Although this isn’t technically a year-end review piece, I will note that 2018 has featured some of the best comics and graphic novels devoted to mental health in a long time (a few of which this writer has had the pleasure of covering). It’s reflective of a society and world that takes this topic much more seriously than one could have imagined even a year ago. Originally printed in French, Atomic Empire is yet another awesome addition to that list. It features a fantastic voyage through the mind that occurs in parallel with an equally fantastic journey through space and time.
You could distill the plot down to that of a working-class, nerdy-looking low-key man trying to live life with his head down and not attract any trouble, while haunted by demons from his past, but that doesn’t do the book justice. The start of the story seems innocuous enough, with a father taking his daughter on a hike up a mountain, and pretty colors and happy scenery, but that is about the happiest and most straightforward this story will get until the end. From there, we go backwards in time, and then forwards, and then even more forward (thousands of millenia into the future, to be precise) as Smolderen and Clerisse weave a story that is pretty complex. Our main character, Paul, is someone who has incredible talents, yet has also suffered incredible trauma. After a lifetime of witnessing, experiencing and delivering abuse, he has an opportunity to break the cycle, but will he be strong enough? Especially in the face of the government bearing down on him?
The story manages to give us innocent looking yet deeply powerful images of abuse, manipulation and powerlessness countered by opportunities of hope, friendship and family. To try and explain this story’s plot any further than that would be a futile exercise. To this end, it also doesn’t aim to try and simplify things for the average reader to understand, which isn’t necessarily a good thing. I would suggest that it would take the average person several read-throughs to truly understand the deep level of symbolism and double meanings that are lurking within the pages of this story. On the positive side, questions abound in my head, primarily the question (which is referenced in a very metatextual way in one instance in the book) of whether the entire story is just a psychological episode that Paul experienced for several years, or if he is actually capable of going forward into the future and interacting with others in that setting? Like any good form of entertainment, I’m compelled to re-experience this to see what clues I missed the first time around.
The visuals of this story have a powerful contrast in that they manage to be cute and cartoony yet incredibly dark and mature in how they are being presented. In light of the Batman controversy, I’ll warn that this book has several instances of nudity, particularly in moments of powerlessness that may cause the reader to recoil in horror. However, with all that aside, one almost needs to study what is going on in every single page because the level of zaniness and art styles within art styles that happen in other cases is just as complex as the plot. The colors push the limits of the palette and the usage of shadows shows a mastery of inking that is far superior to those with years of comic book experience.
Smolderen is a comic book philosopher, for a lack of better terms. It follows that Atomic Empire, which appears to be his first major publication, is going to be a heavy ride. Nevertheless, if you can brace yourself for the bizarre nature of the plot and the art, you will be in for a treat and a story that will reward you with the desire for multiple rounds. I recommend readers clear their heads and dive in for an awesome experience.