Not content to let their pop passions go unloved by the masses, Loser City staff have banded together to provide Pop Rehabilitation to the works that have been unjustly maligned and forgotten. Up first is the post-apocalyptic European epic Jeremiah, which is in desperate need of rehabilitation after its chief exposure to American audiences came via a crap Showtime adaptation from J. Michael Straczynski that had nearly nothing to do with the original work. Luckily, Shea Hennum is here to prove why the work deserves a
second umpteenth lease on life.
Hermann’s Jeremiah is an underappreciated comic—full stop, no qualification. But it’s not underappreciated because of some underserved critical derision or some revisionist hate. In fact, quite the opposite. It’s underappreciated because there is no critical consensus surrounding the series—at least, there isn’t in the United States. It’s both a critical and commercial success in the Franco-Belgian markets, as well as being quite successful in the German and—get this—Serbian markets.
Originally appearing in Zack, a German comics magazine, Jeremiah began in 1979 and has been published regularly in French in album format since then—with some even appearing first in perennial Franco-Belgian magazines like Metal Hurlant and Spirou—with a new one appearing nearly every year since then, with the most recent release, Tome 33: Un Gros Chien Avec Une Blonde, dropping as recently as September of this year.
There have been several attempts to introduce Jeremiah into the American comics market—first by Fantagraphics in the ‘80s, then by both Catalan Communications and Adventure Comics in the early ‘90s, with Dark Horse trying briefly in the early ‘00s—but none of them have been long lived. Dark Horse launched their second attempt with Strip Art Features back in 2012 with a series of omnibus editions that collected three albums at a time. They appear to have stalled at three volumes, but, with an equivalent nine volumes translated, this has been the most successful attempt yet.
This basic inability to make inroads into the American market (The first printing of Dark Horse’s first omnibus was limited to just 500 copies and was a direct market exclusive…) has no doubt contributed to this lack of public discourse—critical or otherwise—about the series, which is a real shame, especially as we wrap up 2014 with a wave of bandes dessinées [French comics – ed.] releases from the likes of Sergio Toppi, Hugo Pratt, Phillipe Druillet, and Bengal. It’s also ironic that, though it’s been a commercial disappointment in this country as a comic, the series was able to garner a…wait for it…Showtime adaptation created by J. Michael Straczynski (!) that starred Luke Perry (!), Malcolm Jamal-Warner (!), and Sean Astin (!), and had the good sense to label its off-screen apocalypse “The Big D.” It ran for two seasons, and was absolutely horrible. Don’t… don’t watch that thing…
But in typical JMS fashion, even if you have seen that show, you still have no idea what Jeremiah the comic is even about, because other than the names of the two lead characters, the show and the comic have literally nothing in common.
The comic is considerably less complicated than the television series, and it concerns a pair of friends (Jeremiah and Kurdy) as they travel through the United States following a horrific nuclear race war that occurred some years prior, which is explicated really beautifully in this single-page Eisensteinian montage of atemporal images (fists and riots and explosions and wastelands) that actually opens the series, and is all the exposition about the state of the world that we get. Each album is self-contained, though there are some serial elements that stick to the series and congeal, growing organically outward.
A kind of grown-up version of the popular adventure series of the ‘60s (The Adventures of Tintin et al.), the series pairs its aimless wandering with a considerable amount of violence and nudity, though it never really gets more explicit than something you’d see on basic cable—in both regards. (Though, the first album ends with this, like, “What if William Friedkin directed The Birds” sequence that is pretty hardcore (the bad guy in that first book is an out-and-out Bond villain, too)).
The mononymous Hermann both writes and illustrates the series, which is really the highlight of the work. Because of the events that precede the series, it becomes this dystopic romp that’s functionally both a sci-fi series and a Western one, so you get opportunities to get both these frontier/pioneer narrative elements as well as the typical post-apocalypse ones. Jeremiah is actually Hermann’s follow-up to the series Comanche, which was a Western series he created with writer Greg, and this series belies Hermann’s familiarity with both the narrative and visual iconography of Westerns, which is alternatively presented as something to be taken at face value and something that’s been subverted by Hermann in these classically post-modern ways.
Herman’s rendering is similar to a lot of other Franco-Belgian artists—Francois Boucq and George Bess are both cartoonists who come to mind, though the way Hermann renders hair and eyes is dissimilar from both of them (someone with a deeper knowledge of pre-Metal Hurlant BD cartoonists than me would probably be able to discern where Hermann gets it). There are these proto-typically ‘80s bande dessinee flourishes to the way Hermann draws the semi-intangibles, too: smoke, clouds, plumes of dust and dirt. His line is thin and wispy, with this attentive precision and restless propensity for curves which is impressively constructed in the first two albums with a brush (Hermann switched to a rotring with album three). And Hermann’s hatching oscillates between the sandy, sun-dried line of Jean Giraud’s Blueberry and the grotesque smoothness of Richard Corben’s signature line.
But for me the two stand out elements of Hermann’s art that really make Jeremiah worth reading is his color work and his panel-to-panel storytelling.
As so little information about his work exists in English, I can’t say for certain, but I believe that Hermann paints all his pages, which gives them this wonderfully rough sense of tactility. His palette is carefully selected and favors a literality, so everything is painted the color that it is. But Hermann is an attentive, detailed painter with a strong eye for gradation, and the desert landscapes allows him the opportunities to paint these vivid oranges and reds. And that attentiveness finds its way into Hermann’s construction of the collage, and the colors of each panel, these cordoned off components of a larger single image, blend together into a beautiful eye-catching page. The settings are spacious and desolate, but these color schemes and the way Hermann composes these pages so the panels slip between these bloody Cormac McCarthy warms and these soft cools of something like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind creates this kaleidoscopic alternation that’s aesthetically pleasing and visually engaging. Jeremiah really is just a flat-out beautiful comic.
Fortunately, Jeremiah isn’t just a beautiful comic. Attractive art and good cartooning are not the same thing after all, and Hermann demonstrates a strong aptitude for cartooning and devotion to craft that’s enough to make even his more recent altogether-uninspired works (like Afrika) good for at least a single read. One scene in particular comes to mind when I think about the acumen of Hermann’s storytelling, which occurs about halfway through the second album: a young mentally disabled man watches on as a soldier receives ten lashes. Hermann holds on the face of the man, bathing him in this deep blue light, which highly stylizes the scene in this almost Dario Argento way; the man cringes in one panel and in the second he has to avert his eyes from the gruesome brutality; in the gutter between the panels is the numbers counting down “9, 8, 7, 6…”, with the numbers getting smaller and fading farther into the background as they count down. It’s a sequence that only takes place over three panels, but the way Hermann renders that man’s face, the way it contorts and cringes, coupled with that color-coding and the way those ten lashes are elegantly compressed… It communicates such an intensity that is underscored by that album’s just bleak, brutal ending.
Hermann is certainly one of the more underappreciated Euro comics artists in the US, but that’s not to say that Jeremiah is a deeply-felt treatise on the human condition that will be the thing that finally convinces you to move out to a cabin in the woods and live a Spartan existence of fasting and mediation. It is, however, representative of that area of comics that Kim Thompson always advocated: above average, gorgeously illustrated genre fare that is accessible to readers both casual and hardcore.
Shea Hennum is a Texas-based writer who currently serves as the lead writer about comics for This Is Infamous. His work has also been featured at The Comics Alternative, eFantasy, The Fringe Magazine, and Schlock. Essays of his will be included as backmatter in upcoming issues of Shutter from Image Comics, and he can found as sheahisself on both Twitter and Tumblr.