“The Devil’s Mark” & “The Pope’s Secret”
Rome. The Renaissance. “The Scorpion,” a brigand who sells relics unearthed in the Catacombs, catches the attention of the powerful Cardinal Trebaldi. Will the Cardinal crush the Scorpion under his heel as he implements his secret plan to assume control of the Church? Or will he feel the Scorpion’s sting?
Back in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, men like F. Van Wyck Mason, Frank G. Slaughter, and Frank Yerby wrote best-selling historical novels featuring dashing, lusty heroes who were devils with the ladies and demons with their swords. They lived by their wits and fought those who had been corrupted by power. Stephen Desberg’s The Scorpion is firmly in that tradition--with a Dan Brown-like twist of Trebaldi’s actions being driven by a centuries-old conspiracy.
The plot twists and turns its way through the two books that make up this volume without ever being too confusing. There are no dead spots in the script. Something is always happening, whether it’s the Scorpion entering the Catacombs looking for the bones of saints, the Cardinal destroying a church to keep an almost-forgotten secret, or the gypsy poisoner who is stalking the Scorpion.
Desberg combines historical facts such as the Inquisition and the rise of Humanism with theocratic intrigue to create a heady brew of manly romance and adventure. All is not drama, however. The Scorpion has an impish sense of humor and the by-play between himself and his companion, Hussard, offers amusing interludes between action scenes.
The characters are vivid, varied in temperament, and memorable. The Scorpion is daring, even reckless--as befits a hero of this type of story. Hussard is an opportunist and what passes for the voice of reason--think of him as Alan Hale, Sr. to Errol Flynn. Trebaldi is calculating, ambitious, perhaps even evil, while Maijai, the gypsy poisoner, is stubborn and vengeful. Don’t cross her or her black cat.
Ably abetting Desberg is artist Enrico Marini, who has created one of the most lithe characters I’ve ever seen. His Scorpion is an acrobat who moves across the page with a grace that the aforementioned Errol Flynn would envy. I wonder if Marini has used the films of Alexander Korda or Michael Curtiz as inspiration. The Scorpion certainly captures the joyful sense of movement that movies like The Thief of Bagdad and The Seahawk have.
In one sequence, the Scorpion swings down from a roof, through a window, lands lightly on a table, and then cartwheels over a Swiss guardsmen before beginning a duel with a masked warrior monk. The eye easily follows the action from panel to panel. What’s especially interesting is how none of these panels are oversized, and how all the action is contained inside each panel’s borders.
There’s no bleeding into the gutter or triptych--the kind of thing that usually creates a feeling of flow. No, each panel here is like a frame on a strip of film. The eye becomes the projector, creating the sense of movement. It works really well.
Another sequence illustrating the same point depicts a mysterious horseman saving the infant who would grow up to be the Scorpion. The horse thunders out of the blue-shrouded barren forest toward the reader. The next panel cuts to a close-up of his hand and blade. The next pulls back to show the horse in motion again, the hooves left incomplete to suggest the fact that they’re moving too fast for the eye to follow. It’s a stunning scene.
Marini’s backgrounds are also beautiful. Not heavily detailed, they have a soft muzziness to them that allows the characters to stand out from them. In some ways they’re reminiscent of classic N.C. Wyeth illustrations.
Fans of historical fiction, swashbuckler movies, and such manga as Cantarella and Le Chevalier D’eon need to check out this book. They won’t be disappointed.
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