Question - Who in the name of the sacred fishfart would write a bande dessinée about illicit sex in the family crypt, the revolution of 1848, and dysfunctional families?

Answer - Bernard Hislaire, that's who. (Although for Sambre he uses the pseudonym Yslaire.)

And Sambre is that particular chef d'oeuvre.

First appearing in 1986, and published sporadically afterwards (5 volumes so far, the last came out in 2003) Sambre, which I believe is also the name of a river in norther France and Belgium, chronicles the exploits of a somewhat bourgeois family living in France around 1848, the year of the extremely short-lived Second Republic. Well, they aren't grand nobility, but they are well off enough that they have both a town house in Paris and a country estate (if a rather modest one.) The saga opens in midwinter, with the Sambre's father, Hugo, just having been buried. Hugo, to put it mildly, was not quite playing with a full deck. Specifically, he believed in this neverending race war based on the colours of peoples' eyes, or, more correctly, that those people with red eyes had been systematically killed off over the course of history, and it was because of this idea (and because he had a fling with a red-eyed lady at some point) that he killed himself by gouging out his eyes and bleeding to death.

The rest of Hugo's family are not particularly any more salubrious. His wife, Blanche, had a habit of escorting her gentleman friends to the red room. Including her cousin, for that matter. The Sambres also have two children, the elder of whom is named Sarah, and at the time of the strip was about 21 or so, and who, after the funeral, decides to continue her father's anthropotheological dissertation about the "War of Eyes" he believed in. Needless to say, she's a bit deranged as well.

It is their younger offspring, however, that's the main protagonist of the series. Bernard Sambre, aged about 17 or so, suffers from an all-consuming passion for a local poacher girl (and whore's daughter named Julie. Who has red eyes, maims ganders, and is obsessed with him as well. It's this affair that acts as the driving force for the whole saga, as the action switches from the provinces (and the Sambre family crypt, in which Bernard and Julie get it on for the first time) to Paris, which is brewing with the approaching revolution. The emotional intensity of the saga rises quite exponentially from here on in, and, yes, you guessed it, it's all very tragic.

As fucked up as it may sound from this description, Sambre is a thumpingly well written and well drawn comic strip. From an artwork perspective, it is certainly inventive and well accomplished. The artist restricts himself to the use of two main colours - red and black, and shades thereof, to create a bleak, washed-out feeling to it. Indeed, in the first volume, at least, the artwork could well be described as black and white with splashes of deep, sensuous red for Bernard's hair or Julie's eyes. Hislaire does allow himself a slight indulgence in Vol. 3, however, when a whore's bonnet is shown as bottle-green, but that is about it rather.

While sticking to the red and black colour scheme, it must be said, though, that the quality of the artwork increases throughout the series. With gaps of three or more years before the apparition of each new volume, this is only to be expected. What was not expected, however, was that Volume 5 had each frame individually oil-painted (which made up for it being the weakest volume, story-wise, so far, IMHO.) The only criticism I could really make of Hislaire's artwork would probably be that it's not awfully suited to daytime scenes, as he probably learned from Volume I, so now, if it's not set at night, Sambre is set during heavy rain or inside gloomy buildings. This, however, is a good thing and fits the massively dark ambience of the work. Technically, from a comic point of view, it also works; seemingly insignificant touches like the posture Bernard adopts while standing in front of his family portrait and asking his manservant whether he was a good son. Another notable item is the strip's complete lack of any lines or similar to denote movement, making it seem less like a comic or graphic novel than a film committed to paper.

Would I recommend it? Well, yes, I would. Except with one caveat - AFAIK, you can only get Sambre stuff in French, and I don't believe it has been translated into any other languages (I may be wrong on that, if so, /msg me.) Oh, and don't expect anything too light-hearted; one French review site said of it, upon the relase of Vol. 5 in 2003, "Réjouissez-vous et sortez les mouchoirs!" (Transl: "Rejoice and get out your handkerchiefs!") Other than that, and the whole dysfunctionality of several of the characters (actually, on second thoughts, all of them), go for it.

"Plus ne m'est rien..."

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