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afspraak
I had very high hopes for this graphic novel about the first world war; it won both the 2012 Prix Saint-Michel for best Dutch-language comic (in Belgium), and the 2011 Stripschapsjaarprijs (for the Netherlands and Flanders) in the Dutch-language literary category (that's literary as opposed to action and yoof which are also Stripschapsjaarprijs categories). It has been translated into English as The Nieuport Gathering (which isn't a great translation - "afspraak" is closer to "appointment" in meaning, and "appointment" is closer to what actually happens in the book), with the author's name shortened to Ivan Petrus.

The story is a gritty documentary-style recreation of the war zone around Nieuwpoort on the Belgian coast, just after the sluice gates on the Yser were opened to halt the German advance in 1914. Three soldiers, one English, one Belgian and one French, meet by the blasted defences on 1 November and agree to meet up there every ten years into the future. Another English soldier later hears the story from his fellow-countryman and decides that he too will try to keep the appointment. The framing narrative is set sixty years later in 1974, as the fourth soldier, his grand-daughter and her Belgian boyfriend track down what happened to the other three. The historical detail is meticulous - the three main characters were all in fact real people, Raoul Snoeck of the Belgian publishing family, the poet T.E. Hulme, and a moderately famous French marine commando, Jean-Marie Le Blic; and the landscapes both of devastating wartime and of more peaceful years afterwards are beautifully detailed, the war scenes normally in a muddy monochrome, the modern points a bit more tinted.

But I am afraid I was rather disappointed. I find it significant that the publicity around the book tends to emphasise the fact that it is based on historical facts rather than that it might be a good story in itself. While the landscapes are great, the people often rather less so; the frame I'm using above shows De Blic (of whom no actual photograph survives) leading a raid, and I find the humans in it poorly drawn and unrealistically posed; surely, even in 1914, commandos would creep rather than charge into such a mission? It is as if the concept of taking cover had never been invented! I also felt that the stories told, while of course moving tales of gallantry and tragic waste of life, didn't actually take us much further than the war stories of The Victor comic of my childhood. There is little reflection on why these four soldiers ended up in the war, and none at all about the Germans. I actually found the postscript, detailing Adriaenssens' research into the period, more engaging than the rest of the book.

Afspraak in Nieuwpoort isn't actually bad, but with the coming centenary, we'll be seeing a lot more of this kind of thing and I hope some of it is better.

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