Adventure Comics, Exoticism, and Nostalgia Part III: The Genre Today

Over the last couple of months I have examined some of the problems of European and American adventure comics of the 20th century with regards to exoticism. Whether it is Don Rosa’s all too simplistic portrayal of Scrooge McDuck’s colonial enterprise, or Tintin’s touristic gaze and white saviourism. Now, in this third and final look at the adventure comics that I grew up with, I want to depart a little from the old classics and turn to a more recent comic series that follows in the adventure comic tradition to see what—if any—progress has been made since. To do that I will be looking at Garen Ewing’s three volume comic The Adventures of Julius Chancer: The Rainbow Orchid (2010-2012), a comic that could finally scratch the nostalgia itch I had for Tintin-like adventures. Ewing’s work follows in the ligne claire (clear line) style that Hergé popularized, and is similar in aesthetics as well as spirit. Its story is well paced and beautifully realized in Ewing’s drawings, which are reminiscent of much of the works drawn in the heyday of the European comic.

1. Good Colonialist, Bad Colonialist.

Set in the interbellum between the world wars, The Rainbow Orchid casts itself back to the time of the British empire, the tail end of the time of colonial ‘adventure’. To give you a brief idea of the plot: an annual orchid competition is coming round again and Lord Reginald Lawrence finds himself in trouble because a certain Urkaz Grope claims to be in possession of a black orchid, which would certainly win him the competition. Unfortunately, thanks to Mr. Grope’s crafty nature, the two men made a bet and should Mr. Grope win he will come in possession of Lord Reginald’s ancestral sword, a sword that would give him a claim to the Lawrence house. Lord Reginald, standing to lose everything, comes to the historical researcher Sir Alfred Catesby Grey for aid and Julius—Sir Alfred’s assistant—believes they can help by procuring the mythical rainbow orchid, a flower that is rumoured to grow somewhere in the Indus Valley. After some nosing about he sets off in search of the orchid with Lily Lawrence, famous Hollywood actress and Lord Reginald’s daughter, as well as her agent Nathaniel.

If that reads like too much of a word soup, here’s the short brief version: orchid competition -> Lord Reg accidentally bets Mr. Grope his house believing he will win -> Mr. Grope has a black orchid that is actually set to win the competition -> to make that not happen Julius and friends head out to find the rainbow orchid for Lord Reg -> adventure occurs -> floating towers.

Simple.

Jokes aside, it is a fun, lighthearted story, punctuated by moments of dramatic tension; a modern take on the Tintin plot where some light detective work at home is followed by an increasingly wild and exotic adventure abroad.

And, on the topic of exoticism, some of the benefits of that modernization are thankfully immediately noticeable: gone are the visual racial stereotypes that plague 20th century Western comics, as well as the staple that is non-western characters speaking in broken English. More specific tropes are subverted too, such as in one particular scene in volume two where an Indian boy named Batuk gets into trouble and is chased by an older Indian man causing Julius to step in like Tintin would to save Batuk from a beating by the older man. Julius, unlike Tintin, gets intimidated when the man draws a knife and the boy ends up defending himself with a quick bluff, proving his self-sufficiency. It’s a neat little reversal of the way Tintin handled those scenarios.

Some of the tried and true tropes still remain though: if Tintin has his Captain Haddock to provide levity through his insensitivity of foreign cultures in order to make Tintin himself seem like a more grounded and authentic tourist or adventurer, then Julius has Nathaniel, who bumbles around in local dress and tries taking camels with him on a plane. His silliness, like that of Haddock before him, helps validate Julius’ serious commitment, even if it is all in service of securing an orchid.

Nathaniel Finds an Elephant. The Rainbow Orchid Volume 2 (Source: https://alchetron.com/The-Rainbow-Orchid)

Now, sure, taking a flower back to England hardly amounts to a menacing act of colonial plundering, but this is perhaps a part of the problem. Historical events are sanitized, whilst the fun adventure aspects are emphasized. Because of this the story fails to address much of the racism or colonial interference that might have occurred in actuality. To be fair, at times it comes close to making a commentary on colonialism. A clear attempt is made through the character of Drubbin, a member of the Empire Survey branch, an organization funded by the British military. He joins Julius’ party alongside Sir Alfred in the third book, under the auspices of offering aid to Julius, but with an ulterior motive:  finding the plans for an ancient weapon. Once the party is taken in by the Urvah, Drubbin seizes his opportunity and forces an Urvah woman to show him the library that hides their secrets. His greed for this destructive knowledge, as you might expect, proves to be his downfall and, being late to the group’s attempt at escape due to this detour into the library, he fails to grab on when the tower lifts off, leaving him behind along with the knowledge he tried to steal. Now, there is a critique of the colonial enterprise in this turn of events, but it is overshadowed by the critique of war. Drubbin is punished not just because he wanted to procure the ancient knowledge of this civilization without their consent, but because he wanted to steal knowledge that could lead to great destruction. His bad intentions lead to his demise. Like we saw before in Don Rosa’s handling of colonialism with Scrooge McDuck, the systemic abuses of colonialism are again reduced to a morality play, where either an individual has good intentions and thus gets rewarded, or bad intentions and thus gets punished. The unfortunate side effect of this is that it opens the door for Julius Chancer to be a good colonialist. And his actions when he comes in reach of the rainbow orchid are emblematic of this problem: it turns out that the Orchid is extremely rare, and the Urvah depend on it for their election process, so to steal it would be wrong. Thus Julius makes the right call and leaves the orchid in place. Now this may make for a good, if basic, moral lesson, but it is a bad way of addressing so much of the actual colonial enterprise. It does not address the systems of oppression, the fundamental inequality that makes it possible for Julius and co to undertake this journey, the reverse of which could never be undertaken by an Indian man at the time.

Drubbin falls as the flying altar takes off. The Rainbow Orchid Volume 3 (Source: https://alchetron.com/The-Rainbow-Orchid)

The characters do not truly possess the ability or vocabulary to be critical of their own actions, or the systems of power that allow them to be where they are and do what they are doing in the first place. But whilst the characters are largely mute on these issues, many of the issues themselves are also conveniently left out of the story. And that’s understandable, it would be a damper on the good fun of a wild game of high stakes hide and seek in Karachi to pause the action for a discussion on systemic racism, to name but one example. Then again, the second volume does take time out to let Julius recount his experience in the first world war, which isn’t exactly a light topic. Then again, that recollection quickly turns into a Indiana Jones-esque adventure where German officers have taken over a cave filled with ancient ruins near Gallipoli, so that diversion quickly returns to the exoticist agenda too. The point that I am trying to get at is that The Rainbow Orchid seems to be under the impression that colonialism is something akin to a pair of muddy boots: you wouldn’t want someone to enter your home in them as is, but wipe them clean and it isn’t so much of a problem. It does not see or acknowledge that the boot itself is rotten by design. Exoticism and racism are part and parcel of the leather—alright, this metaphor has gotten out of hand, but hopefully you get the idea: it suggests that a good kind of colonialism is possible, ignoring the institutional systems of empire that were in place at the time.

2. Journeying into the exotic.

What I didn’t notice so much nearly a decade ago is the uneasy tension between reality and fantasy within these comics. With the benefit of hindsight it seems all too predictable, but the story slides from one end of the spectrum to the other over the course of its pages. The first volume is set entirely in England, and it all seems grounded enough in the reality of the time (or at least our modern imagining of that time), hinting only at exotic myths surrounding the rainbow orchid. The second sees Julius and co arriving in India and traveling inland. We get Nathaniel’s exotic encounters with elephants and snow leopards, as well as our first hint of exotic magic in the unnatural lifespan of one character. Then all bets are off in the third volume, especially once we encounter the Urvah. If Tintin arguably downplayed what knowledge a surviving Inca tribe might possess, by fooling them with a solar-eclipse, then Ewing swings the other way and imagines his lost people to have flying towers and healing water. In doing so he undercuts any serious attempt at the portrayal of this ancient hidden civilization (itself of course a trope that carries a set of problematic expectations in the adventure genre), despite the impressive effort that he put into crafting their culture and history, and relies on now familiar exoticism as a shorthand. This shorthand reduces diverse and unique cultures–even made up ones–to a single essence: that of the western imagination (not to say that only the West deals in exoticism, rather that it is western in this instance). It is a signifier that detracts from the actual culture that it pretends to signify, that would sooner obscure what makes it unique than elucidate it. Ultimately, the story suffers for it; enough groundwork was laid to tell an interesting third act without these exotic tropes, one that may have been more poignant and more open to reflection upon its subject matter.

If reading these various adventure comics over the last few months has taught me something about the entanglement of exoticism and colonialism, it is that exotic imagery can arrest attention easily and capture the imagination briefly, but it leaves no lasting impression, because it is not grounded in the realities that these stories base themselves on. Exoticism goes no deeper than the image it presents. It is a shame that little seems to have changed in this regard over the years, except that the popularity of the adventure comic has waned as time goes by, and fun as The Rainbow Orchid is, part of me can’t help but feel that it is for the best.

3. Reflections on the genre at large

All of which does not mean that the adventure genre at large has disappeared however! And to cap this series of articles off, I think it is worth having a brief look at entries in other media, and what problems might crop up there: 

Let’s start with videogames, a prime meeting ground for the nostalgia of colonial exploration and comic art, where much the same issues occur. Take Curious Expedition 2 (2020)–for which, incidentally, much of the art has been drawn by the same Garen Ewing–a game about undertaking colonial expeditions to distant islands in a somewhat fantastical reimagination of the high time of western colonial enterprise. There is no direct engagement with the actualities of colonial exploration as a practice, no real interest in offering critique. Like with The Rainbow Orchid, this hasn’t evolved much beyond Tintin’s call for empathy and understanding, an effective message that ultimately does little more than reduce large and complex systems of oppression to moments of individual choice. And like with The Rainbow Orchid, these choices seem to always come down to a simple binary that asks you: will you play out the fantasy of the good explorer or the bad explorer? 

The same goes for the earlier Renowned Explorers: International Society (2015), another rogue-like exploration game styled after the clear-line comic art that plays off of the tropes established in adventure comics. Much like Ewing’s comic series, both these games exude a thorough romanticization of a grim period in history and combine it with a child-like appeal. And it works, these titles are fun to play: forcing you to make tough choices as you trek through thoroughly tropey exotic lands, and keeping you in suspense through the unpredictable nature of their semi-randomly generated maps. Their skin-deep engagement with colonialism and eager use of exotic depictions ultimately makes them as complicit in the rewriting of colonial history into fun and quirky, equal opportunity colonial fantasy as the comics of the genre.

Advertisement posters for Renowned Explorers By Abbey Games and Curious Expedition 2 by Maschinen-Mensch

For a prime example of books in the genre, look no further than Natasha Pulley’s 2017 novel The Bedlam Stacks: the story of a colonialist, Merrick Tremayne, who travels into the heart of Peru only to discover the kind of exotic magic that Kipling probably couldn’t even have dreamt of. Healing pollen, living statues, you name it. And sure, the novel recognises some of the great violence that European nations wrought on countries across the world, on occasion, but equally our protagonist Merrick agrees to ship off to the Congo by the end of it, presumably to either partake in the violent subjugation of a people or to bolster his white saviour complex a little more. It begs the question, where to go with the protagonists of the adventure genre? If you write them as sympathetic to a modern reader they will do little justice to the history of the setting, but if you write them as highly questionable, problematic characters it is hard to then also have them be the heart of a wild and joyous adventure. Such seemingly irresolvable tensions only serve to further expose the rotten foundation upon which the genre is built.

Then there are the recent Jumanji movies, or 2021’s Jungle Cruise (Dwayne Johnson seems to be a must in these movies): films so far removed from the reality of colonial exploration that only the aesthetics of an already highly aestheticised romanticisation remain. Is anyone going to see that and come to the conclusion that the history of western colonialism might not have been so bad afterall? It is too far removed from that reality to have much bearing on it. And yet it feels wrong to reduce ‘the age of exploration’ to an innocent form of entertainment, or, worse yet, to distort that history in order to stage a diverse cast performing sanitized versions of colonial invasion in the name of fun.

Ultimately, the question I want to leave you on is this: is there a future for the adventure genre? If there is one, it seems to me that it must critically engage the penchant of the genre to rely on exotic images. Exoticism bars us from understanding the other, it suggests access to knowledge of something foreign, yet it brings us nothing but our own preconceived notions of the other. Next, it must reckon with the foundational structure which brought it into being: the history of western colonialism and imperialism. This is a problem that is not so easily overcome, and perhaps a part of the reason why adventure has found its new home in the realms of sci-fi and fantasy—not without issue either, as recent discussions about stereotyping and racialization in fantasy prove. I hope that the no doubt talented artists and authors of the adventure genre will face up to that challenge, rather than repeat or wash away the mistakes of the past, but for now I remain skeptical.

Written by Reinier Van Der Plas

Bibliography:

Abbey Games. Renowned Explorers: International Society, 2015.

Ewing, Garen. The Adventures of Julius Chancer: The Complete Rainbow Orchid, Egmont Books, 2012.

Maschinen-Mensch. Curious Expedition 2, Thunderful Publishing, 2020.Pulley, Natasha. The Bedlam Stacks, Bloomsbury, 2017.

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