Updated: Dec 17, 2022
By Paco Roca and Guillermo Corral
(Note: the images in this review are from a digital edition, and look substantially more muted in the printed version)
Paco Roca is, arguably, the best working cartoonist today. That’s a bold statement, but I’ve read his last three books, and with his latest, The Treasure of the Black Swan, I’m hard-pressed to think of a comic artist who manages to so consistently and deftly capture subtlety and nuance, while also managing to tell a compelling story in its broad strokes.
Roca, who colors his own work, takes what wowed people with '80s and '90s David Mazzucchelli art, and marries it with the cinematic storytelling of Hergé. The reading experience is as intuitive as it gets.
Roca follows his muse with his projects, while staying grounded in reality. His previous book, Winter of the Cartoonist, was based on real Spanish cartoonists working in post-war Spain, and the one before that, Twists of Fate, revolved around him interviewing a Spanish WWII soldier in the present day interspersed with dramatisations of said soldier’s war experiences. With The Treasure of the Black Swan, the book is plotted by ex-diplomat and current novelist Guillermo Corral. Together they tell a story of Spanish culture ministry workers fighting a legal battle to claim a galleon that has been raided by a group of for-profit American treasure hunters.
The bulk of the plot is the difficulty in proving what was found and where, and establishing who has legal claim. With the treasure being in the hundreds of millions of dollars, the story quickly becomes cutthroat, with the treasure hunters doing all they legally can to keep the government of Spain away from their horde.
Corral and Roca make huge efforts to make the characters actual characters, with tics and foibles. The point of view character, Alex, is new to his job in the diplomatic office, and still manages to have enthusiasm and belief that he can do good. His main foil is a woman named Elsa from the Heritage Office, who has been around long enough to expect little from government officials.
They have chemistry as the main two young-ish people in the story, but both become smitten with the enthusiasm the other has for their project. Their relationship develops as a charming subplot to the main story. Alex and Elsa's passion to preserve Spain’s cultural history and get a victory over their deep-pocketed opponents carries over to the reader and helps keep the story hopping.
Corral was a diplomat in America, and while this isn’t a true story, apparently it’s based on lots of his own experiences. As a result, the twists and turns the story takes are all things within the realm of possibility. At the same time, it's nothing predictable to most readers, who presumably have little experience with the world of deep-sea treasure hunting.
The star of the book is Roca’s art though. I’m not surprised he was given first billing on the book. Over and over, Roca’s consistent art lets the characters gestures illuminate the situation. A lean in, a look away… little details give away the feeling of the characters. The conversation is so lived in, a few places I laughed as they laughed, enjoying a moment together. It’s so rare to feel warmth between two characters. Comics artists tend to practice sexy looks a lot, but not so much looks of caring and affection.
To add to that, his command of color is breathtaking. Page after page of harmonious palettes. Most scenes share tones, but he manages to let foreground images stand out against the background. I was impressed over and over again how well he can match the way the human eye adjusts for shifts in light. A brown is used against violet to show orange in low light, or a shade of purple to appear red. It's all absolutely intuitive to the reader.
More than I recall previously, he lets the color define form, leaving out the holding lines for hair or shoulders. It’s a subtle design choice, but it shows he’s integrated the color into his process at the inking stage.
As I was reading it, I had this idea that if there were 100 artists of Roca’s level making comics today, the entirety of the industry would be a lot more mainstream than it is now. The type of work like Raina Telgemeier does for junior high school students, Roca is doing for an adult audience. To put it simply: there just aren’t that many people working today that can tell compelling stories without resorting to extreme action or exaggeration. But there are so many human stories out there that need restrained art to be told effectively.
That said, it’s probably not my favorite book of the year. It’s very, very, very good, but the content isn’t something that taps directly into my heart. It’s merely a very compelling story masterfully and affectionately told.
I rate it 4 POPs out of 5!
The Treasure of the Black Swan is available from Fantagraphics.
Ian McMurray is a Canadian, now settled and working as an educator in Sapporo, Japan. Starting with Uncanny X-Men #200 in 1985, an unreasonable percentage of his income has gone toward purchasing the sequential arts. He is a lifelong comics proselytizer, yet is genre agnostic, and makes comics under the name Ian M.