Shangri-La by Mathieu Bablet COMIC REVIEW: An idea-filled sci-fi book that fires on all cylinders



In 2018, Titan Comics introduced English readers to French comic maker Mathieu Bablet with his first book, The Beautiful Death (La Belle Mort, originally published in 2011). It was a desolate, post-apocalyptic story that I liked, but didn’t love. In late 2021, Magnetic Press released a dual pair of hardcover books from Bablet: Carbon & Silicon (2020) and Shangri-La (2016). C&S is still on my to-read pile, but I can heartily say I love Shangri-La.


The book is happy to tell its story at its own pace

Like The Beautiful Death, Shangri-La is a true sci-fi book, but where The Beautiful Death felt somewhat small, and focused on personal experience, Shangri-La is overflowing with ideas. It is one of the most accomplished works I’ve read in a long, long time, made all the more impactful in that it is written, illustrated, and designed solely by Bablet himself.

As much as the story and ideas are the draw of the book, it's worth a look simply for its future tech interiors

The story mostly takes place on a space station metropolis floating above a barren Earth. A pair of brothers, Virgil and Scott, navigate the politics and pressures of their existence there. The ship is owned and operated by the Tianzhu Corporation, and all people there are employees. The people there sort of understand what their situation is: they work for Tianzhu, they earn money from Tianzhu, and they can use that money to buy Tianzhu products. The reality of life on the station is a Kafkaesque extrapolation of the Apple lifestyle. The station is blanketed in advertisements for Tianzhu, and to quell uproars, the Tianzhu stores have flash sales.

There are some clear parallels to 21st century life

Within this, there is talk of a rebellion and an uprising, but it is all tolerated by the Tianzhu Corp, because there really are no options outside of the existing system. Or there might, which is the root of the story. If the corporation supplies every aspect of your life and there is nowhere else to go, what does it mean to rebel against it?

Perhaps you might be interested in some Tianzhu products?

I won’t spoil the plot, since it unfolds naturally over the course of the 200-page book, but it has to do with freedom, species-ism, and questions of who will inherit the Earth. What is the ultimate goal of humanity? Why is it so hard for the lower classes to receive some of the spoils of progress?

"Look, I have nothing against them." I've heard this before.

Shangri-La manages to do what very few genre works do: it balances plot with its message. A lot of plot-driven books, when you unravel the ultimate story, there isn’t that much there, just an entertaining story or not. Or some books with a strong concept, once that ideology has been communicated, there isn’t that much that you care about with the characters. Bablet walks such a fine line that at a certain point, I wasn’t sure if the plot would matter, but it does. He tells a story first and foremost.

Page after page details life in the Tianzhu station

As I was reading, I could see so many influences. The most obvious one is Moebius and his widescreen storytelling. Bablet similarly manages to capture a huge sense of space throughout the book. Bablet specializes in cluttered architecture. Throughout the book, he cuts no corners in rendering the interior of the ship, and giving space to world these people are living in. His claustrophobic interiors (spaciously claustrophobic?) bring the nightmarish apartment complexes of contemporary Hong Kong to mind, which can house 10,000 to a building.

Areas of Hong Kong today, and likely many more cities in the future

The ideologies of the Tianzhu Corporation and the opposing rebel forces recall Philip K Dick, as extreme forecasts of the direction contemporary life is going. His silent outer space scenes made me think of the stark cinematography of Kubrick’s 2001. Maybe those are Bablet’s touchstones, maybe he’s operating under different, parallel influences, but the overall feeling was of reading a high quality concept which maintains a strong underlying structure to propel the reader through. This doesn’t feel like a book made on a deadline, it has a feeling of care and reflection.

Apartments on the Tianzhu station provide the bare functions needed to exist

I didn’t read this digitally, and I recommend that you don’t either. This book is an argument for the importance of the comic format. The book is an oversized hardcover. These days, the “OHC” is a popular format for the big American companies, but it’s a bit of a deception on the reader: the art is blown up, and readers pay a premium price. But the art is not made to be read that way; American comics are generally made to be read in 10 inch books. This book is made to be read at an oversized scale. Most pages have four tiers of panels, and the lettering is sized as an American comic is. It’s big, but you can sink into the art. When a splash page or the rare double page spread comes in, it feels huge. The image demands its scale.

Pages are made to be read large

Numerous times in the book, I had “oh, wow” moments, some loud, some quiet. Of course you could read this digitally, but the "page" will be the size of your screen. Bablet has made this book to be read in its large size, and it rewards being read as intended.

It's not really meant to be read on a screen

Do I have any criticisms of this book? There are some, but none that would dramatically improve the book. He attempts to differentiate the characters by their hair styles, but often, I still wasn’t exactly sure who was who. In the world of the book, people wear similar uniforms, making them look the same at a glance. However, Bablet also draws faces with a distorted cartoon style that also makes them all similar looking.

Bablet's faces

The graphic style of his faces is a little off-putting for me, though less so than when I first read The Beautiful Death. Once your head is in the space of the book, it becomes normal.


And as the original book is in French, all the signage remains in French. I would have appreciated a small subtitle translating it, as is done in a lot of manga translations, but it wasn’t hugely frustrating, and Google Translate is there if I ever really feel compelled to check it.

The French doesn't carry the immediate meaning it is intended to, but it's a decision to maintain the original book's graphic design

All in all, this book was heads above the rest of the genre work I’ve read in the past year. These days, graphic novel is a catch-all term used for all bound comic collections, but issue collections used to be trade paperbacks, and graphic novel was a term for books written as a single unit.


This is a graphic novel. It uses deluxe packaging to deliver deserving content. It contains deep questions about what humans are like and how our society is organized, while still offering up a propellant story. In an ideal world, dozens of books of this quality would be published every year. This is a good book.


We're lucky to have a planet

 

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.

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