion and the Eagle is mirrored in their everyday Hate/Love relationship between them in their disguised everyday identities as Pintorello and Cantabella.
The limitations of the Venezia setting begins to show by the end of the first volume Triple Cross, merely repeating the formula in Volume Two. There's certainly no lessening in the quality of the plotting or artwork in Codex Bellum however, which if anything is even slicker than Volume One. Trondheim's script is playful and witty in the traded insults between the two spies, managing also to keep the plot entertaining with twisty developments. Fabrice Parme's cartoony style - a blend of 90s period Disney (Hercules, Mulan), US Golden Age Tex Avery animation and latter-day Goscinny Asterix - is simply gorgeous, capturing a real sense of the character of Venice.