The Obscure Cities Series Blends the Subtle and the Fantastic

by Hans Rollman

17 February 2017

The steampunk cityscapes are fantastic in The Theory of the Grain of Sand, yet the underlying mystery is subtle.
 
cover art

The Theory of the Grain of Sand

Benoit Peeters, Francois Schuiten

(IDW)
US: Dec 2016

Trim that handlebar and brush off that bustle. North American English speakers finally get to experience the steampunk splendour of the exemplary Obscure Cities series of graphic novels.

As North American publishers increasingly trawl the European graphic novel scene for potential hits, they come up with no shortage of deserving gems, of which the Obscure Cities is one. The series, which has been under development since 1983 and originally published in French, is the creation of two Belgian-based artists, Benoit Peeters and Francois Schuiten. The Obscure Cities which the series title refers to are located in a parallel world that occasionally intersects with our own (in The Theory of the Grain of Sand, the fantastic city Brusel is paired with the more prosaic and earthly Brussels). The volumes which comprise the series—nearly a dozen core volumes, along with numerous related spin-offs—can be read as stand-alone works, although they share intersecting characters, timelines, and locations.

The backdrop is one of fantastic steampunk architecture: skyscrapers tower over gothic streetscapes; zeppelin-style airships transport residents from rooftop to rooftop; Victorian fashions and tremendous moustaches pair with contemporary bureaucracy. Beyond the cities lie wastelands and savage ‘tribes’, in a landscape crisscrossed by high-speed train lines and dotted by yet other obscure and fantastic cities.

The atmosphere evoked by the art and sense of place in these volumes is tremendous. Unlike much contemporary steampunk, which often aims for an overplayed aura of darkness at the expense of plotlines and realism, Peeters and Schuiten hit the mark by presenting their fantastic backdrops and elaborately constructed worlds without drawing undue emphasis to them. The focus of dialogue and action remains a complex and well-constructed plotline; the characters treat their world in an every day, convincing fashion that renders it even more realistic to the reader.

Moreover, the success of their work lies in offering a compelling mystery that’s carried off with a suitable conclusion. Far too much contemporary steampunk fantasy concludes in unresolved narrative murk à la Lovecraft, as though the authors get so wrapped up in describing their fantasy world that they forget where their story is going, and thus conclude it in a miasmic descriptive mess, leaving the reader to guess what happens. Peeters and Schuitenm, however, move consistently toward a discrete conclusion, tying up the story and plotlines neatly. True, the action in The Theory of the Grain of Sand does become somewhat rushed toward the end, but at least the story concludes resolutely.

Part of what makes the Obscure Cities so successful is its artful balance of the fantastic and the subtle. Backdrops and visuals are fantastic: the steampunk cityscapes absorb the reader’s attention fully, each page breathtaking in its own right. Yet the underlying mystery is subtle. Eschewing shadows, blood, and gore, the mysteries that plague characters in the Obscure Cities are disturbing yet profoundly subtle. Sand keeps appearing mysteriously in an apartment. A character can’t stop leaning. A character’s shadow develops colour. A person finds themselves followed by a cloud.

The mysteries that spark these adventures are defined by their understatement, but are no less gripping and disturbing. In The Theory of the Grain of Sand, several of these subtle mysteries—accumulating sand, rocks appearing in an apartment out of nowhere, a character losing weight—are somehow related to the disappearance of a mysterious jewel, and it’s up to Mary von Rathen (“collector of inexplicable phenomena”) to solve the mystery before it destroys the city.

Steampunk broadly defined, reliant as it is on the romanticization of the imperialist Victorian-era, finds itself increasingly troubled by the racialized and colonialist aspects of the period, which seep awkwardly into its romanticized present. The futuristic (and predominantly white) city is defined by its contrast with the wilderness beyond, inhabited as it is by vaguely defined ‘tribes’. Peeters and Schuiten navigate this problematic by rendering their ‘tribal’ protagonists in Caucasian form (they come across some form of Russian Cossacks), yet the issue is still one that plagues the steampunk genre. 

The Obscure Cities series is also noteworthy for its architectural relationships. Architecture lies at the heart of the series, with each of the ‘Cities’ being defined by a particular style that’s explored through the graphic novel backdrops. In The Theory of the Grain of Sand the relationship is more specific: a key location in the book is based on a real-life house in Brussels, the ‘Autrique House’, an Art Nouveau residence built in Brussels in 1893 by architect Victor Horta. The authors present a fascinating and detailed afterword in which they explore the history of the house and their fascination with it, and outline their own ongoing involvement in its preservation and reconstruction.

The Obscure Cities series has never been fully translated into English and those stories which have been previously translated suffered from short print runs and limited distribution. Indeed, the first book to be translated in Alaxis Press’s new effort at a North American run, The Leaning Girl, is already out of print. But with IDW taking over distribution, it’s to be hoped the latest effort at translating the series will be both more complete as well as more widely accessible. If The Theory of the Grain of Sand is anything to judge by, the series certainly deserves it.

The Theory of the Grain of Sand

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