Granted, we’re skirting the definition of “Eurocomics” a bit with this one given that Max de Radigues’ Bastard was originally serialized in mini-comics form by an American publisher (specifically Chuck Forsman’s Oily Comics), but de Rodigues hails from Belgium and brings a decided “outsider’s perspective” to a couple of classic slices of Americana, namely the sprawling landscape of the Southwest and the venerable “criminals on the run” take on the larger “road movie” genre, so forgive me stretching the category out a bit to —“but wait!,” I hear you say, “This isn’t a movie!”
Says you. And while you’re absolutely right on a purely technical level, in point of fact, this new graphic novel collection of de Rodigues’ complete story from Fantagraphics (several pages of which appear to have been either completely re-drawn, or substantially “tightened up” with new, thicker, more fluid inks) plays out with all the pacing and sensibility of a Terence Malick flick, and maybe even some of the same dream-like qualities Malick so often brings to his work. One could even make a strong argument that what de Radigues has created here is a complete set of storyboards for an as-yet-non-existent film.
The basics, then, even though they prove to be anything but : May and her pre-teen son, Eugene, share an amazingly resilient bond, the likes of which comics rarely sees, and they’re going to need it because they’re on the run after taking part in a daring series of 52 simultaneous robberies in the same small Arizona town. The various perpetrators are all looking to “lie low” until the heat dies down and the time comes to gather the survivors (not every robbery was as successful as some of the others) and divvy up the take before everyone presumably goes their separate ways for good, but that’s not so easy to do with a kid in tow and most of the cash from the various hauls in your possession, though, to say nothing of your fellow hoods coming after you in order to increase their share of the loot.
May is nothing if not resourceful, though, and as events play out Eugene is revealed to be doubly so, but it’s going to take a sprawling cast of characters including old friends who are anything but, new friends who actually are, Native American shamans and, yes, even family to get out of this one piece — assuming they do. But with de Radigues, trust me — you never want to assume anything.
The cartooning in this book seethes with a kind of no-frills immediacy that nevertheless has a keen eye for the nuances of its characters, so keep a sharp eye out for differences in facial expressions, posture, movement, etc. as well as the “big moments,” like a double-page spread of a — nah, that would be telling — that will knock your socks off. de Radigues has a slightly askew take on gunfights (again, I put it down to his being European and therefore culturally “deprived” of gun violence in any form apart from on the movie screen) that is fresh, dynamic, and invigorating for its absolute disconnection from reality; his desert landscapes, while simply rendered, are tinged at the outskirts with a kind of awe that, say, a native-born Southwesterner probably wouldn’t bother with, considering it all to simply be “old hat”; hell, even the most blase of locales, such as seedy motel rooms, are infused with just a hint of romanticism, as if the cartoonist considers them to be completely mundane, yet also slightly exotic at the same time. In short, for what appears to be a fairly “basic” style of illustration, there’s actually quite a bit of visual information to unpack and analyze in here.
As hinted at earlier, the story is also much more than it seems, as well, with surprises big and small liberally scattered throughout, but if Bastard has one flaw (and relax, it’s far from a fatal one), it’s that in his third act de Radigues abruptly shifts gears from his minimalist, economic dialogue to some heavy and clumsy info-dumping as he over-explains his last, most staggering plot twist. It doesn’t lessen the impact of said major revelation in the least, but it represents a curious stylistic mis-fire at the very end of a book that, frankly, has no others preceding it — so all in all, then, that adds up to a very strong endorsement for this utterly unique story that is equal parts gritty and warm, hard-edged and tender, violent and sublime.