Collecting five stories, the first of which was published in 1990, “Basil and Victoria: London Guttersnipes” brings us the stories of the eponymous street urchins as they make their way through various trials and tribulations in London and beyond. Written by Yann le Pennetier and illustrated by Édith Grattery, the book is a mixed bag of historical lampooning and literature appropriation, as Basil and Victoria very much live in a landscape influenced both by fiction and non-fiction; at times they cross paths with characters that are both real and not, but no line is ever really drawn in a way that any of it should feel odd or out of place. Instead, “Basil and Victoria” is very much the epitome of the mythology prevalent to Olde Timey London in full form, in which all of the most famous qualities of the former British Empire are at their peak.
More to the point, though, “Basil and Victoria” is very much an adventure comic in the grand tradition of books like the Tintin series, though within a much more specific and pointed area. While the characters do wind up outside of London, it’s never to the scope of classic European adventure comics nor is it the explicit focus — and yet, that aspect of the series is an incredibly dominant one in the look and the feel of the characters and setting. It’s not what I’d traditionally denote as a travel comic since the setting never particularly feels as important as the characters, but the same general aesthetic and tone is present within as we follow these characters around Whitechapel and out to Zanzibar.
Suffice it to say, the books is full of life. While “London Guttersnipes” excels at many things, one of the first and foremost is in its character. This seems like an easy talking point, I’ll admit, as most books should have endearing characters that pull you into their worlds; what helps this title stand-out, though, is the wide array of mismatched personalities. For example, the titular Basil and Victoria are similar to stereotypical ideas of orphans who live in the gutter when viewed at a surface level, but upon reading the book it’s clear that Yann is writing them as adults. Not only do they find themselves in mature and risque situations far beyond what should be appropriate for their age (let alone what we’re culturally conditioned to expect from these archetypes) but there’s not too many punches pulled when illustrating this point. Basil and Victoria are both hardened, not to the extent that they’re in any way particularly dark but in that they only look like children. When reading their dialogue against any other character, both in terms of the nefarious underworlders or the upper class citizens, it’s clear that everyone is being treated with equal status — the only ostensible difference is how wealthy they are. There’s a point being made there that’s rather obvious, I think.
But despite how gloomy their situation is and how their innocence seems lost, Basil and Victoria are still comedic little personalities. It’s a dark humor, for sure, one that seems akin to the spiritual mixing of Wes Anderson quirkiness and Todd Solondz bleakness, but the characters seem purposefully detached from the situation they find themselves in. That the book is covered in shadows and the cover finds itself illuminated by a lightning strike on a rooftop (almost but not quite in a Frank Miller fashion), the characters themselves never seem to allow this to be an influence on them. Whereas most of the situations of the book are written with some reverence towards historical and literacy accuracy, Yann treats these characters with a sense of aplomb that divorces them from the gravity of their life.
This is perhaps one of the book’s biggest positives. The adventure of it all expands the scale; the satiric look at London makes it quite biting; the humor of it all makes it irreverent. “Basil and Victoria” seems to refuse to be one thing, allowing for a multi-layered read, with each chapter within the book really excelling or pushing forward one of these aspects to the forefront. This isn’t to say that the book doesn’t handle the more weighty aspects with a sense of murderous or unbridled glee; in fact, there are quite a few moments in the book that are downright morose. But when a book can turn the conspiracy of who is Jack the Ripper into a straight-up child mystery adventure, it’s easy to see the book is walking along the right path.Continued below
Édith’s artwork is what really sells the book, though. While the stories are entertaining, the book excels mainly at the incredible cartooning held within the tome (like most Humanoids books, I think; it’s almost like they do it on purpose). Édith has a remarkable grasp of panel to panel storytelling, each page featuring a different structure yet the charm and wit present specifically in the pace and timing of it all is never lost. Édith’s artwork is both simple and direct in terms of the characters and their wonderfully complex and emotive environment, which allows for the characters to jut out a bit; the cartoonish representation of Basil, Victoria and co. allows for the humor that is so often overt in the story to ring true without compromising the more satirical elements of the book as it examines the cultural environment of Britain at the time.
Not only that, but Édith also manages to keep the book from becoming overtly grim. The book is generally lighthearted in the sense that we’re looking at it through the eyes of children that don’t quite comprehend the horror of their situation, children who are kind of accustomed to it all, but the darkness that lurks around the edges is still present in the art. We see the homeless and downtrodden sleeping under bridges; we see twisted and dark alleys that are homes to violence and murder; we see a very desolate landscape in which more horror is likely to occur than good, the type of place you wouldn’t want to walk through at any time night or day. This is counter balanced with the upbeat attitudes and slanted childlike wonder of our titular orphans that keeps the tone of the book in check, though the impression is never lost that their situation — even with the wondrous adventures they get to go on, the mysteries they attempt to solve — is not the type of environment we’d want to find ourselves, let alone see them within.
That the last story in the book was originally published in 2007 does allow us a unique look inside the evolution of the creative talents. Édith’s artwork is much more refined by the end with the jagged lines and incomplete foibles taking much greater shape in the latter half of the tome; Yann’s voice with the characters is decidedly more clear as the characters seem to grow into their roles and identities a bit more, even to the extent that they become a bit more aware of the time. The opening chapters of the book flail a bit in terms of their focus, shifting between things like the Ripper to young and confused love and strained race relations at the drop of a hat. The last installment is much more clear, bringing their story to a close as much as it ostensibly can; by then the characters have that eternal and ethereal qualities of the aforementioned Tintin or Corto Maltese, both of whom could come back and take us on a new adventure.
Of course, one interesting contention to note about the book is that it’s not exactly, shall we say, politically correct. While much of this seems very much on purpose in order to directly reflect the period in which the stories are set (the book is referred to as following in “the Dickensian tradition” by Humanoids, with Charles Dickens featuring as a character who apparently gets inspiration for “Oliver Twist” from Basil and Vic), the book does walk that fine line between being historically accurate for a reason versus simply featuring some fairly racist caricatures. In particular, there’s two dark skinned characters of Indian and African descent who perform in a sort of minstrel show very early on, and while it’s portrayed in a cartoonish fashion to obviously make light of the entire ordeal, what exactly is being said with the inclusion of these moments is a bit lost in translation (other than that they were ugly, which is a bit obvious).
As noted before, the book seems to be very much a satire in its execution, balancing humor against the dark backdrop of the 1800s via a cartoonish London landscape. It’s one of things that I find most interesting about the book, especially when you consider that the Dickensian influence does open it up for discussion with the claims that Dickens himself was racist or xenophobic. The use of archaic archetypes seem done not to be offensive but rather paint a portrait of what London was like, at which point your mileage may vary — but like I said, it’s a pretty fine line.Continued below
Despite this cropping up in the book to throw off-kilter the more grand aspects of the adventure, “Basil and Victoria” does generally feel like a bit of a lost classic. The book is as playful and as serious as the title and cover would suggest, and there’s so much in this book that could put Yann and Édith alongside storytellers like Pratt or Hergé that I’m actually a bit more confused as to why I’d not heard it discussed more in general. Perhaps it’s due to availability, but “Basil and Victoria” is a grand education in both cartooning and stereotypical 1800s ideas and inclinations that it should be revered as much more of a comic library standard than it currently is.