Review by Frank Plowright
When Jean Van Hamme created the mystery of XIII and published this first volume in France in 1984 he surely never believed he was beginning a saga that would take eighteen books and over twenty years to complete, along the way captivating the entire European comic reading audience.
In 1984 Van Hamme was already a successful writer with the high-octane blend of Viking myth and rip-roaring action that constituted his Thorgal series, but this had been preceded by almost a decade of learning his trade. He had turned his hand to action adventure before, but it was the added element of mystery that propelled XIII to such acclaim.
It begins with a man in his thirties washed up at a remote holiday home occupied by an elderly couple. He’s unconscious, barely alive, and with a bullet wound on his head. A local doctor, once a surgeon, is able to nurse him back to health, but he’s amnesiac, and the only clue to his identity is the roman numerals XIII tattooed on his collar bone. When threatened, though, he proves instinctively capable.
Given that The Bourne Identity was published in 1980, there seems little doubt that it’s the primary influence here, and what’s otherwise a top notch thriller loses some ranking for filching its main concept. On the other hand, beyond that original lack of originality Van Hamme takes his plot into many weird and wonderful places, so let’s forgive and not mention it again.
The second half of the book moves the narrative to the city where the man now calling himself Alan is again a target, but learns much about why, and who he may be. Let’s just say the news is not good.
Van Hamme’s plot is strong, but it’s brought to sparkling life by the artwork of William Vance. So many artists from the Franco-Belgian school have the technique to illustrate anything asked of them in an appealing clear line style. Whether drawing the waves lapping at the rocks on the opening page, the urban squalor of a US city or the activity of a running gunfight, Vance is supremely accomplished.
Although this is setting up a long series in which some questions remain unanswered until the end, there’s more than enough action and activity within The Day of the Black Sun to both intrigue and satisfy. There are surely few readers who enjoy an action thriller who won’t be dragged along to Where the Indian Walks.
Prior to Cinebook publishing the entire run of XIII, there’d been a couple of false starts in English. Catalan issued the first two volumes in the 1980s as Code XIII, and in 2007 Marvel collected the first three books as The Day of the Black Sun under their short-lived partnership with Dabel Brothers publishing. The story was also filmed in Canada, and then spun off into two seasons of a TV show that displayed increasingly less connection with the source material.