Picture
rectrectrectrect

SERIES OVERVIEW
Imagine another world, a heartbeat, a breath away, and yet at the same time more distant than the farthest star.  You can walk to it without even noticing, just by going through a door in some crooked building, or by day dreaming after having seen a curious painting or read an unusual book.  It is a world of quaint vehicles, wondrous architecture and strange customs.  Like our own world, it has light and darkness in equal measure, and you are never quite sure which prevails at any given moment.

The first Obscure Cities story started in June 1982, when the French periodical (A Suivre) [always written with the parenthesis - it means “to be continued”] published the first installment of Les Murailles de Samaris [The Walls of Samaris].  Since then, this universe has grown tremendously in size and complexity, to a point where even its authors are hard pressed to keep up with their creation!

In fact, it could be argued that the series has acquired a life of its own, something that has been hinted at more than once in the stories.  Fans have been sending suggestions by the cartload and, rather than just dismiss them, Schuiten and Peeters have enthusiastically sought and introduced the best ideas into their albums.  Many of their unseen characters are named after real people who contributed something, lending a definite air of solidity to what would otherwise be just make-believe.

François’ stunning images can be appreciated by people all over the world, it is sad that the English translations of Benoît’s original text have, so far, left something to be desired.  Not only is the quality of the language excellent, but the plot is full of clever hints and references that account for much of the Cités Obscures’ popularity.  The very term “Obscure Cities” is itself only an approximate translation of the original title.  In French, “obscur” has retained the original meaning of the Latin root word obscurus:  a place with not enough light.  It is only by extension that a badly lit location is “not well known”.  Thus, “Les Cités Obscures” conveys an image of far away and mysterious cities, half hidden in shadows and just a touch sinister.

While the loss of such nuances is unavoidable in any translation, it is particularly sad in the case of Peeters’ and Schuiten’s work, for those two artists mesh their respective crafts to an unusual degree.  European cartoonists have a strong tradition of working hand-in-hand with their scénariste (text writer), because it is believed that, in a good story, text and image should complete each other rather than compete.  The quality criteria also tend to be rather stringent;  in France and Belgium, bandes dessinées (literally, “drawn strips”) are considered to be a perfectly respectable form of art, and no adult is ashamed to admit reading them.

The Obscure Cities series carry those ideals to a high degree, and we can only hope that they will soon be made widely available to readers the world over.

THE AUTHORS

François Schuiten was drawn into this world on April 26, 1956, in Brussels, Belgium. His father, his brother and his sister are all architects; but François, despite persistent rumors, has never studied in that field. At the bande dessinée workshop of the Institut Saint-Luc, he met Claude Renard, with whom he produced two albums: Aux médianes de Cymbiola and Le Rail (Les Humanoïdes Associés). With his brother Luc, he has worked over the years on the Hollow Earths Cycle; of which three albums have been published to date: Carapaces, Zara and Nogegon (Les Humanoïdes Associés). In 1980, while visiting a little known corner of Brussels' Courthouse with his friend Benoît Peeters, he discovered a Passage towards a parallel universe: the World of the Obscure Cities. Together, they made a long journey that brought them to Brüsel and Mylos, Xhystos and Urbicande. Since then, François Schuiten has been working with Benoît on the Les Cités obscures series, from Les murailles de Samaris to L'ombre d'un homme, currently in progress, and all those in between. Those albums have been translated into most European languages and won numerous awards. François Schuiten also collaboration on the graphic conception of two movies: the Gwendoline of Just Jaeckin and the Taxandria of Raoul Servais. He is also co-author of the computer animation series Les Quarxs. He has done several scénographies, including the "imaginary city" (Cités-Ciné Montréal), "L'évasion" (Grenoble, Festival du Polar) and "Le Musée des Ombres" (shown in Angoulême, Sierre, Bruxelles and Paris) as well as the Luxemburg Pavilion at the Seville World Fair. Always looking for new Passage Points, he has contributed to the decor of the subway stations "Porte de Hal" in Brussels and "Arts et métiers" in Paris.

Benoît Peeters was born, or perhaps written, on August 28 in Paris, France, also in 1956. He holds a Licence of Philosophy from La Sorbonne. After having published two novels, he tried his hand at various genres: essay, biography, illustred story, photo-novel, movie, radio theater and - of course - cartooning. An Hergé scholar, he has published two marking books: "Le monde d'Hergé" (The World of Hergé) and "Les bijoux ravis" (The Stolen Jewels). He was also in charge of "L'oeuvre intégrale d'Hergé" (The Complete Works of Hergé) and is the Director of the collection "Bibliothèque de Moulinsart" (The Library of Moulinsart) for the editor Casterman. He is also the author of several essays on cartooning, storyboards, Hitchcock, Paul Valéry and Nadar. In 1980, with his old friend François Schuiten, he discovered by pure chance a passage to the world of the Obscure Cities. The long trip that brought them accross this vast continent, from Alaxis to Calvani, from Blossfeldtstad to Galatograd, allowed them to accumulate a considerable amount of documentation, used as the source material for the twelve albums published so far. Benoît Peeters also collaborated with other artists: Patrick Deubelbeiss (Le Transpatagonien), Alain Goffin (Plagiat !, Le Théorème de Morcom), Anne Baltus (Dolorès) and Frédéric Boilet (Love Hotel), as well as movie maker Raoul Ruiz (La Chouette aveugle). With photographer Marie-Françoise Plissart, he has published several photo-stories in a new style: "Fugues", "Droit de regards", "Prague", "Le mauvais oeil" and "Aujourd'hui". He is also the author of several short and medium length documentories.

THE ALBUMS

Les murailles de Samaris (The Walls of Samaris)
This story was first published in installments starting June 1982 in the periodical (A Suivre), and in hard cover form by Casterman the following year.

Picture Picture

We are introduced to Xhystos, a stunning city where all the buildings are done in Art Nouveau style, on a grandiose scale. A young army officer named Franz Bauer is sent on a fact-finding mission to Samaris, a distant protectorate from which many travellers have failed to return. After a long trip, during which we learn a number of interesting facts about this world, Franz reaches his destination. Samaris is a beautiful place, but strange and mysterious. The narrow twisting streets are bordered by tall windowless buildings, and the visitor cannot shake the feeling that he is running in circles. There is also an odd omnipresent hissing noise permeating the city, and the inhabitants have amazingly regular habits. There is also Carla, a young woman who looks amazingly like Clara, the sister of Franz’s lover who left years ago for Samaris. One night, Franz accidently punches through his blocked-off hotel window and finally sees the city as it really is...

Les murailles de Samaris was the first result of the collaboration between Schuiten and Peeters, and they have always admitted never having been quite satisfied with it. In 1988, they took advantage of a re-edition of the album to change a few pages and make the story mesh better with the rest of their universe; inserting a scene where we meet a young Robick, who by then had become a major character in the series.

This story was first translated into English in Heavy Metal, from November 1984 to March 1985. The publishers were obviously taken by the visual aspect alone; for only Schuiten’s name was mentioned in connection with this work, Peeters having been completely forgotten. He may be grateful for that, because the translation was rather poor. Despite the mention "to be continued", the last page, that shows a map of the surrounding cities, was never published. It is true though that translating the text would have meant, in this case, litterally redrawing the whole picture. It reads:

Picture

La fièvre d’Urbicande (The Fever of Urbicande)

This story, which made its debut in the September 1983 issue of (A Suivre), was conceived from the start to be published in black and white. This was not a matter of financial considerations, but an artistic choice: the whole album has a turn-of-the-century engraving look perfectly in tune with the plot. We even see a street called Maserel, named after a famous engraver of that period.

Picture
Picture

Here, the stage is set in Urbicande, seen on a map in the last image of Les murailles de Samaris. The story opens with a letter from Robick to the Commission ruling the city, deploring that he has not yet been allowed to reconstruct the poorer North Shore quarter, as he did the whealty South one. There are only two bridges between the two shores, and traffic is strictly limited, but Eugen Robick is obsessed with building a third one to balance his masterpiece. For he is an urbatect, an architect of cities. A very dedicated one who, as we learned later in Le guide des Cités, insists that even dishware be part of his master plan.

A strange cube has been found on a construction site, and is brought to Robick’s office. The object starts growing in size and complexity, evolving into a Network that, while remaining tangible, passes harmlessly through solid objects. All efforts to stop it are vain. Before long, the whole city is covered and the two shores are linked in a hundred places, making it impossible for the authorities to restrict traffic. The whole social fabric of the city in ripped to shreds, and Robick finds himself involuntarely caught in the upheavel.

At 94 pages, this story ran for considerably longer than the 48 that used to be considered an unbreakable tradition of the Franco-Belgian school of cartooning. A 1992 re-edition of the album also includes a report by Isidore Louis, from L’Archiviste, about the Network and its effects on the social fabric of the Obscure World. The original term Réseau has been translated by "Web" in some English versions, but "Network" is more accurate.

This is certainly the album about which the most has been written by third parties. The Network has produced a great fascination amongst many, almost to the point of starting a minor cult. There are several articles debating of its deeper meanings, new equations have been produced to calculate its growth rate, and a teacher who asked her class to compute that problem got an extraordinarely enthousiastic response from the students. A real-life composer by the name of Dieter Denis has also started writing an full opera based on this story, and this work is anxiously awaited by fans all over.

Le mystère d’Urbicande (The Mystery of Urbicande)

It can probably be said without fear of being proven wrong that the publication of this booklet, by Schlif-Book in 1985, marks the point where the Obscure Cities started acquiring a life of their own.

Following the success of La fièvre d’Urbicande, a fan named Thierry Smolderen wrote, under the name of Regis de Brok, a companion piece on the effects of the Network on the Obscure Cities. François Schuiten, under his own pseudonym of Robert Louis Marie de la Barque, provided the illustrations.

Picture

Supposedly published fifty years after the Urbicande events, after the city has been destroyed by an earthquake, the book is written as a scientific rebutal of the existence of the Network, now seen as a collective hallucination or a pure myth. The interesting part is that the copy we get to read comes from the library of the Sixth Hospice of a city called Brüsel, and it has been heavely anoted by a patient named Eugen Robick...

The booklet itself was extremely well done. The cover has a convincing "aged" look, rice paper pages protect illustrations in the maner of ancient prints, and Robick’s note really appear hand-written. Each book came complete with a library card and a separate note from Professor von Scholz, warning the staff not to loan it to Robick...

An intact copy will easely fetch the equivalent of $150 US, when it can be found at all. There are apparently a number of pirated copies on the market, and some of them are close enough to the original to pass as genuine. It has been translated into German, but not yet in English. Most of the illustrations have been reproduced in the 1992 re-edition of La fièvre d‘Urbicande.

Picture

L’Archiviste (The Archivist)

In 1987, Casterman was planning a series of large size albums of pictures by famous cartoonists. The idea was that the individual pages could be taken out and used as posters. The concept never really took off, but Schuiten and Peeters were approached in the early stages. At that time, François had already produced a number of pieces for various projects, like this poster for a Public Transport Week in Brussels.

The idea of merely displaying a collection of pictures did not appeal much to the authors, but they saw there an opportunity to consolidate some disparate elements and expand on the universe of the Obscure Cities as a whole. After some discussions with the editor, they managed to have the original layout modified to include text and images on the back of the prints, turning the whole portfolio into a story that stands on its own.

The French term archiviste means not only "archive keeper", but also designates a person who researches old documents. In Europe, where archives have been piling up for over two thousand years, this is a serious job. In this story, we meet Isidore Louis, who is given the task of researching the rumors which have begun to circulate about some mysterious Obscure Cities. Proper documentation is hard to come by, but Isidore manages to find several pieces of interest.

Among those are snippets about Xhystos, Brüsel, Calvani, Roth, Mylos and Alaxis.... True to an habit that was becoming well established, Schuiten and Peeters skillfully mixed references to books already published along with tentalising glimpses of things to come. This treatment of each individual album as a well integrated part of a greater whole accounts for much of the series popularity. L’Archiviste also introduced the concept that the Obscure Cities are somehow alive, feeding our dreams as much as being sustained by them.

Picture

La Tour (The Tower)

One of the last documents uncovered in L’Archiviste was a picture entitled "Giovanni and his Friends", showing a man surrounded by a group of famous painters and illustrators. In La Tour, we learn his identity and the nature of his connection with the world of the Obscure Cities.

Giovanni Batista is a maintainer, a lonely man affected to the maintenance of a small part of a building, one so vast that he has never seen the whole of it. One day, Giovanni cannot take it anymore, he leaves his sector to try to find out what is going on outside. Eventually, he reaches a still inhabited zone and meet the scholar Elias Aureolus Palingenius and his ward, Milena. Elias, who is famous for his vast library and his collection of paintings about the Tower, beleives that something omninous is happening to the immense building. Eventually, Giovanni and Milena decide to leave for the distant top floor, where they hope to find the answer. It is a long and difficult journey, and what they find is quite unexpected.

This album was published in black and white, but with a twist: the paintings in Palingenius’ collection are in colour. The inhabitants of the Tower see their world as perfectly normal, but they cannot help but to feel that there is something wonderfully strange about the paintings...

Picture

La route d’Armilia (The Road to Armilia)

The first picture in this story are of Mylos, the grim industrial city mentioned in L’Archiviste. We then switch abruptly to the narration of Ferdinand Robur Hatteras, a young boy who has been entrusted with the mission of bringing an important message to the hidden city of Armilia, located at the North Pole of the Obscure World.

We are then treated to a fascinating Zeppelin trip over cliff-hugging Porrentruy, seaside Muhka, sky-scraping Brüsel, opera-crazy Bayreuth, glass-enclosed Calvani, somber Genova, and København of a Thousand Towers. Shortly after takeoff, Ferdinand meets a stowaway girl named Hella Jacobsen, who is fleeing a factory, and quickly befriend her. This album also introduces Axel Wappendorf, the scientist who has since then become another major character in the series.

Strangely, the narration is interrupted every once in a while by images of two inspectors looking for something in the bowels of Mylos. When the two tracks come together, we are left wondering about the thin line between dream and reality...

Encyclopédie des transports présents et à venir (Encyclopedia of Transportion, Present and Future)

This small booklet was purposely bound in a crude manner, like a small press printing done for somebody who does not have much money to spend. Compiled by Axel Wappendorf, it describes various strange means of transportation; some of them in actual use in the Obscure Cities, while others are only projects. The only conclusion that can be reached is that Obscure engineers are extremely imaginative, but perhaps lacking a bit of practical sense...

Only 800 copies were originaly made. Like Le mystère d’Urbicande, the Encyclopedia is now rare in the extreme, and very much sought after by collectors. Because of the weak bindings, pages of this book have a tendency to fly off, and many copies are incomplete. Fortunatly, most of the images have been reproduced in Le guide des Cités. Although few readers have actually seen it, the existence of the Encyclopedia has been mentioned in several of the stories and every devout reader knows of its existence.

Picture

Le musée A.Desombres (The A.Desombres Museum)

There is a small play on words in that title: said aloud in French, it sounds like "The Museum has Shadows". This is appropriate, because this particular album started as a travelling cartoon exhibit called Le Musée des Ombres (the Museum of Shadows). In addition to their undeniable skills as storytellers, Peeters and Schuiten are also quite talented as scenographes, or designers of exhibitions. It is a demanding craft, that requires balancing artistic vision with the physical demands of the real world. For Le Musée des Ombres, the final setup included a crumbling museum where cartoons were displayed as the last remnant of a forgotten art, of interest only to some few old people... While not specifically centered on the Obscure Cities, the exhibit had many elements reminiscent of that universe, and eventually included a sound play about it.

Out of this concept, Le musée A.Desombres came out in 1990. The handsome folding jacket contains two parts: a catalogue of paintings by a little known turn-of-the-century artist, and a CD soundtrack. The book also included several photographs by Marie-Françoise Plissart, who has collaborated extensively with both Schuiten and Peeters.

The catalog is full of references that will be immediatly recognized by people familiar with the Obscure Cities. Some of them are very subtle, and can be understood only by those who already have a deep knowledge of that world.

As it is unlikely that the soundtrack itself will ever be translated, here is a summary of the story:

The play opens with a dedication by a man speaking French with a Dutch accent: Koelber, using an unfamiliar recording device. Follows an art auction where a painting by Desombres reaches a fantastic price. We then hear a conversation between Koelber and his associate about how popular Desombres' work has become, and how mysterious the character was (the name litterally means "of the shadows"). Augustin Desombres is beleived to have committed suicide, but his body was never found.

To find more paintings, Koelber goes to Desombres' last known residence, and finds a crumbly museum where a lone elderly guide stands guard. With a couple of other tourists, the visit starts. Strangely, the lights are controlled by timers and the time allocated to view each painting is strictly limited. One painting fascinates Koelber, that of a young girl with an indistinct face. He stays behind unnoticed and, just as the lights goes out, takes a picture with his flash camera, something the guardian had strictly forbidden.

Gradually, we discover that the paintings are in fact gates to the Obscure World, and that Koelber is stranded in a darkened mansion. Some years ago, Desombres came to the world of the Cities and befriended Mary von Rathen, Eugen Robick and Axel Wappendorf. Since then, they have been trying to open a passage from their side, each for his or her own reason. Mary is obsessed with the idea of visiting our world, Robick dreams of rebuilding it like he did Urbicande, and Wappendorf is fascinated with the scientific aspect of the whole thing.

Koelber falls in love with the voice of Mary, but cannot see her because all the lightbulbs have been removed to allow the paintings to be seen from the Obscure side. Every time the lights are turned on in the Museum, the reverse side of the images becomes visible for them. It seems that the old guardian is in fact Desombres himself, very obsessed with Mary but for some reason he does not want the link between the worlds reestablished.

Eventually, Wappendorf deducts that Koelber went through because the wavelenght of the light generated by his flashbulbs is exactly right to open the doorway. He asks Vigoleis for a bulb so he can analyze it, but there is only one left so Koelber refuses.

Finally, the visitor cannot resist any longer: he has to see the face of Mary. He uses his last flash to get a glimpse, but she was standing next to a painting...

In short, the whole story is a sequel to L'Enfant Penchée, even though it was conceived much earlier. This album is getting increasingly rare, but can still be found in specialized stores. While there are no plans to re-edit the volume as such, Schuiten and Peeters are currently working on a somewhat different version, possibly involving a CD-ROM rather than an Audio Compact Disk.

The publication of this album also had an interesting side effect: there are now people who are quite certain that an artist named Augustin Desombres really lived in the 19th Century...

Picture

Brüsel (Brüsel)

To understand this story, it should be known that in the last ten years or so the city of Brussels has seen considerable change. Since it has become the capital of the European Union, the whole town has been subject to frenetic reconstruction. Whole neighbourhoods have been razed to be replaced by modern buildings of questionable taste, to the point where a new term - Bruxellisation - has been coined to describe the loss of architectural treasures to runaway development.

We already knew of Brüsel from previous albums, but had only glanced at it from afar. This time, we are treated to the whole story as to how the city changed from a quiet provincial town to a roaring metropolis. We see the transformation from the perspective of Constant Abeels, a quiet little man who owns a flower shop in one of the older neighbourhoods. We also meet Tina Tonero, an anarchist who pours coffee in computers; Ernest Dersenval, a scientist who has conceived a gigantic hospital; his friend Axel Wappendorf, whom we already know; the shady developper Freddy De Vrouw; and a host of doctors, politicians and other supporting characters.

The full story is actually extremely complex, and copies of that album should be kept handy by anobody wishing to refute the argument that cartoons are fit only for children.

Picture

L’Écho des Cités (Echo of the Cities)

While Schuiten and Peeters are best known for their collaboration of the Obscure Cities series, this was not the first time that they had worked together. They both knew each other as teenagers, and published a school newspaper titled GO as early as 1969. L’Écho des Cités was made in fond rememberance of those days, and was a work of pure joy for both authors.

This large size album reproduces select pages from a famous newspaper of the Obscure World, from its first issue to the last one. Covering a period of several years, this collection let us know of major events in the life of the Cities the way its inhabitants learned about them. We discover, for instance, that the Obscure World has its own calendar, that Captain Nemo - or perhaps Jules Verne - has visited a city called Samarobrive, that Robick had people fined or even expelled for making small changes to their houses in Urbicande, that the city of Alta-Plana is devoted entirely to archive keeping, and much much more.

While it is lavishly illustrated, it is the text that occupies an important part in this album. The entire work was entirely, and very skillfully, hand-lettered by Etienne Schreder. Several photographs by Marie-Françoise Plissart illustrate the later days of the newspaper.

Picture

Mary la Penchée (Leaning Mary)

Published in 1995 as a children’s book, there is more to it than meet the eye at first glance. This is the story of Mary, a young girl who finds herself leaning at a strange angle for no apparent reason.

Picture

L’enfant penchée (The Leaning Child)

Published in 1996, this 151 pages black & white album is truly of novelistic proportion. The very well constructed story can be considered a prequel to the events described in Le Musée A.Desombres, but no prior knowledge of the Obscure Cities is required to enjoy it. The images are marvellous in their own right, the plot is fascinating, and the cast of characters is nothing less than grandiose. While visiting an amusement park in Alaxis, young Mary von Rathen suddenly finds herself "leaning" after a mysterious eclipse, as if subjected to the gravity of a world other than her own.

She is quickly considered a rebel for this unacceptable behavior, and sent to a school with strict discipline. She soon after escape to join a circus, where her unusual ability makes her a star attraction. Meanwhile, Obscure scientist secluded in the Mount Michelson Observatory have been building theories about the mysterious eclipse.

Running parallel to those events, we follow the photographic story of Augustin Desombres, an artist from our world who purchases an immense abandonned building in a remote corner of France at the turn of the last Century. The photographs, which have a very nice period feel, were done by Marie-Françoise Plissart.

In the last few pages, we learn that the Mary la Penchée tale is now just considered a children’s story in the Obscure World, and is really a deformed image of the true events...

Three pages, that were cut from the final print in the interest of making the story run smoother, eventually found their way to the Urbicande Web Site.

Picture

Le guide des Cités (The Guide to the Cities)

When it came out in 1996, Obscure Cities fans went wild. Here was a book full of the sort of information that fans were looking for. Published in the format of the famous Michelin Green Guide, Le Guide des Cités answers just about any question you care to ask. History, customs, geography, fauna, flora, where to stay, what to do. With this guide, the Obscure World is better covered than many parts of our own "real" planet!

The Guide also heralded the coming of the Cités Obscures on the Web. Each book came with a glossy colour flyer, giving the site’s address ( http://www.urbicande.be ) and asking readers to submit their suggestions for possible points of passage between our two universes. Ideas came in from all over the world, far exceeding the wildest expectations. One hundred handsome Certificates of Passage had been set aside to reward the first contributors, but 140 ended up being distributed, with many fans left wanting: well over five hundred letters had poured in at last count, with more coming. The site itself became one of the most popular in Belgium, and eventually won a prize for its high quality. Be warned that it is not easy to navigate; urbicande.be is as mysterious as the Cities themselves, and just as fascinating.

L’ombre d’un homme (The Shadow of a Man)

Hard copy publication of this story is currently expected for January 1999, but several pages ("webisodes") have already been posted on the Web Site. We already know that the action begins in the city of Blossfeldtstad and that Michel Ardan is involved. What has been seen so far is very promising! The companion sketch galery also shows the minutious preparatory work necessary to produce the stunning final product.

BACK TO TOP