I’d only read one other book by Max de Radiguès (Bastard, which was published in 2017 in French and in 2018, by Fantagraphics, in English) before I picked up Stig & Tilde: Vanisher’s Island. Bastard is a Tarantino-style story of a mother and son on the run, which contains people getting hit in the head with rifles, a bloody car crash, knives, dicks, guns, tragedy, lies and more. It’s a fast-moving 174 pages and a fun read. Vanisher’s Island, on the other hand, which is the first of a series, is a children’s book. Sort of. Published in French in 2018 (De Radiguès is Belgian) as L’île du disparu, it is definitely still part of De Radiguès’ focus on adolescence, gender roles, and the violence we do to one another as part of the other two.
The cover for the American edition of the book, translated by Marie Bédrune, is quite a bit different from the one for the French edition, which features our heroes--the brother-sister team Stig and Tilde--happily motoring along in a boat. Stig holds an axe but doesn’t look particularly concerned about it, and a beautiful green island studded with rocks hangs out in the background, not appearing ominous. Adventure appears just over the horizon. The cover of the American edition, on the other hand, is much busier, with Stig and Tilde back to back, facing off against unknown and unseen enemies, emanata jumping from Stig’s forehead as he holds the same axe and Tilde drawing her bow, with determined eyebrows. Above them looms another boy, surrounded by spookily carved rocks and wood. It tells you that this book is not going to be all that lighthearted. I prefer the French cover because it leaves some mystery to what lies within and fits better with the beginning of the story, when the 14-year-old twins head off on what their town calls a “kulku.” It’s a coming-of-age ritual that once involved leaving home for a year to survive on an island. We’re given to understand that previously it was a serious thing, but now there are refrigerators and Internet. It’s been diluted into a month-long summer camp. NBD. Tilde is annoyed about having to spend more time with her brother but otherwise no one seems very concerned, apart from the usual parental worries that pop up every time your kids cross the street without you. But then there’s a storm and a wreck, and suddenly the kulku is very much a thing once again. Survival is necessary.
De Radiguès’ style translates nicely to full color, and this is a very nicely colored book, with lovely peaches and reds set against loads of blues and greens, all in soft, flat chunks. The colors don’t get in the way of anything and, in fact, they take away some of the slightly childlike nature of the artist’s line. Bastard is a great read, but if you take too much time to look at the drawings, they can feel not quite up to the strength of the story. Vanisher’s Island doesn’t have that problem because the color lends the images a bit of depth without complicating De Radiguès’ ligne claire.
He renders his characters in a very simplified form: straight torsos, straight arms and legs (unless they have to bend), faces with tiny features, dots for eyes, a small slit for a mouth, and an open triangle for a nose. They don’t even have eyebrows most of the time. So how does he make them emote? He gets a lot out of those emanata, whether they’re conveying surprise, dizziness, rage, fear, annoyance, confusion, relief or something else. He also gets an impressive range of feelings into the body language, simple as it is. There’s rarely anything wild going on with page and panel construction, but that means you notice it when it shows up, as in a wide panel at the bottom of a page in which a single Stig is surrounded by eight separate Tildes as she searches for something. A big action sequence toward the end of the book does a lot with sound effects and close-ups. In Bastard, this focus on simplicity made the violence more shocking when it happened and the feelings stronger when they bubbled over. You wouldn’t be wrong to see De Radiguès working in parallel to Charles Forsman, and they’ve actually collaborated on Hobo Mom, out this year from Fantagraphics, which I haven’t read yet.
De Radiguès is also clearly interested in the process and value of growing up, and he doesn’t seem totally convinced of the latter. He puts his adolescents in rough situations, where they have to be old before they’re ready for it (a helpful narrative device, from the perspective of an author, for creating tension in the reader), but he seems to sympathize with them. Do they really learn anything from being forced into adult roles? Not really. There’s a bit of a love story here, as it turns out the deserted island Stig and Tilde crash on isn’t quite empty after all, but its resolution (spoiler alert) isn’t one in favor of romantic entanglement. It is, instead, an example of all the men out there who think of themselves as nice guys even as they pressure, smother, and trap women. That’s a heavy topic for a children’s book, but it’ll also go over the heads of most of those who read it (or maybe, helpfully, into their heads as a subtle warning). Adventure is, after all, the opposite of settling down...as well as a necessary component for a promising series of books.