Thursday, March 17, 2016

Recommended Reading for 3/17: Bandette

There are a lot of words I could use to describe Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover's Bandette, words like charming, clever, romantic (mostly in the sense of mystery and glamour and not romantic love, but there's a touch of that too). It is an utterly delightful series that is the perfect cure if you're down in the dumps from all the too serious, too dark comics you might be reading.

Bandette is the world's greatest thief who also just happens to be a teenage girl.  Living in Paris, she steals from the unworthy, mostly criminals, and returns many of the pieces to the insurance companies for the rewards; I say many because she does keep a treasure trove of her own. She does all of this with grace, a sense of adventure, a wide smile, and a cry of "Presto!" She's a thief with a heart of absolute gold and a quirky sense of humor.

And like so many of her progenitors like Sherlock Holmes, The Shadow, and Doc Savage, Bandette has her band of helpers, which she calls her Urchins, to help her make her astonishing getaways when the owners of the ill gotten gains she is "acquiring" are in pursuit. These include Daniel, a Thai food delivery guy who has the least veiled crush in the world on Bandette, the three ballerinas Adalind, Mannon, and Kiyomi, a band of teens lead by a girl named Freckles, and a young girl named Belda. Oh, and while Bandette often likens herself to a cat, and has an affinity for them, she has a pet dog, Pimento, who dons a cape and mask and sometimes adventures with his master.

And what would a master thief be without police officers? Of course, since Bandette isn't your usual rogue, her relationship with the police is somewhat different, with her main police contact, Inspector B.D. Belgique not only having a grudging respect for Bandette, but calling upon her aid when it comes to dealing with more dangerous criminals. Always at Belgique's side is Lieutenant Heloise Price, whose crush on Belgique is only a shade less adorable than Daniel's crush on Bandette.

The first two volumes of Bandette form one big arc, telling the story of Bandette dealing with both a rival and an enemy. The rival is Monsieur, a gentleman thief in the classic mold: educated, erudite, and suave. There are those who believe he is the greatest thief in the world, and he and Bandette maintain a friendly air between them, It is friendly enough that, while on a job of his, Monsieur overhears the plans of Absinthe, the leader of an international criminal syndicate called FINIS, planning the death of Bandette, and Monsieur contacts her and tries to warn her, only to be ambushed by FINIS agents and their top assassin, Matadori, a matador themed hitwoman who banters with Badette as much as she attempts to fulfill her job.

Volume one sets up all these characters and the stakes, and volume two moves us into the great contest. Monsieur has a list of seven of Absinthe's prized possessions, given to him by Absinthe's femme fatale, Margot, who has grown disenchanted with Absinthe's cold, ruthless ways, things like an existing copy of Shakespeare's lost Cardenio, and he and Bandette set out to see who can steal the most. And Absinthe is sending a much more frightening assassin after Bandette, Il Tredici, the Strangler. It's an action packed volume as we get to see Bandette pulling capers and Monsieur invading Absinthe's house, and getting into a game of cat and mouse with the guards, all while Bandette is tracked implacably by Il Tredici. There are set pieces like a fight on a plane, a police raid of Absinthe's manor, and delicious pastries, described in a way that made me want to run to the local bakery as soon as I could.

Tobin and Coover find a way to keep these stakes very high but still make the book accessible to all ages. Sure, there's gun play, but no blood. Absinthe and Il Tredici are truly scary nemeses (especially Il Tredici. In the backmatter for volume two, Coover comments that her inspirations for Il Tredici's look come from James Coburn and Henry Fonda, but when I first saw him Boris Karloff jumped immediately to mind). There's action, and a plot that moves forward at breakneck pace, but the book never stops being fun. And that's probably what helps it the most: Bandette is an inherently fun character, and she moves with such confidence that, while you might be worried for her, she never seems too worried about herself. In his introduction to volume one, Paul Cornell says he thinks that rating of 15+ for this book is over-cautious, and I have to agree: I think there are far worse role models for a little girl (or boy) than a thief/magician who is smart and fun.

The language of the book is light and interestingly accented. Little bits of French pop up here and there, all words that are common in English, or easily translated, and the way the dialogue is written seems like English translated from French, with a very continental style, without using awkward and clumsy accents. And speaking of writing, I have to say that Bandette and Monsieur especially love books. That love of books and the written word warms a fellow bibliophile's heart and endears the two of them to me even more than they would have been as just wonderful characters.

If you're unfamiliar with Colleen Coover's art, well, then you should get on that, whether it's here, her adult comic, Small Favors, her delightful all ages mini-series (also with Tobin), Banana Sunday (the story of a teenage girl and her friends, three talking monkeys. Yeah, it's out of print right now, but I have to dig that one up for a Lost Legends column soon), or the back-ups in the X-Men: First Class comics. Her style is light and airy, perfectly suited to Bandette, with wonderfully expressive faces, which is something I always look for in an artist. Her Bandette moves like a dancer, and that sense of joy and motion comes through in every panel our titular heroine is on. The layouts for the pages are normally in a nine panel grid, but the panels across each row are often linked to make bigger panels. This makes for easy reading, and it another reason it would be an excellent book to give to a new, younger comics reader.

Aside from this main story, each volume of Bandette collects a group of short, two to five page shorts featuring various members of Bandette's Urchins, allies, and rogues. These shorts give the readers a real feel for the characters who would otherwise be cute background. I especially like the Heloise one and the two Monsieur ones from volume one and the Daniel and Pimento ones from volume two. Each short has a different artist, so you get to see the characters in different styles, which is always a treat. There is also a short story with each volume, the first being Daniel's narration of an adventure with, and how he met, Bandette, which is romantic and charming, the second featuring Absinthe's traitorous, and thus better natured, femme fatale, Margot. These are deeper dives into the characters, and are both really exciting.

I read a lot of comics, and I like to strike a balance between all the genres I'm a fan of. And a lot of those genres, like modern super-hero, horror, suspense, spy, and science fiction are often serious and pretty dark. Bandette is the perfect cure for all that. I read both hardcover collections in the course of one  day, and put them down feeling refreshed and cheered in a way I haven't in a long time. Bandette is a comic that reminds you about the joy comics can bring.

Two collections of Bandette are available, published by Dark Horse, Presto! and Stealers, Keepers!. New issues are released digitally through Monkey Brain Comics; two issues beyond the ones collected are currently available.

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