War is simply not a pretty thing, even outside of the fighting. It's long, brutal, and tests the mettle of all who participate. It grinds down the minds, souls, and bodies of those involved. For all the glory that's pursued through warfare, the cost makes one wonder if it's even worth the sacrifice.
That much comes through in Armies, the collection of stories by Jeanne-Pierre Dionnet, Picaret, and Jean-Claude Gal that were originally collected in the French comics anthology Metal Hurlant, and is now reissued in a beautiful new oversized hardcover published by Humanoids, Inc. In Armies, Humanoids presents two bold visions of life during wartime via the setting of ancient barbarian kingdoms and the vast hordes who threaten their sovereignty. All there is is war in the world of Armies, but this is a collection that primarily focuses on the moments between the fierce battles. While the battles are bloody and chaotic, we see in these stories all the downtime of a conquering army, with most of the page space devoted to what soldiers are up to when they're not fighting for their lives. The most common event: they're still fighting for their lives, just against other factors. There is much to contend with when the battle isn't raging uncontrollably, and that's the meat of the stories in Armies. Dionnet explains in his introduction: "what interested me, what inspired us, were the dead moments, not the innumberable victories but the few times where the machine of war stalled and where nothing happened as planned." In this time away from war, life is no less perilous, nor any less worth telling stories about.
The characters in Armies contend against harsh elements, betrayal, and even time itself as they march inexorably towards war. "Arn's Revenge," the epic tale of a slave boy who grows up to become a warlord king, takes place over a period of years in which the title character's horde of barbarian tribes move across what feels like an entire continent to do battle. It's a slow-moving slog through nearly impenetrable terrain for Arn and his barbarian forces, and the reader is dropped right into the middle of it all. Where Dionnet and Picaret's writing really succeeds is in making the events of their stories that much more immediate and immersive. To read about these characters is to attain some understanding of their plight, and to feel what they feel. With each boot that trudges towards fate, the reader is just as weary and grimy as any sword-wielding barbarian. "Conquering Armies," which also appears in the collection, is actually a series of oddball fables that get us into the minds of soldiers, giving us a window into their wants, their fears, and their motivations. To be fiercely unstoppable doesn't mean as much during those times when you're sitting in place, waiting for something to happen. Life is a lot more chaotic during those moments of stillness. These are men who pray for the battle, for the battle is the life. Everything away from it is struggle.
Making these stories more tangible is the artwork by Jean-Claude Gal. His bold, confident linework renders an incredibly massive and intricately designed world. Everything the reader sees, from the towering heights of ornate architecture to the etchings on an arrowhead, from the sweeping vistas to the coarse hairs in an unkempt beard, Gal takes special care to draw every single detail in Armies, making everything so tangible that it draws the reader further and further into the story. Gal is photorealistic, but never soulless. Craggy rock formations, indelible facial reactions, the interplay between light and shadow, the textures of tattered clothing...all of it looks so remarkable that the reader will just fall into every panel, living the story along with the characters. Though these stories were originally published in black and white, Humanoids has brought in colorist Dan Brown to take a run at the material, in doing so adding layers of dimension to the visual storytelling. While Gal's black and white art stood perfectly well on its own, the colors are successful here because they are applied in such a way that it enhances Gal's work. Brown adds an element of texture and weight, but most of all, they highlight everything Gal renders through his lines and his tones.
While the stories in Armies were originally published in the mid-1970's for a European audience, they remain so vital and timeless that they deserve an exceptionally designed hardcover package like what Humanoids has put together. As 2000 AD creator Pat Mills states in his afterward, "Dionnet and Gal have created a unique and wondrous world, the art matched by cleverly paced, very dark, stylish stories." Indeed, these are stories that convey a masterful level of craftsmanship, as well as an immersive, and often surprising, comic book reading experience.