One of the grand old men of Franco-Belgian comics, Jacques Martin just died at age 88. One of Hergé’s most important assistants through the 1950s and 60s (notably on the South Sea Sharks and Tintin in Tibet) and one of the pillars of Tintin Magazine, he acrimoniously struck out on his own in 1972 to concentrate on his own comics, which in some ways owed more to the other great master of Belgian adventure comics of the time, E. P. Jacobs.
A kind of illustrative elaboration of the ligne claire, Martin’s style was somewhat dry but worked perfectly well for the kind of historical reconstructions he so loved. His best series, Alix (1948-2009), narrates the adventures of a young Gaul and his friend, the former slave boy Enak, around the Antique world c. 50 BC. The earliest stories, especially, combine edifying archeological accuracy with a perilous sense of edginess to create a unique storybook-as-pulp feel. And the sublimated homoeroticism between the two central characters lends the work a valuable extra dimension. His other main series, Lefranc (1952-2009), is a contemporary SF/suspense affair that always seemed a little too retrograde to quite take off, a kind of nostalgic update of 1930s SF clichés.
Later he created a number of additional historical series, all of them mostly executed by assistants. In this, he was following in the footsteps of his great mentor, creating his comics as head of a studio, populated by people dedicated to his house style. Already an anachronism in the 1980s, it only got duller as it went on, but the fact remains that he was one of the great craftsmen of the post-war generation and an important ambassador of old school literary values in comics.
For me, however, his works soars highest in the sense of precision and freezing solitude he brings to the Tibetan landscape in Hergé’s 1958 masterpiece.