There is another world.
We are not aware of this world,
But it is aware of us.
The Cités Obscures is a series of comics, stories and... things by Benoît Peeters and François Schuiten, started some time in the Eighties, that decade of hate and dread. When I say »things«, you need to understand that this includes two subway stations, a museum, and part of a façade in Brussels, so you know this isn't exactly the Smurfs we're dealing with, here.
But it started out as a comic. This writeup is mostly about the comic. Which is equally because that forms the core of the thing, and because I don't nearly have any of the other stuff. And the comic is hard enough to explain, because... well, it's mostly pictures, right? And these are words. So.
Alright, listen. Suppose Calvino and Borges wrote a comic together, and forced some crazy vat-brewed son of Mœbius and McCay to draw it. That's what it's like. If you like one of these people's work, you will probably enjoy Cités Obscures; if you like all of them, it's like a syringe of hot glee injected into the base of your skull.
A man in a city on the brink of war sets forth as a spy to another city, but... its fabled walls are easily passed, and the people of the city act suspiciously...
In the world of the Obscure Cities, society seems to have organized into city-states; like the Venice of days gone by, the territory may be large, but the city is all. Often these cities correspond to European cities; it is not difficult to work out which are the analogues of Pâhry, or Brüsel — and when it comes to Galatograd and its territory of Sodrovno-Voldachie, the question is perhaps, To where does this not correspond? — but if anyone can work out a counterpart to Xhystos, I'd like to hear it.
These cities contain passages to their Earthly counterparts, in odd corners of out-of the way places: perhaps you shouldn't lean too hard against that odd mural? Is there really a Number 81 tram line in this town? Isn't there something creepy about that narrow alley? Mostly it is things that will fall through. A book, a map perhaps. Sometimes it will be people; Jules Verne supposedly visited several times, intentionally, drawing inspiration from the strange machinery of that unknown otherworld. His books remain popular there as here. Another visitor is Augustin Desombres, a French painter believed insane in his time, who nigh-manically painted and spoke of a different, another world...
A celebrated architect receives a gift of a metal cube, oddly warm to the touch, from some amateur »archæologists«.
The next morning, the cube has grown stuck to his desk...
Strange things happen in the Obscure World. It is one big piece of magical realism. The stories that play out in it are a sort of opaque fable, a moral homily on some inexplicable type of sin, social commentary on ills yet to be invented, where only the didactic intent is clear. Or perhaps, if you turn your head to be thirty degrees askew from the rest of the world, it all resolves into an intelligible whole. Or maybe it's just pseudomystical rot of the sort the French have made themselves so known and parodied for. Only you can tell. And you should.
At this point, I must make a confession: I have been intently avoiding any comment on the most important element of the comics. That is because it is very difficult to me, both from a philosophical perspective and in practical terms. However: The art. The. Art. Is. Astounding. It is marvelous. It is like nothing you have ever seen anywhere else, or will again, perhaps. Oh, in terms of technical skill François Schuiten is not unique, no, nothing like unique: very technically capable, but no more so than hundreds of other artists, dozens of comics artists. It's what he uses that skill for that makes the difference: a hundred architectural panoramas of note-perfect style and boundless imagination — and the characters move about in them. True to its name, the series isn't even really about those characters: it's about the cities themselves, and their various characters and fates.
Perhaps you will not agree with me on this matter of taste. In fact, I assume at least some of you won't; strange otherwise, taste being what it is. I strongly endorse that. But you should at least find out for yourselves.
A book by Blossfeldt falls into the Obscure World — and if you don't know who that is, then that's okay too — and the people who find it,
Right, where do I get the goods?
unfamiliar with magnification photography, believe them to be images of giant plants...
Well, most of it was never translated into English. The best thing is to speak French, of course; second-best is German or Danish, both of which languages I believe the entire series has been translated into. Failing that, NBM
put out some of the albums, but, for the most part, didn't do so well. In English translations, the series is called Cities of the Fantastic, which is, of course, an unbelievable pile of rot
. The English editions also suffer from various flaws, from the bad blocking-out of French and poorly-fitting replacement text in Brüsel to the shitty printing in Fever in Urbicand (we will avoid discussing the translation of the title at this time). I own the French edition of this latter album, in hardcover; a friend, the English softcover, which cost him as much as mine did me. Consequently, I have been able to compare them side by side, and can say this with some degree of certainty: the English printing is terrible. A frequent problem is way, way too much ink applied, turning large parts of panels into solid black where things are visible in the original. This is not something you should endorse with your money. The English version of The Invisible Frontier
is nice, however. You could buy those two albums. Update, a decade later: Alaxis Press
has finally started producing English translations of the comics in decent quality, albeit very slowly! They're currently being published by IDW
If you do read French, it's a short bop to the Casterman
site, and there's no reason you should buy the translations. Avaunt, laggard!
A genius young mapmaker is enlisted in creating a three-dimensional map of his country, but when the imperialist government wants the map »clarified«
to better show the justification for their intended conquest, the birthmarks on a girl's back may be the only way to preserve the truth...
The following albums are by no means all that has been put out for the Cités Obscures, but they should all be readily available:
Les Murailles de Samaris
La Fièvre d'Urbicande
La Route d'Armilia
L'Écho des Cités
Mary la Penchée*
Le Guide des Cités
L'Ombre d'un Homme
La Frontiére Invisible, 1 & 2
La Théorie du Grain de Sable, 1 & 2
Souvenirs de l'Éternel Présent
The official website is http://www.urbicande.be. Éditions Casterman reside where you would expect to find them, at http://www.casterman.fr.