Templar by Jordan Mechner, LeUyen Pham, and Alex Puvilland is a historical graphic novel featuring three Knights Templar and a medieval crime spree (available July 9, 2013).
In October of 1307, a trio of Knights Templar go on a drunken crime spree in the streets of Paris, stealing a baker’s cart so that one of their number, Martin of Troyes, can have a private rendezvous with Isabelle, the woman he loved and lost twelve years ago. The encounter is less romantic than antagonistic though, as each is surprised by the other’s appearance after over a decade of silence—in a fit of drunken sentimentality, Martin’s friends had contrived the meeting without their knowledge, much less their permission. Towards dawn, the Knights sneak back into their temple through an ancient Roman aqueduct Martin came across during a previous work detail, but find that the king’s soldiers have come in the night to summarily arrest all the inhabitants. Confused by this unexpected turn of events and unwilling to lose their freedom without an explanation, Martin, Odo and von Berg flee to the streets of Paris to find out what’s going on. They make a pact to meet later at the Cemetery Of The Innocents and to leave the sign of a chalk cross if they happen to miss one another.
Our three heroes soon find out that King Philip has moved against the entire Order of Knights Templar in France, jailing all known members and confiscating the Order’s vast wealth. His Majesty is more successful in the first aim than in the second: while some Templars elude his soldiers, their vaunted fortune is nowhere to be found. His chancellor, Guillaume de Nogaret, is put in charge of the trial of the Templars as well as of recovering their missing assets. Nogaret is a complicated man, at once conscientious and merciless in his duties. Unlike the pragmatic king, he truly hates the Templars and fears for their immortal souls, telling a subordinate that this is:
“Because they are hypocrites. They flaunt their piety and poverty and make sanctimonious speeches... while behind closed doors, they think only of amassing wealth. They claim to be simple soldiers, but they know well the uses of power. I truly believe that, were all pretense stripped away, in the deepest recesses of their souls... they believe in nothing.”
Despite protests from papal emissaries, the captured Templars in France are tortured into confessing blasphemies and sin. None of them, however, can say where their wealth has been secreted. With public opinion turned against him and his cohort, Martin becomes a fugitive whose only allies are a band of other former Templars. To Martin’s dismay, his new comrades have more worldly concerns than the noble ideals of their Order. Having stumbled across a secret that could lead them to the hiding place of the Templars’ treasure, they persuade a reluctant Martin to aid them in retrieving it by claiming to want to place it in the safekeeping of their English brethren. With Martin finally aboard, they begin to assemble a group of unlikely thieves to pull off the biggest heist in unrecorded history.
Imagine, if you will, an Ocean’s Eleven set in medieval times, and you’ll get an idea of where this book is going. Jordan Mechner’s Templar is a hilarious (and in the end extremely moving) story of a group of people who refuse to surrender in the face of overwhelming and often deadly societal persecution. Alongside the heroic Martin, we have, among others, the charismatic Bernard, the wily Dominic and even a Saracen named Salim, who claims to be a Templar, too. Bernard and Salim have one of the more interesting discussions on faith in the book:
Bernard: Salim, can I ask you something? I mean, I know you're a Christian, or you wouldn't be with us... but, let's just imagine there was a place where you could be Christian or Saracen and either one was okay. Which one would you be?
Salim: Things I have done made me dead to God a long time ago. Whether he is your god or mine, I know that when my time comes... I am going to hell.
Aside from the question of faith in the personal and political spheres, Mr Mechner also examines the role of women in medieval times. He carefully builds up the setting to immerse the reader in what the era was like before sending his characters off on a swashbuckling adventure of chivalry and chicanery. In all this, he’s superbly aided by the husband and wife team of LeUyen Pham and Alex Puvilland, whose illustrations breathe life into his words. The artists are just as talented at conveying mood and expression (one excellent example is the look on Bernard’s face after the conversation quoted above) as they are of cityscapes and ruins. Their depiction of Old Paris, in particular, is very well-researched and detailed. Most importantly, the creative team together has created a realistic, affecting look at one of the most controversial times in European history, making it accessible and entertaining for the reader without sacrificing any complexity or depth. An excellent book, and my favorite graphic novel of the year so far.
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Doreen Sheridan is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. She microblogs on Twitter @dvaleris.
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