Monday, November 24, 2014

Review: JOAN

Before we all stuff ourselves silly with food, let's take a look at one last historical manga, an overlooked masterpiece from the creator of Gundam: The Origin.

JOAN, by Yoshikazu Yasuhiko.  First published in 1995, and first published in North America in 2001.

Emil (born Emily) is the orphaned illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Lorraine.  She was saved by one of the Duke's followers who disguised her as a boy to protect her identity.  Now Emil is a young woman who wants to fight for her country as well as to emulate her own personal hero, Joan of Arc.  Emil heads off to Tourelles to meet with the other nobles and officially pledge herself to the cause, guided by visions of Joan in various stages of her life.  When Emil gets there, she discovers that she has allied herself to the dauphin Louis, a noxious bully who wants only to claim the kingdom for himself.  Now Emil finds herself questioning everything that has driven her to this point, even her visions of Joan of Arc, wondering if she has tied herself to an ignoble cause.

I was expecting this to be a simple retelling of the life of Joan of Arc.  While it does serve as a sort of biography, Joan is more focused on exploring how Joan's life affected the land and people left behind after her death.

Mind you, if anyone had to walk in Joan's footsteps, few are as qualified as Emil.  She is a steely and determined woman, one who is driven to protect her family, her identity, her homeland, and her king.  She is surprisingly unfazed by her visions of Joan, as Joan herself reflects on her life and urges Emil onward.  Is Emil having divine visions like Joan did herself, or is it all simply a figment of her imagination, a projection of her own beliefs and desires?  Yasuhiko seems determined to keep mum on the matter, letting the reader decide for themselves.  She certainly serves as contrast to those around her, the noble youth trying to convince her jaded elders of something greater than themselves.  In Emil many see the echoes of Joan, but any lofty ideals they might have held died with Joan, and now most are simply trying to survive.

Admittedly, this story will make a lot more sense to those who know something of the events of the Hundred Years' War.  The story does it best to keep the chain of events clear and the book is loaded with translation notes to explain who is who and what is what.  Nonetheless, it throws a lot of names and titles about without a lot of context, and without it some of the impact is lost as well.  In particular, a little research goes a long way towards giving context to our ostensible villain, that scheming little bastard Louis, first-born son of King Charles VII.  He quickly demonstrates himself to be a megalomaniacal bully, one that is hungry for power and fighting solely to prove that he is a better leader than his father the king.  Louis comes off as a cartoonish figure on the page, but history proves that Yasuhiko didn't take a great deal of liberty with him.  The real Louis was that much of a bastard, one who opposed his father to his dying day and at the time of the story really was plotting a rebellion against him.  Louis may want for a mustache to twirl in an evil manner, but you can't say that he was misrepresented.

Joan uses a tumultuous time in French history to show how people can be affected when a real hero dies.  To some the hero becomes inspiration; to other, that same hero becomes little more than a fond memory or just a name to exploit for their own cause.

The story is good, but the artwork is even better.  First and foremost, this series is published in full color, with large watercolored panels stretching cover to cover.  I especially liked his use of bold, monochrome washes of color to convey both mood and setting, be it the cold, dark purples and blues of the wilderness, the golden yellows of sunny days and happier times in the past, the sickly green of the big city, or the fiery oranges and red during times of turmoil and threat. 

The character designs are handsome and grounded, although Yasuhiko has always tended to make his villains more cartoony than his heroes.  As such, Louis and his allies tend to have larger, more slanted eyes and bigger, broader expressions.  He also has a hard time making his leads NOT look like Amuro Ray, as Emil looks essentially like a slightly softer version of him with a Prince Valiant haircut.  Still, he clearly put a lot of effort and research into making the backgrounds and costumes as historically accurate as possible, although he tends to let things get a bit more Impressionistic during Emil's visions.  Honestly, the only artwork here that doesn't work is the front cover, which is far too Spartan to appeal and doesn't begin to suggest the beauty that lies beneath it.

Luckily, that plain cover is in fact a book jacket that can be removed.  Unluckily, the cover underneath is even more plain, featuring just the title over a light brown marble pattern.  As noted before, there are quite a few pages of notes and essays afterwards explaining various historical references in the story, the Hundred Years' War, and the life of Joan of Arc for some very necessary context.

This is a great historical drama with equally magnificent art, and anyone interested in seeing what Yasuhiko can do outside of Gundam should check this series out.

This series was published by Comics One.  The series is complete in 3 volumes, and all are currently out of print

You can purchase manga like this and much more through!

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