The Chimera Brigade

Whatever Happened to the European Superhero?

(Happy Comic-Con, everyone! This week we’re back with an exciting new crowd pleaser of a series set to debut this fall from Britain’s Titan Comics. Enjoy!)

They were born on the battlefields of the Great War, amidst the mustard gas and x-ray weapons.

Beyond good and evil, they took over the great European capitals.

Pulp writers made them icons. Their powers fascinated scientists. But in the heart of the old continent, a menace is taking shape, one that may erase even the memory of their existence…

***

Deep in the Austrian Alps, in the heart of Mitteleuropa, a city has risen almost overnight: Metropolis, the technological utopia of Dr. Mabuse. To this secret citadel, he summons the superhumans of Europe. Among the many in attendance are:

  • Harry Dickson, “The American Sherlock Holmes,” fresh off the Gorgon case,
  • Thomas Carnacki, detective of the occult,
  • Felifax the tiger man,
  • Sun-Koh, the last Atlantean,
  • Andrew Gibberne, “The Accelerator,” son of Professor John Gibberne and guardian of London,
  • Leo St. Clair, “The Nyctalope,” protector of Paris, gifted with night vision, hypnotic powers, and an artificial heart…

Not to mention the American delegation, which includes three faces dear to any classic pulp fan’s heart:

Yep, that’s Doc Savage and The Shadow flanking a certain square-jawed upstanding citizen going by the name of Mr. Steele here, ostensibly to keep diplomatic cover and avoid international incident, but really to avoid an infringement suit from DC Comics. In case the cowlick’s not clue enough, he later sheds his tux for the suit beneath.

And those are just the characters not under copyright. Joining the party are a few original twists on existing characters, historical and literary alike. In this alternate 1938, Europe is ruled by a handful of superpowers:

  • the aforementioned Doctor Mabuse, also known as “M” and “Dr. M,” a master hypnotist with an army of Totenkopfs,
  • Gog, the richest man in Europe, who oversees the Balkans and the eastern Mediterranean from his fortress, the New Parthenon,
  • The Falange, a former officer of the Spanish army transformed into a superscience monster by an experimental combat gas. Sworn enemy of the Partisan (the hero without powers), he is allies with Gog and Mabuse.
  • The enigmatic oligarchy “We,”who’ve been the masters of Moscow since the death of the mage Rasputin in 1916. These masked doctors claim “there exists but one superman, invisible, collective, and immortal: the human species itself.” Rumor has it the group consists of several “mad scientists” from the turn of the century (Moreau, Lerne, Cornelius, Persikov). At their disposal is an army in Iron-Man-style (or is it Crimson Dynamo?) mecha-suits under the command of a formidable strategist: Big Brother.
  • One such suit, on loan from the Russian delegation, houses the undercover Irène Curie, daughter of the celebrated scientist.

This guest list is a lovingly curated roster of pulp heroes, many now forgotten. Fans will hopefully be champing at the bit to play spot-the-reference. Dickson is the prolific Belgian Jean Ray’s detective (1929; actually, Ray took over an existing franchise so completely that the character is now identified with him), just as Carnacki is William Hope Hodgson’s (1910). Paul Féval fils created the jungle-born man-cat Felifax in 1929 to counter Tarzan, no “feral child but the result of a biological experiment.” Sun-Koh was Paul Muller’s answer to Doc Savage, an Aryan Doc Savage (as if Robeson’s hero needed to be blonder) in the mold of a Nietzschean übermensch. John Gibberne is the physiologist hero of H.G. Wells’ 1901 story “The New Accelerator,” and his son Andrew, having perfected and stabilized his father’s formula, is basically the Flash in a RAF outfit. Jean de la Hire’s Nyctalope, often hailed as the unjustly neglected “first superhero,” and certainly the first French one, debuted in 1911. And here we have the prototypes of several superhero archetypes: the detective, the beast, the superman, the speedster, and the cyborg. On to the villains.

Though Luxembourgian Norbert Jacques may have created Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler in 1921 for purposes of social commentary, it was director Fritz Lang who made the psychologist and criminal mastermind famous in a trilogy of films. Not only the fate of his creation, mad scientist par excellence, but Lang’s as well, were inextricably bound up with Nazism, and thirty years passed between the second and third films of the series (the third, not based on Jacques’ work, touches on the legacy of WWII). Gog gives overtones of Biblical doom to the protagonist of Giovanni Papini’s 1931 satirical novel Gog, “an eccentric Hawaiian-American millionaire, Goggins, who moves from one private lunatic asylum to another around the world in search of knowledge.” The Falange and the Partisan personify fascist and resistance political tendencies in period Spain. The alternate Russia conflates the One State of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s seminal SF novel with Orwell’s 1984. Moreau is from Wells, as you know (1896), Lerne from Maurice Renard’s Doctor Lerne, Subgod (1908), Dr. Cornelius Kramm, the “Sculptor of Human Flesh,” from Gustave Le Rouge’s The Mysterious Dr. Cornelius (1912 – 13), and Vladimir Ipatievich Persikov from Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Fatal Eggs (1924); all four, from early SF, experiment with human and animal biology.

At this moment I’d like to take time to point out just how many of these titles have been made available to us through the steady, heroic, Herculean efforts of Brian Stableford, working in obscurity for little or no pay. Our heartfelt thanks, and hopes that this new comic stirs interest in your translations.

But back to the party! At his pulpit, Mabuse froths, fumes, and fulminates. “Man is blood, race, war,” he begins, “and the privileges that come with these!”

Man is victory and the rule of the few over the flocks of the conquered! This is the answer Jews and Communists would turn on its head. They dream of a new man. A crowd-man. A herd-man, whose only virtue lies in being equal to the others. But what are we if not beings distinguished by willpower? The people call us Übermenschen; that is no accident. What distinguishes us from the kings of yore is that our power comes from science, not heredity. Yes, man is a thing that must be overcome.We are the next stage of evolution, and we need a land worthy of us.

The powers of France and Britain bristle. Who isn’t at this gathering? Well, the Golem, the last survivor of Europe’s Age of Magic, “Rabbi Loew’s man of clay,” a legendary sage who’s withdrawn to Prague like Yoda to Dagobah. And Prague is precisely what Mabuse wants. But someone’s snuck into the shindig to stop him. Someone very small, almost unnoticeable, who needs protection.

Mabuse would consider him vermin. His name is Gregor Samsa, he knows Mabuse’s secrets, and it’s the mysterious American who saves the day.

***

At the heart of The Chimera Brigade, its inception and genesis, lies an ambitious question. The question is ostensibly one for critics — literary or historical — but authors Serge Lehmann and Fabrice Colin propose to answer it fictionally, with action, conspiracy, and cataclysm. Quite simply: what happened to European superheroes? Not even just heroes, necessarily, but super-powered individuals.

And if the question begs to be read metaphorically, as “Whatever happened to European pulp?” — in its golden age so rich and burgeoning, later completely eclipsed by American output, such that subsequent generations looked only to America for genre, whose name had become synonymous with it, while Europe became the bastion of high literature and character studies — then the word “power” begs metaphorical interpretation: what happened to European power? How did America become the only superpower, technologically and culturally? But the series doesn’t quite go so far. But literal or metaphorical, the answer to the questions, is the same: World War II. The geographical devastation of combat, the moral desolation of the Holocaust, the sheer death toll. The story Lehmann and Colin tell is: why couldn’t European superheroes save the day? And why was so vast a universe, with such energy and drive, forgotten, effaced, or obliterated afterward? Why did the idea of superheroes die out in Europe and migrate to America? I should note that at this point, of a twelve-issue series, I’m only through translating the first six, for November release.

Though billed as a French or pan-European League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Lehmann and Colin’s series, in its encyclopedic reach and cohesion, reads more like Philip José Farmer’s Wold Newton books, or Alan Moore’s vast, guzzling expansion of the original LOEG to the universe of Century and The Black Dossier, devouring English history and literature. There is no super-team at the heart of The Chimera Brigade, or rather, there is, but it’s an original invention; the public domain characters of pulp are largely used to fill out the universe. The authors have certainly done their research, which makes working in it a fun feat of research for me as well. References pile up along the way, as can be expected. Dutilleul, the clerk from Marcel Aymé’s classic short story “The Man Who Walked Through Walls” (commemorated by a statue in Montmartre),

is a secret operative who tries to free Gregor Samsa.

Fantomas, Allain and Souvestre’s gentleman thief; Captain Mors, the “air pirate” attributed to Oskar Hoffmann; Louis Feuillade and Arthur Bernède’s mysterious avenger Judex… Several titles by the Belgian-born J.-H. Rosny aîné, “the second most important figure after Jules Verne in the history of modern French science fiction,” are dropped: “The  Xipehuz” (1887), The Givreuse Enigma (1917).

At the outset at least, superheroes were tied to the hope and despair that accompany accelerated industrial social change. When Verne was writing, France and Britain were at the forefront of the science and technology. It’s this very enthusiasm and fizzy sense of adventure that steampunk tries to reclaim.

For their series, Lehmann and Colin have coined the term radiumpunk to highlight France’s contribution to the atom, that most 20th century of sciences, with reference to the Curies’ research.

Radium is often somehow linked to the powers of their characters, especially the titular Brigade, whom exposure to it liberates.

The Brigade is a foursome locked inside a single man, Dr. Jean Severac, who helped Marie Curie during the Great War. The legendary Brigade was directly responsible for Curie’s personal safety. Its members are The Unknown Soldier, a sword-wielding angel like the statues on war memorials; Matricia, an Earth-goddess type who can make things grow; The Brown Baron, a bear representing brute strength; and Doctor Serum, a skeleton who symbolizes the memento mori of human science.

The Chimera Brigade cross-cuts between the big picture narrative of European geopolitics and the more intimate, traditional origin story of Jean Severac dis-? or re-covering his powers. Secret histories are always so much more exciting in their build, as the end is given; the trick lies in getting to that end a different way, or getting it to mean something new, so the audience doesn’t feel cheated and wonder, How did such a fabulously different history wind up the same shitty way as ours? After all, the task of the alternate history is to make history strange. Most affecting of the authors’ original mortal creations is the androgynous scribe Georges Spad, a surrealist manqué who’s rubbed shoulders with witches and mesmerists. Artist Gess works in a style reminiscent of Mike Mignola, effective at establishing mystery, myth, and a sense of occult conspiracy. The battles — with aliens, giants, robots, and Old Gods — are exhilarating, and occasionally sublime. What more could you want?

The 2009 Utopiales festival of science fiction and fantasy in Nantes hosted an exhibit devoted to The Chimera Brigade. In 2011, it won the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire.

The winner of the John Dryden Translation prize, Clarion alumnus Edward Gauvin has received fellowships and residencies from the NEA, the Fulbright foundation, the Centre National du Livre, and the American Literary Translators’ Association. His volume of Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud’s selected stories, A Life on Paper (Small Beer, 2010) won the Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Award. Other publications have appeared in F&SF, LCRW, Podcastle, Pseudopod, Postscripts, Subtropics, Conjunctions, Tin House, and PEN America. He is the contributing editor for Francophone comics at Words Without Borders, and translates comics for Top Shelf, Archaia, and Self Made Hero.

6 replies to “The Chimera Brigade

  1. Pingback: Bookmarks of the Week: From Old Polymaths to European Superheroes | Portable Homeland

  2. Not to ring in the new year with a downer, but sadly the English publication of this series has been cancelled by Archaia (though not for aesthetic reasons). Rights have reverted to the French publisher, who is currently seeking interested English, American, Canadian, or Australian parties. My translation for the first six issues is complete, should any enterprising editors wish to read it. Drop a reply and I’ll put you in touch!

  3. Was very disappointed to hear that this wasn’t coming out after all. I’d been really looking forward to reading it. Any news on some other company picking it up? Could I pretend to be an enterprising editor so I get to read it? :P

  4. Phil, last I heard a small British press picked it up. That was in May. Don’t want to get your hopes up, though: no news since. That can mean anything from the deal fell through, or it’s just being finalized. As for your second question, why not write me through my website?

  5. I’m happy to announce the series will be released starting this December by Britain’s Titan Comics!

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