More accustomed to science fiction, Belgian author-cartoonist Marvano (real name Mark van Oppen) confirms his growing inclination for historical fiction after his trilogy Berlin. This is how it appeared in June 2010 Renaissance, first volume of the series Grand Prize which, as the title suggests, takes place against the backdrop of interwar auto racing.
A prestigious preface
To introduce this legendary era, Marvano quite logically asked a legend of Belgian motorsport, Jacky Ickx, to write the preface. This eclectic champion will have marked the history of the race for more than twenty years, with a record that speaks for itself: eight victories in Formula 1 (including two in the formidable Nordschleife the Nürburgring and its 171 corners), two-time vice-world champion, Ickx will win the 24 Hours of Le Mans six times (only Tom Kristensen has done better since) before adding a Paris-Dakar for good measure.
It is with well-chosen and relevant words that Ickx recalls what the Grands Prix of the 1930s were: prestigious events, widely broadcast by radio and attracting, when the circuits were suitable, hundreds of thousands of spectators; a heroic era, that of gentlemen drivers and death-cheating pilots who, however, did not always cheat her enough to survive. The race had, in fact, hardly changed when Ickx set out on it, thirty years after the events recounted in Renaissance.
Not content to recall this, Ickx also dwells on the purely historical context which serves as the backdrop for Marvano's album. As the title suggests, Renaissance recounts the resurrection of German motor racing in the mid-1930s. A resurrection desired by the Nazis as soon as they came to power in 1933, with the stated objective of regaining a first place lost after 1914, or a few weeks before the outbreak of the Great War, Mercedes had achieved a dazzling treble during the French Grand Prix.
An objective which went hand in hand with eminently more political aims. The Grands Prix were thus to serve as a showcase for the technological, economic and industrial success of a Third Reich freed from the heavy tutelage of the defeat of 1918. But they would also serve as a research laboratory for much less sporting purposes: the Germany would soon need powerful engines to power armored vehicles and planes, which Renaissance does not fail to evoke correctly.
This is what strikes the most when reading the album: already passionate about motor racing from a young age, Marvano has also remarkably documented on the period concerned, with the help of journalist Pierre Van Vliet - that F1 enthusiasts know well. The result is an astonishingly clear historical fresco. We learn that the choice of automobile was also due to the personal taste of Hitler, who although not knowing how to drive, was passionate about racing. His meeting with driver Hans Stuck and engineer Ferdinand Porsche would prove to be decisive, not only for the future of German motorsport, but also for the entire automobile industry (with the genesis of the Volkswagen) and that of armaments.
There is also the oppressive stranglehold of the NSKK (Nationalsozialistisches Kraftfahrkorps, National Socialist Automobile Corps), an offshoot of the SA led by fanatic Adolf Hühnlein, on the drivers and their teams. This organization, charged with developing the German automobile industry, demanded of its members total devotion to National Socialism. If Marvano does not fail to recall the contempt of many runners for the NSKK and their spirit of rebellion vis-à-vis the Nazi order, he does not ignore their shortcomings - whether they are their eagerness to take advantage of the regime's largesse in their favor while avoiding entering into political considerations, or even their apparent indifference to the increasingly totalitarian and disturbing face of German society. The author thus presents us with some remarkable and meaningful plates.
The characters themselves are more often historical than fictional - the latter are even quite rare, in fact. Renaissance essentially follows the course of German champion Rudi Caracciola: his struggle to overcome the after-effects of a serious accident in Monaco in 1933 and the death of his wife, his friendship for the Monegasque pilot Louis Chiron and the growing ties that brought him closer to the mistress of it, Alice Hoffmann. Besides, Marvano invented almost nothing: you can find all this in the autobiography of the German rider himself.
We also find the iconic director of the Mercedes-Benz competition department, Alfred Neubauer. His imposing and almost Hitchkockian silhouette is thus found in the background of the album, while the narration describes his efforts to bring Caracciola and Mercedes to the highest level, while we perceive the emerging rivalry that will oppose the two men to Auto-Union and his young prodigy, Bernd Rosemeyer. When Mercedes returned to the Grand Prix twenty years later in 1954, Neubauer would still be there, racing Fangio and Moss with equal happiness.
The enthusiast of motorsport and its history will be delighted to find many other legendary names of this era: Herrmann Lang, Luigi Fagioli, Achille Varzi, Carlo Felice Trossi, or even Manfred von Brauchitsch, the somewhat rebellious nephew of the future leader of staff of the Wehrmacht, Walther von Brauchitsch. The tale takes up a number of well-known anecdotes, including (probably) apocryphal - such as the supposed origin of the metallic livery of German racing cars, until then white in color, which earned them their famous nickname 'Arrows of' silver ".
An attractive atmosphere
Never mind, we get caught up in the game, the atmosphere is so well restored. The choice of colors, by giving the boards a somewhat sepia and deliciously "retro" tone, is undoubtedly no stranger to it. No more than the multitude of details and winks that swarm the boxes, such as a little black prancing horse on a yellow background which reminds us that before building his own cars, Enzo Ferrari started by racing those of 'Alfa Romeo.
It is a whole era that is resurrected in this way before our readers' eyes. A time when a pit stop takes several minutes (during which drivers cool off with champagne!), Where the drivers' wives usually act as timekeepers and panelists for their husbands, and where everyone smokes in the garages without getting together. worry the least about the presence of flammable fuel nearby. An atmosphere that sometimes turns tragic, each race reminding us that the price to pay to run is often that of blood. A heavy atmosphere, too, when the racial persecutions and eugenic measures put in place by the Nazi regime are mentioned.
The faces also participate in this atmosphere. Without being of photographic precision, they are however easily identifiable and sufficiently faithful. Above all, Marvano knew how to get the essence out of them and above all, to make them expressive. Note that the author seems more at ease with pilots than with politicians. Beyond the facies, the author knows how to draw racing cars and, given his long-standing passion for motor racing, has no difficulty in showing them to us in motion.
Moreover, this is more of a history comic than a fictional comic, as Jacky Ickx recalled in his preface, qualifying Renaissance of "docu-fiction". That's the right word: the album narrates more real events than fictional ones, and you have to wait until the end of the book to see a more romanticized plot emerge. This fact may discourage readers who are less interested in the period covered. Renaissance is a tome of presentation, certainly; but this setting will excite the history and racing enthusiast and anyway, Marvano could not reasonably have avoided it.
Far from being frustrating, this choice of script brilliantly captures the reader's interest, and one gets impatient when, once at the end of the album, one regrets not having volume 2 yet. Renaissance is therefore an achievement that is difficult to contest, in particular in terms of the historical context; the trilogy Grand Prize could not have been started better. We will therefore await the rest with interest!
Grand Prize - volume 1 : Renaissance, by Marvano, Dargaud Bénélux, 2010.