The Adventures of Theodore Poussin Vol.1: Captain Steen
Frank Le Gall (Writer and Artist)
Dupuis (Belgium), Europe Comics (English)
19 September, 2018
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Dunkirk. December, 1927. Theodore Poussin longs for more than his administrative job at a freighting office of a large shipping company, where he documents the names of places he would rather see for himself. Fortunately, Poussin’s kindly superior, Monsieur Sénard, helps him get a posting on board the Cap Padaran headed for Indochina.
I was excited to read this first volume of The Adventures of Theodore Poussin. It looked whimsical and reminded me of Tintin, which I love. Plus, who doesn’t love a sea-faring adventure? Poussin was created by Frank Le Gall in 1984, and this volume collects a number of the stories as one self-contained tale.
Poussin comes from sea-stock. His father worked on a tugboat and his uncle, the mysterious Captain Steene, sailed to Asia and became a pilot in Haiphong, China before his unexplained death in 1916. The stories about Steene have lived with Poussin for years, and he hopes to find his uncle’s grave when he visits Haiphong.
On the eve of Poussin’s departure, while celebrating his upcoming voyage with his friends, Poussin is approached by a forbidding figure who calls himself Monsieur November. November interrupts the revelries to share some quotes from French poet Charles Baudelaire about the ills of travel. His words and demeanour are threatening and dampen the mood, but Poussin sails nonetheless.
Initially, there are no hiccups in the voyage, but November’s dark words, and darker presence, follow Poussin throughout his journey. Then at Haiphong, Poussin’s search for his uncle’s grave takes a turn for the bizarre. There is more to his uncle’s story than Poussin can possibly imagine but uncovering the truth is going to be dangerous. Should he ever have gone out to sea?
The art is whimsical and attractive, particularly the landscapes which are stunning, but old-fashioned. However, it is really the story that left much to be desired. The plot is needlessly convoluted. We have Poussin’s voyage, the mysterious November, Captain Steene’s past, and a guerrilla war on the border of China. All this in just 50 pages. None of the plotlines are well-developed. There just isn’t enough space to explore them.
Poussin as a protagonist has no personality. He is described as a pencil-pusher with great aspirations, but what is his state of mind about being on the journey he’s waited his whole life for? We never get to experience his inner world. Thus, he never manages to keep the reader’s interest. I found myself jumping all over the page, because I was hoping that Poussin was merely a distraction from more interesting elements. Sadly not.
The inclusion of Monsieur November seems like it hadn’t been thought through. Is he a real person? Is he metaphysical? Does he exist in Poussin’s mind? Instead of being a tangible multi-dimensional character, November feels like a catch-all to fill in plot holes. It doesn’t work. Aside from Poussin, no other characters get any development whatsoever. What’s more aggravating is the lack of female characters. We get a few panels of Poussin’s mother and sister, and there is one more woman, and she comes in right at the end. What we have is yet another adventure story that believes women should stay at home while the men go out adventuring.
As a whole, the supernatural elements of this story feel crowbarred in to add suspense. A couple of fever dream sequences are tied into incidents in the latter half of the book but have no actual practical value. Are we to assume that Poussin has some kind of precognitive or psychic ability? There is nothing in the text to back this up, so the reader is left confused.
For me, what made this book extremely hard to read was the outdated politics of it. As it is set in the 1920s and features French protagonists traveling to East Asia, there are some very questionable terms used to describe the East Asians. There has to be commentary within the text of the book that calls out the Frenchmen’s attitudes towards anyone who is non-white. As it stands now, this book consciously alienates readers of color.
I found a quote from creator Le Gall that puts things further in perspective. On publishing the book, he spoke of the setting thus: “I only opted for 1920s Asia so I could lie easily. I don’t want an authentic story, only a credible one.” Le Gall achieved exactly what he set out to. There is no authenticity to his Asia, only mindless “savages” with no rational thought or action. It’s disturbing that this book seems to have been published in English in 2018 without, at the very least, a disclaimer!
Despite Le Gall’s attempts at an adventure tale, The Adventures of Theodore Poussin leaves much to be desired. It has a sloppy ending, the art is dated, and its inherent racism all collide to make for an uncomfortable read. For some, nostalgia might be enough to invite a return to this series, but for me, it’s a “hell no.”