Rex Mundi Book III: The Lost Kings By Arvid Nelson

Categories:  Reviews

Rex Mundi Book III: The Lost Kings
By Arvid Nelson, Juan Ferreyra, Eric Johnson, Jeremy Cox and Jim Bartolo
Dark Horse

rexmundi-small.jpgIf there were any justice in the world, mediocre supernatural grail-conspiracy pot-boiler The Da Vinci Code would languish in nichey obscurity and excellent supernatural grail-conspiracy pot-boiler Rex Mundi would be a world-wide smash, and not the reverse. Both draw heavily on the pulp “history” Holy Blood, Holy Grail (and any number of better books, like Foucault’s Pendulum), and both turn the standard Templar tales into hair-raising chases through Paris with nefarious forces in hot pursuit. The difference is, whereas Da Vinci Code’s active ingredient is a cardboard-cutout main character and some claptrap about symbolism, Rex Mundi adds liberal portions of creativity, intrigue, and suspense.

Rex Mundi is set in an alternate 1930s Paris. The French Revolution has failed, Louis XXII is king, masked Inquisitors are the still-mighty Catholic Church’s secret police, and who knows what the hell the Sorcerors’ Guild is up to. For all the ways this 1930s differs from our own, it’s the same in two crucial aspects, however: the popularity of the fedora and the rise of fascism–the latter a storyline that takes center stage in Lost Kings. Rex Mundi’s plot revolves around altruistic Doctor Julien Saunière, who’s investigating the now-familiar Grail mystery for an old (and quickly murdered) friend, the power-hungry Duke of Lorraine, and Doctor Genevieve Tournon, Saunière’s ex-lover and Lorraine’s current mistress.

Saunière’s the hero of Rex Mundi; there’s actually also a Saunière in the real world–the supposed perpetrator of the hoaxier parts of the Templar story–and another in The Da Vinci Code. In earlier issues, Rex Mundi’s Saunière was more a hardboiled-doctor sort of hero, what with the hard drinking, fights, getting beaten up by the (secret) police, threatening landlords of murdered whores…you know, the usual. By the time the breadth of the conspiracy begins to be revealed in Lost Kings, however, his role is closer to that of espionage/thriller hero. In this volume, Saunière intrigues in a tux, decodes Poussin paintings, find secret temples, gets shot at in the Parisian catacombs, and even works for (and maybe against) the Inquisition. His storyline is more plot- than character-driven, but we get enough details that he’s not a complete cipher either; he’s kind to the poor and elderly (treating them free even though such charity could cost him his license), loyal to a fault, and educated in brawling as well as medicine.

While Saunière’s grubbing around underground, Duke Lorraine—a fierce but charismatic nationalist and the series’ villain–is more likely to be found at the opera, or in halls of government. Anyone who’s read Holy Blood, Holy Grail and should have a pretty good idea where his storyline is going, given that his full name is David Plantard de Saint-Clair. If you haven’t read that masterpiece of dubious scholarship, suffice to say that Lorraine is a very, very interested party when it comes to the Grail/Templar conspiracy. He’s also been working tirelessly throughout Rex Mundi’s run to create a political crisis that’ll allow him to seize power—you know: the standard fascist thing. In The Lost Kings, his machinations begin to bear fruit, and we finally get to see his political adversary, the almost comically ineffectual Louis XXII.

Genevieve Tournon bridges the gap between the two characters, and allows the two worlds to connect in all sorts of interesting ways. It’s unclear which of them she’s helping—the answer is probably both. She’s ambitious, so she’s hitched her wagon to Lorraine, but she’s clearly also still in love with Saunière. As a result, she ends up more or less spying on each of them for the other. It makes her a less sympathetic character than she might otherwise be, but also a great source of plot twists. She’s a character in her own right, too, however, but she still hasn’t take center stage yet by the end of Lost Kings. The hinted-at mysterious fate Lorraine has in store for her still hasn’t materialized.

The fourth character is really the Le Journal de la Liberté, a newspaper that runs for either a full page or two in each regular issue of Rex Mundi, of which there are a half-dozen in each of the three trade paperbacks available so far. Liberté adds a huge amount of exposition to the story, sketching out the world scene, explaining the Lorraine’s political world, and generally letting the reader in on the secrets of the Rex Mundi world.

Rotating artists make for an inconsistent look to Book III. Series co-creator Eric J’s run lasts through the first third of the volume, Jim Bartolo illustrates the middle third of the story, and Juan Ferreyra the last part. J’s strength in Books I and II was his ability to provide a sense of place for the book, with architectural details and some standout atmospherics; his weakness has been his characters, who are sometimes oddly proportioned and inked. In the Lost Kings, there are very few of the panels of bravura creepiness that were scattered throughout the first two books, and the backgrounds are sketchy–or even non-existent. Granted, Lost Kings is a very talky book; but still, the art looks rushed, as if J were already on his way out.

Ferreyra introduces a new look to the book, beginning with the book’s new Art Nouveau-look logo; he even gave one issue’s cover a Mucha treatment. Never mind that Art Nouveau peaked about 20 years prior to Rex Mundi’s setting—Ferreyra’s style gives the series a period feel it was previously lacking. He’s also brightened up the book considerably and added a far richer range of colors. Eric J seemed to take the noir of the story’s setting pretty literally, with pages often drowning in black. Ferreyra’s taken the opposite tack, lightening the palette to the point where the book sometime looks like it’s colored with pastels—jarring at its worst, striking at its best. When required, however, he can give us plenty of shadows, but steeped in blues and yellows, with key lit, ghostly white figures; less realism, maybe, but also a little easier on the eyes than J’s efforts. Unfortunately Ferreyra’s art can look quite stiff, and some of the layouts are dull. Still, he’s only two issues into his run in Book III, and, at its best, his art in Lost Kings shows real promise.

Rex Mundi has been around for a while; it began life as an Image comic, in August 2003, switching to Dark Horse in 2006. Dark Horse is the publisher for Lost Kings, and has since also reprinted Book I, The Guardian of the Temple, and Book II, The River Underground. And that line about how if there was any justice in the world Rex Mundi would be famous? That might just happen. There’s a movie version in development, and rumor has it that Johnny Depp will produce and star, with a film coming out in 2009. That’s a long way off, however; hopefully long enough that the taint of The Da Vinci Code will have worn off the subject matter. In the meanwhile, the next collection, Crown and Sword, which comprises the series’ last Image issue and the first five from Dark Horse, is due out this spring.

–Sean Carroll

No Comments to “Rex Mundi Book III: The Lost Kings By Arvid Nelson”

  1. david | March 13th, 2007 at 11:47 am

    Glad to know I wasn’t the only one that found the edges dark. The subject matter is veering close to cliche, but still done well enough to captivate. The amusing mockery of pop-culture figures in the newspaper (“Brittainy”) added a note of levity to an otherwise dark read. I’m looking forward to see where it’s going – and more reviews!

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