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The peplum returned to the spotlight in the cinema since Gladiator in 2000, the comic strip is also in tune with the famous Murena whose success is undeniable. But a new, shorter series is available to us today, shields of mars, scripted by Gilles Chaillet and drawn by Christian Gine.
From this collaboration, between a long-time enthusiast of ancient Rome and a novice designer in this period, was born this series of three comics taking place at the beginning of the 2nd century AD, under the principate of the famous Emperor Trajan. One of the most significant events of the reign of this emperor, remained in the memory of the Romans as the optimus princeps, the best of the Prince, remains his campaign against the Parthians which is presented here. However, in this first booklet the war has not yet started, the king of the Parthians is even received at the course of Trajan before a triggering event, surrounded by mystery, causes real tension between the two Empire. But let's not say more and rather take an interest in the impressions left by reading this first volume. If the plot is well conducted, it is nonetheless quite simple in its course. This simplicity is however not a source of boredom since there are precisely many points of the general frame which remain largely in the shade even after having closed this volume. The reader remains an informed spectator of the events without it being delivered to him point blank the deep structures of the intrigue and it is obviously from there that comes all the interest of this comic strip. We wonder about the future of the characters and even of the Empire. In this vein, the last boxes are particularly intriguing; the story has changed place and a secret conspiracy allows us to barely glimpse part of its ramifications. In short, we can only wait for the rest.
The best surprise of this work remains the good level of the reconstruction of the costumes and the decorations; one cannot find there gross errors which are too often the lot of cinematographic productions. The Roman fighters are correctly equipped, not all have a lorica segmentata on the back, the famous segmented breastplate which was never generalized but which always rubbed shoulders with chain mail or scales. We could have liked even more diversity which would have added to the scientific quality of the work, but that's a detail. At the same time we can see auxiliary archers of the best effect. We feel here that the work carried out by the historical reconstruction troops was not in vain, especially since it is today accessible through quality publications. Among the Parthians, too, one notices a fine research; method of combat, costumes, hairstyles ... everything is very credible and very much in relation to the time staged. In a more discreet way, we could notice that the tunics have the right symbolic colors; red for legionaries in combat (which a recent article by François Gilbert confirmed), the bands of purple on the tunics of Roman aristocrats ... On the other hand, one can be more circumspect about the treatment of the Samnites at the start; we are there in the middle of a symbolic religious celebration and if they do indeed refer to this ancient enemy of Rome, it is highly unlikely that the Romans had such a perfect requirement for their equipment. It is here entirely correct for warriors of the 3rd century BC, but did so many centuries after the Romans remember the precise appearance of these warriors? We can doubt it. This is only a point of detail and we will not blame the authors for having inquired and documented about the Samnites! In any case, these very positive elements are completely representative of the passion which has animated Gilles Chaillet since his childhood for Roman history. With this achievement he therefore pays a fine tribute to his favorite period, portraying an era that we often think we get to know a little quickly. It is also funny to know that this campaign of Trajan in Parthia, which corresponds to the maximum extension of the Empire, is one of the most poorly known. This weakness of the sources has undoubtedly left a salutary void to the screenwriter to let his fertile imagination run wild.
This plot, this reconstruction of the past is served by a fairly classic drawing of the Franco-Belgian comic strip with, we regret, a little heavy inking which occasionally tends to annihilate the spontaneity of the line, so visible yet at the end of the volume on two pages covered with sketches and magnificent architectural studies. On the other hand, the color is very pleasant and captures the atmospheres of places or moments very well; here we are in the desert and an ocher light fills the huts, there we are on the Danube in the twilight of the night and cold colors dot the huts. When the soldiers emerge from the desert and arrive in Antioch, the Mediterranean mildness replaces the burning heat of the desert in favor of vegetation bathed in sunlight. The reader is never lost in places or in atmospheres. The characters are generally dynamic, even if some positions are a little lacking in naturalness as is the case for the woman in the litter on page 16. This is just a detail. We can regret on the other hand that the Franco-Belgian comic strip has not learned more about dynamism in the boxes of American comics or Japanese manga; some movement effects are heavy and inefficient as we can see on page 10 to show the impact of the shield on the steps of the imperial throne. The act loses strength and slows down the plot and the general aesthetic is diminished. On the other hand, the decorations are very pleasant, as much the landscape as the architecture, for which one can even go beyond as it is meticulously executed (see page 17).
Shields of Mars is a classic comic in both appearance and treatment. It is fairly faithful to History in the sense that it respects the historical framework without making painful anachronisms, even if the scenario remains largely a fiction. It should therefore be placed in all hands to broadcast a rather realistic image of the Roman world, far from the images of Épinal too often conveyed in this type of medium.
The shields of Mars, Volume 1: Casus Belli. By Gilles Chaillet, Christian Gine. Glénat, March 2011.