The Tower is the fourth in a sporadic1 IDW series of translations of the European classic Les Cités obscures. Parts of the series have already been published in English by NBM (as Stories of the Fantastic, then Cities of the Fantastic) in the '80s and '90s, while this particular story was also serialized in the early '90s Dark Horse anthology series Cheval Noir.2 New readers need not worry too much, however, as each volume (so far) is a standalone tale, taking place in different places and times, and even featuring different characters. The unifying elements are the creative team, writer Benoît Peeters and artist François Schuiten, and their recurring interests in archeology and history.
Likewise, people who have already experienced The Tower via the Dark Horse anthology method are invited to give this 9.4” x 11.6” softcover version a go as well, forgoing any previous history. In here the pages are large—though one could certainly hope to see them even larger—and of high quality. The reproduction is likewise as crisp as any crisp-esqe analogy you can conjure - each clean line and brush stroke fully realized and recognized. It’s a good-looking book, is what I am saying. And unlike with IDW’s equally good-looking series of Corto Maltese translations, this one can boast a pretty decent cover: one that might actually tell you a bit about the things that occur within.
Indeed, while I often wary of offering this particular type of recommendation, I would not hesitate to say that The Tower can be bought and enjoyed ‘for the art alone’. Schuiten was always a fine artist in that Franco-Belgian tradition, the kind the mind evokes automatically whenever that school is discussed (right after Moebius); every page and panel has the whiff of the classical mixed with the promise of the strange and new. There’s a ‘timeless’ quality to his work, which is extremely useful for a series that takes place around different periods, as if it was already an old and respected institution when Schuiten started to work on it. Whatever type of architecture or fashion he has to draw always feels right. Even if these places don’t exist, this is how we would imagine them being.
The Tower is a stunning piece of art; simply viewing the way Schuiten draws the interplay of light and shadow in black and white, one is captivated. The opening scene features a man in a robes, later identified as Giovanni Battista Piranesi, speaking to an unseen audience. This is, in theory, an extremely dull thing to draw. However, in Schuiten’s hands it becomes as fascinating to look at as any of the following scenes, which involve Giovanni's daring of impossible odds and traversing many miles. Just look at the way the curtain folds - you can sense a slight rustling. Or the manner in which the candle flame illuminates both the background the central figure, and the manner in which Giovanni moves about - not naturally, but in bold dramatic fashion, like an actor in a play. Which makes sense, as we are witnessing a performance.
The performance, if we believe the backmatter (do so at your own peril) is that of one Orson Welles. The creators not only claim to have based the Giovanni character on Welles’ version of Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight, but also to have personally conversed and worked with the man near the end of his life, sketching him in person to work out the character. “He seemed fascinated by comics,” the creators remark. “He would sometimes say to us, 'Why I didn’t know this technique sooner? I could have finished my Don Quixote and The Other Side of the Wind3… What flexibility, what lightness in your art!’” You can certainly see Orson Welles in the main character - which is also where The Tower fails.
One thing the real Orson Welles could do, that his two-dimensional counterpart cannot, is make us believe a beautiful young woman would fall deeply in love and in lust with an overweight gentleman twice her age or more. Milena, our other leading protagonist, is indeed that kind of woman - a young, beautiful lady that simply cannot help how attracted she is to a man that could be her father (or older), whose main point of attraction seems to be that fact he’s the central figure of the text. There was a similar woman figure in The Shadow of a Man, which almost makes the whole thing feel like a parody of French-language fiction.
Orson Welles, the real Orson Welles, could possibly make us believe it. He had the forcefulness of presence, the voice, the magnetic personality to make people fall for him. He would also bring his real world reputation into his projects, so that even a funny-pathetic figure like his Falstaff would be charged with a strange pathos, simply by the act of Welles playing him. The Tower seeks to borrow these pathos, but cannot. And, as a result, Giovanni is a mostly a dull, passive figure, a complainer and a grouch who is defined by what he sees and goes through rather than through any illuminating inner presence. Even when he chooses to act he feels like a passive figure, and that is something a Welles portrayal could never be.
Even ignoring that particular issue, The Tower doesn’t really succeed in its own terms. There’s a solid foundation here, a story about a Tower of Babel (in all but name) that is continually built and maintained, with the people inside having long lost any sense of their true purpose. Like religious believers who keep doing the same ceremonies their forefathers taught them, but with hollowness instead of hallowedness. Giovanni’s journey is the journey to find true meaning, a purpose, for everything he has done. The life he has wasted.
The opening chapter, with Giovanni engaged in his daily routine, walking to and fro while fixing all manners of cracks, is the best part of the book. There’s a physical presence to it that gets lost as we venture through other, more fantastic parts of the structure; here, the mystery is not yet fathomed, not yet even pondered. A lone Sisyphus forever rolling his rock uphill. Closer to Welles in The Trial than Chimes at Midnight. Again, I must complement Schuiten’s control of illumination; his panels actually feel like the manner in which Welles might have directed such scenes. The Tower is magnificent because we don’t know anything about it, and the staging has the sense not to try and tell us.
It’s a very lofty idea that the authors do little with, invested as they are in the quirks of the characters we meet along the way, and (especially) with the architecture. Because the Tower is the real star of The Tower, the text is more invested in the location—the deteriorating columns, the broken stairs, the gigantic windows, the levers and pulleys—than it is in the people. “The city is a character” is a cliché that reveals itself fully here, because the Tower isn’t a character. At least, not a character with any depth to it; it’s all ornamentation.
As it reaches its conclusion, The Tower achieves yet greater heights of beauty, as the black and white world is intermixed with a different one - one we see mainly in pictures. Art becomes, quite literally, a portal to another reality: a way to achieve the sublime that the Tower itself offered, but failed. We can only imagine our way to god, never build one. But for this to work, in a narrative fashion, it needs to be anchored by figures we care about, figures we understand. The Tower fails to provide us these; by making the place the central thesis, it has undone itself.
The Tower, like previous volumes in the series, always feels on the cusp of greatness. But only on the cusp. Perhaps something is lost from the original French, or perhaps it is better not to ‘read’ it at all; to merely to gaze upon it, like the Tower itself - a magnificent work, full of cracks.
* * *