Blake and Mortimer

The next adventure in the ongoing Blake and Mortimer saga has just dropped.

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Blake et Mortimer

Captain Francis Blake and Professor Philip Mortimer are close friends. In the earlier books they live together in an apartment opposite Green Park on Piccadilly.

The first series was created by Edgar P Jacobs. The books originally took an idealistic image of Britain as a land of gentlemen, clubs, good whiskey. Initially a thriller type series, the stories became more fantastical.

It was originally published between the 1950s and 1970s and each book reflected the contemporary technologies and fashions.

Since Jacobs’ death there have been continuation books which are generally set in a 1950s world, with sci-fi esque technology of the period. It’s not quite diesel punk, but perhaps it can be called atomic punk.

The original series was drawn in the classic ligne claire style of Franco-Belguim comics. It is visually similar to Tintin, but has a more cinematic style that focuses on technological details. Some of the images of London combine a realism and an evocative fantasy with such panache that it is surprising they  aren’t better known.

Many of the continuation books (such as the Septimus Wave) continue this classic style. In The Last Pharaoh the artists François Schuiten and Laurent Durieux have developed a more gritty and contemporary style. The heroes look older and more weathered.

The Last Pharaoh (Plot spoilers)

This book is a continuation of the earlier Mystery of the Great Pyramids published between 1954 and 55 in two volumes.

It starts with the two heroes waking up in the Pyramid of Cheops at the end of this series.

Then several years later the scene shifts to Brussels where a strong electro-magnetic force has been discovered behind a wall covered in hieroglyphs in the Palace of Justice . Blake’s friend Henri smashes the wall and enters into the gap. An explosion shakes the building.

Eleven years later, Brussels is a no go area. The energy still pulsates from the Palace of Justice, even though a Faraday cage has been built around it. The buildings of the city have crumbled and her proud streets have returned to nature. Deer and wild dogs stalk the boulevards.

Mortimer is haunted by nightmares of a sinister figure (at once both Seth/Anubis, and at other times Bastet).

After a black out affects the world’s electrical systems (which appear to be from the eighties), Blake calls up his old friend. The UN want to bomb the city. Mortimer thinks this might have a cataclysmic knock on effect. Blake asks him to investigate before the button is pressed.

Mortimer is parachuted into a post-Anthropocene city. A bucolic paradise has developed in the heart of the polis, with lush vegetation and small holdings in the deserted skyscrapers and tower blocks. Mortimer meets Lisa, a leader of sorts of this community. A daughter of refugees who sought shelter in Belgium and made the city their home.

Mortimer travels to the Palace of Justice by boat, along flooded streets. In the building he confronts his old friend Henri.

Lisa is the daughter of Abdel Razek, a priest of Amon. She reveals that Mortimer is in fact the Last Pharaoh.

The book ends with the lights still switched off,  but everyone a little happier with sail boats on the Thames and hot air balloons above Brussels.

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Ancient History

History haunts these pages.

Lisa is a granddaughter of a priest-magician. Egypt was notorious for magic and mystery during the Greek and Roman period.

Mortimer is given a gold amulet of Horus, which he uses to protect himself. Amulets containing images of Horus was very popular, according to Pliny. Several amulets with Egyptian gods have been found from across the Roman empire. Depending on the stone and design, these gems protected against evil, created powerful sexual urges in the opposite sex or ease bloating amongst other uses. In Egypt, amulets were worn by the dead to protect them on their final journeys.

As a result of the force field, the gods of Egypt reveal their secrets through dreams. This was something that happened in ancient Egyptian religion. It probably inspired similar Greek practices around the healing god Asclupius and even the tale of Joseph the dream interpreter. A notable case of dream prophecy is the story of the Last Pharaoh Nectanebo II in the Alexander Romance.

Mortimer suffers nightmares of an Egyptian god. Like many Egyptian gods, Seth was identified with an animal but the “Seth animal” has never been identified. The book’s front cover shows a statue of Seth with square ears, but in his dreams Mortimer sees a figure with pointed ears. In many ways, these are the main differences in the portrayal of Seth and Anubis. Although the two figures were different, they are visually very similar and even today archaeologists struggle to identify which god is intended on items such as gems were the details are less precise. Seth was also portrayed as other animals including donkeys, flamingoes and as a crocodile. The iconography of George and the Dragon may have been partly inspired by images of Horus and Seth.

Behind all these plot strands hides the goddess Isis, a powerful magician who revealed herself through dreams and protected her worshippers.

 

Modern History

Yet there is also the history of colonialism and European scholarship’s problematic relationship with ancient Egyptian (which it calls a “discovery”). The ideal of a mythical East that was eternal and unchanging was famously critiqued by Edward Said in his classic book Orientalism. Yet it is something that still happens.

In The Last Pharaoh the wisdom of Egypt has survived for centuries undiscovered.

To make this criticism is, perhaps, slightly unfair given the comic’s themes which regularly combined ancient history with technological speculation. One novel was based on the myth of Atlantis, for example. The conceit of continuous wisdom from the East also plays a part in the Masonic identification with Egypt.

Yet there is something about the Western gaze in the comic’s presentation of Egyptian magic.

Unlike many European capitals, Brussels is beginning to engage with its colonial past in a more open and honest way. The reopened Africa Museum has been seen as an opportunity to make sure that the brutal history of colonial is shared. To gloss over colonialism blunts some of the graphic novel’s narrative force. It also does a disservice to the books themselves. The book should have engaged more explicitly with this complexity and ambiguity.

Yet The Last Pharaoh also reminds readers of the importance of Egypt and its service of passing learning and culture onto the Greeks and then the Romans and then “the West”.

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The professor stops. “But gadzooks, Egypt was always there and I never saw it”. (The Palace of Justice in Brussels was designed in the Eclectic style and contains statues from Assyria and Egypt).

 

Summary

Overall a good read, with topical overtones.

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