Review by Frank Plowright
Vittorio Giardino’s second graphic novel featuring secret agent Max Friedman takes place in a Europe aware of the inevitability of war and ideological clash during the summer of 1938. An aircraft engineer has defected, turning up in Istanbul, and the Soviets would like him returned before he can contract the British or French and arrange an escape. Friedman is unfortunate in choosing that time to visit Istanbul, and becomes a target for various people who believe he’s there to see the engineer.
From the start Giardino makes readers aware that people Friedman seems to be taking at face value aren’t all honourable in intent, although there’s no shortage of more obvious thugs for him to run into. There’s a richness and detail to Giardino’s art, but at this early stage of his career there’s also a stiffness and a lack of depth when compared with his more polished later work, and the colouring is of its era, making little allowance for light and shade. There’s more of that to the plot, where Friedman has a placid acceptance of the dangers he faces as an occupational hazard of his trade, aware no-one will believe him, just as he would be unlikely to believe others. Giardino builds a past for Friedman also, referencing his time in Spain during the Spanish Civil War, which he’d later document over three volumes in No Pasarin!
However, for all the good, Giardino doesn’t quite hit the subtlety he’s aiming for, using very clipped and literal dialogue throughout, which emphasises the accompanying stiffness of his figures. There’s also a forced feeling about his action sequences. Guns and shooting may have been commonplace in pre-World War II Istanbul – the police are certainly armed – but there’s a clumsy readiness to use them in public, to draw attention that real secret agents would avoid. It’s as if Giardino has worked the twists of his plot out, but can’t quite figure how to shoehorn the action in. He springs a surprise at the end, but it’s been artificially withheld to spur the plot, and one major character’s emotions are unconvincing.
In later works Giardino would align the complexity of his plots with a greater emotional resonance, making Oriental Gateway seem superficial in comparison.