I have a strong dislike of mangaka who dismiss putting any effort into creating backgrounds and settings for their stories. Our environment shapes us, so why should stories and the lives of their characters be any different? I believe comics should consist more of just heads talking to each other. At least if there’s any illusion of depth. So it’s rather sad, but I get overly excited when I see someone create a well-structured, detailed backdrop for their stories. I’ve been obsessively reading the works of Aoike Yasuko, particularly Eroica Yori Ai wo Komete, for a while now. Eroica is a manga that focuses on a world-class art thief and a NATO intellgience officer, so naturally, there’s a lot of globe trotting. They travel to so many different countries and Aoike always manages to make sure you’re actually aware of that. The setting is different and spiced with her characteristic hint of comical stereotypes that seamlessly blend with the manga’s tone. So I knew Aoike was no stranger to creating detailed, varied settings. But that still didn’t prepare me for her maritime story set during the Napoleonic Wars, Trafalgar.
The manga Trafalgar focuses on Eugene Radrick, a young officer of the British Navy and covers events that lead up to the Battle of Trafalgar. So there’s a mix of creative liberties and historical fact. While I normally steer away from spoilers, history beat me to this one by a couple hundred years: Admiral Lord Nelson is a celebrated officer of the British Navy who was mortally wounded during the Battle of Trafalgar by a French sniper, yet still managed to secure a decisive victory for the British with no ship losses. So how does Eugene fit into this bit of history?
Eugene Radrick is an earnest, loyal British Navy officer who is capable and respected, if a bit cold. His personal distance is likely a result of having lost his parents at a young age. When he was 10, Eugene traveled with his family to France to meet his aunt’s new husband and son, Marceau. Marceau was Eugene’s age and they became fast friends.
Eugene shares his dream to join the navy and Marceau declares that he would as well, content to do the same even if he lacks Eugene’s drive and ambition. Unfortunately, the families are attacked by French revolutionaries. The parents already dead, Eugene is caught by an intruder and he screams at Marceau to shoot the man. Seeing Eugene’s desperate, crying face, Marceau steels himself and does so, his hesitation gone.
A surviving steward tries to take them away, but in the confusion, Marceau is separated and lost. Eugene believed he ultimately died with the rest. However, his friend’s name resurfaces once again, but now as one of the best musketeers in the French Navy. During a night battle with a French ship, Eugene catches a glimpse of a man who resembles Marceau, right before that man shoots him in the shoulder, causing him to fall unconscious. Afterwards, the two men come face to face in England.
Not too shockingly, Marceau is a changed person. All Marceau seemingly needs is money, a gun, and prey. Upon finally recognizing Eugene, Marceau calmly tells him he has orders to kill Admiral Nelson. However, he’s uninterested in preying on a mere man when he’d rather hunt the legend himself while in his element at sea. So with a brutal blow to Eugene’s wounded shoulder, Marceau escapes.
Unknown to Eugene, Marceau is slightly perturbed by this development, wondering if had he known the ship captain at the time was Eugene, would he still have shot him? Usually viewing himself as a mere killer, it’s a foreign and not unwelcome sentiment. However, it doesn’t shake his determination to catch his next prey, Admiral Nelson himself. Soon after this meeting, Eugene is assigned to the HMS Victory under Admiral Nelson’s command. Things are about to come to a head.
In a little under 100 pages, Aoike depicts (in her delicious late 70′s style) a tale of two childhood friends reunited, then pitted against each other in war. Doesn’t sound that impressive or original? It’s all in the execution. There’s a lot of effort, love, and eye for detail invested in piecing together this story. It’s war. It needs to be big, scary, desperate, frantic, and epic in its own way. And it is–you’ll have to click on the full-sized pictures to fully appreciate them.
As you can see from the samples I’ve posted, she must have had excellent reference materials. I’ve toured a two-masted brig and a three-masted heavy frigate that were active during the War of 1812 in the US and her drawings make me recall the lines of the wood and rigging. The HMS Victory itself is a museum ship in the UK. Both the actual photographs and her drawings of the HMS Victory are stunning.
In spite of the short length of this manga, a lot of detailed work was put into the setting and it really sets this manga apart. The hardback edition I have is high quality–it has beautiful two page spreads, full color illustrations, several full color paneled pages, and a couple of pages printed in red and black tones. The content and presentation make Trafalgar a centerpiece of my collection. It shouldn’t be missed by any manga fan. And yet, like most older shoujo manga, it’s seemingly forgotten.