21 January 2010

The Model Sheets of Jacques Martin

One of my lasting regrets is my failure, many years ago, to purchase an autographed model sheet for Jacques Martin’s Alix, the hero of a series of comic books set in the age of Julius Caesar. Recto, Alix, a blond Gaulish teenager, and verso, his sidekick, Enak, an Egyptian prince, struck several poses. Nude. The damned thing was priced at a mere 500 Francs (less than $100 at the time), but I was in graduate school and couldn’t afford it. When, having borrowed money from friends, I returned to the shop, the model sheet was gone. I never saw it again.

Shortly thereafter, Jacques Martin quit drawing the Alix books, due to failing eyesight, and this morning, he passed away, at the age of 88. That model sheet must cost a fortune now, and I hereby renounce any further ambition to own it. However, if anybody feels like giving it to me, I will not refuse.

There was nothing inappropriate about the nudity. In almost every one of their adventures, Alix and Enak find themselves in a hot climate, in cultures where clothing was scant and nudity unexceptional — and Martin researched his work meticulously. As he observed, it would be ludicrous to depict Alix and Enak covering up their privates in a Roman bath (though some editors have tinkered with the drawings to just that purpose).

So it’s only reasonable that Alix and Enak’s host, frequently a kindly older gentleman such as Julius Caesar (Alix’s mentor), will say, “Boys, you must be tired after your long journey; why not slip out of those revealing tunics and take a bath with me?”

A very clean young man,
Alix bathes often.

As Martin’s research revealed, only Judeo-Christian cultures frowned on certain close relationships between men. And torture was the primary tool of governance in every ancient state, most often administered by burly men in leather.

So, naturally, nobody in the books minds that Alix and Enak are such inseparable companions, and it’s only reasonable that they so often find themselves tied up and flogged.

Alix and Enak, just hanging out.

But no matter how reasonable and accurate, these elements of the books, when combined with the fierce devotion the young men felt for each other, gave rise to the widespread belief that Alix and Enak aren’t merely the Jonny Quest and Hadji of the ancient world (who just happen to share a tent, and all that), but archetypal gay lovers.

Married with children, Martin repeatedly either ducked the question or announced, diplomatically, that his readers were free to bring to the stories their own interpretations — and their own fantasies, straight or gay. For his part, he never wrote or drew a love scene for Alix and Enak. (He sometimes did throw in a scantily clad slave girl or princess, whom Alix inevitably and heroically resisted.)

Martin’s achievements as a spinner of great yarns, as a founder of historical graphic fiction, and as one of the greats of the “Ligne Claire” school of drawing are beyond dispute, and they’re likely to be discussed at length in the tributes to him that will appear throughout Europe in the coming days. Others may even confirm what I will tell you: that, no matter his demurrals or his real intention, Jacques Martin gave substance and dignity to the dreams of lonely boys for more than half a century.

Gayer than we were happy, we yearned to find a companion in our own adventures, another handsome youth with a noble heart. A fearless rescuer who would share our passions. A hero and friend. We looked in every kind of book for a model, a representation of the couple we wanted to be. Too often, we came up short; too often, we still do.

Jacques Martin provided us with the models we sought.

Straight people are permitted to admire them, too.

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