Earlier this month, I was a guest at the Gaslight Steampunk Expo in San Diego, California. The theme was the 1889 Universelle Exposition du Paris where Gustave Eiffel built the largest structure on the planet to date. I knew the country that produced Jules Verne had a strong interest in steampunk. I was aware of Jacques Tardi’s Adèle Blanc-Sec comic series and the wonderful movie April and the Extraordinary World, also inspired by Tardi’s work. I also knew the steampunk-flavored animated musical La Méchanique du Coer. I wanted to see what else the French had produced.
It takes a little bit of detective work to find good books and comics which aren’t published in English, especially if you don’t speak the native language. I did come across an article that recommended the novel Confessions d’un automate mangeur d’opium by Fabrice Colin and Mathieu Gaborit. The title translates as “Confessions of an Opium Eater Automaton.” Set in a Paris whose skies buzz with flying machines, it tells the story of a young actress and her psychiatrist brother who investigate a mysterious death and become entangled in a story involving automata and even Queen Victoria. Sadly, the novel hasn’t been translated into English, but I did discover another work by Fabrice Colin. La Brigade Chimérique is a comic Colin created with Serge Lehman and the title translates as The Chimera Brigade. The comic was translated and published in the United States by Titan Comics.
The Chimera Brigade isn’t exactly steampunk in that it’s set well after the Victorian era in 1938, however it’s clearly the product of the same kind of alternate historical roots. In effect, the comic feels like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen meets The Justice Society of America. In the opening chapters, we learn that super powered beings emerged in World War I as Marie Curie worked in the trenches using her radium to help wounded soldiers.
Now in 1938, German super powered beings are posed to take over as the master race while in the Soviet Union a more communist-oriented team called “We” has a different vision for Europe. Caught in the middle is Marie Curie’s daughter, Irene Joliot-Curie, who is trying to understand how the super-powered beings were created in the first place so she can keep Europe from falling into chaos. The heroes and villains themselves are a mix of historical figures and characters from classic European pulp stories. The writers coined the term “radiumpunk” to describe their story’s genre.
The story can be a bit of a slow burn compared to American comics which need a fight scene every issue. This reads more like a novel where the plot unfolds over time and we get fascinating insights into the nature of superheroes courtesy the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche and Carl Jung.
Six issues of The Chimera Brigade were translated into English. As far as I can tell from the French Amazon site, that’s the complete original run. Like many comics, the story doesn’t quite seem complete, however I do see a new Chimera Brigade title listed on the site for publication in 2022. I hope this new story will be available in the United States and will answer some of the questions left from the original story.