We get a lot of requests to review things that seem to have something, anything to do with religion. It is rare that one of them jumps out as actually relevant to what we do here. But it was with some excitement that I opened an e-mail offering us an advanced copy of Jordan Mechner’s Templar, a graphic novel about the events surrounding that fateful October 13 in the year 1307 which led to the end of the Knights Templar. For those who are unfamiliar with Mechner, his work includes another graphic novel Solomon’s Thieves (Edit: Jordan has informed me that Solomon’s Thieves is identical with the first book of Templar), and the 1984 video game Karateka. Most people, however, are familiar with Prince of Persia, a game he first created in 1989, rebooted in 2003, and helped to bring to the silver screen in 2010 as producer and story creator. Mechner has a long history with popular culture, and so Templar has become the first graphic novel Crossed Purposes has reviewed.
Templar, published by First Second Books, which is split into three chapters, and nine books, tells the story of Martin of Troyes, a Templar who joined the holy order when the woman he loved married another man. He and his Templar brothers have returned to Paris where they begin to get themselves in a bit of trouble as soldiers are wont, whether they are men of faith or not. Through the intervention of his friends, Martin happens to be drunk and absent from the stronghold of the Templars when the arrests happen on October 13. Separated from his friends and dejected, he meets up with a Templar turned brigand named Bernard and a priest called Brother Dominic who say that they have information on how to get at the secret treasure of the Templars. Convinced that he will be helping the order, not merely steeling from it, Martin agrees to help.
The story, which despite the setting is a traditional caper after the pattern of Ocean’s 11, is set against the backdrop of fourteenth century Paris in a way that brings out some very specific details of medieval life. (In particular, one is invited to do a bit of research on the history of waffles). But the story does not linger on creating a shocking and alien world the same way that HBO’s “Rome” did. Instead, Mechner invites his readers into the lives of a few characters, all of which hold special places in the society, Knights, Bishops and their families, Captains of the king’s guard, and even the King of France himself. While at one point the merry band of thieves does don the guise of men who do work that would easily fit on the Discovery Channel’s “Dirtiest Jobs”, little is said about the actual people who do this work (except that it is indeed steady and reliable work).
What is pleasantly unusual is that Templar seems to make no judgments of the faith of the people and culture of its day. When prayers are said, which they often are throughout the novel, they appear to be said by faithful men who, as far as the book is concerned, have no black marks against them. The men who are persecuting them, however, never seem to pray. When some defenseless prisoners are led out to be burned at the stake, what comes from them are regrets in their lives and the snippets of “overheard” Our Fathers, Ave Marias, and Nicene Creeds. Another prayer, fascinatingly, is heard by one of the two figures who appears in the book from other faiths. It is common in pop-culture today, especially pop-culture that has anything at all to do with video games, to expect a harsh critique of faith whenever the topic is brought up (one thinks of Gary Whitta’s original script for The Book of Eli before the Hughes brothers toned down the anti-religious themes). But Mechner appears to make no judgments. Neither does he appear to praise his characters for their faith, and perhaps treats it in some ways with the quasi-detachment of a historian.
The characters in the novel are appropriate for the caper style story. They are big, often boisterous and bordering on the stereotype. But there are good moments that flesh them out, allowing them to be more than mere archetypes of jovial barrel chested soldiers who like to go wenching. At one point in the story two characters who fit that very description have a conversation which shows them to be, at their core, rather different men. Even the King of France and his main agent, Guillaume De Nogaret, are given motivation for his persecution of the Templar Order.
As with reviewing video games, something must be said about the look of the book. Certain elements of LeUyen Pham’s and Alex Puvilland’s style are rather charming. There is a real sense of action in the action scenes, reminiscent of stills from an Indiana Jones movie. They were able, perhaps most importantly, to convey the story in a clear and understandable way. But overall the rather sketchy look of the book simply did not really grab me.
It has been a long time since I sat down and read through a new graphic novel, and Templar was a really pleasurable return for me to the medium. It is a piece of historical fiction that is far more evenhanded with several oft-abused subjects: Templars, Faith, and the Medieval world. Mechner has put together a fine cast of characters and crafted a really enjoyable read that even those of us who no longer haunt the racks of our local comic book shop, estranged by the big comic decisions of the past decade, can truly appreciate.