In a stray moment of distraction, a French trucker runs over the Khalakjistani Minister of Defense. His imprisonment incites his union to refuse to haul anything across Khalakjistan’s roads. As the clock ticks down on an eccentric Texas billionaire’s deal for mineral rights in Khalakjistan, he turns to one man to break the trucker out of prison:
The Mission is the first volume of the Wayne Shelton series, a 13-volume comics written by best-selling Belgian comics writer Jean Van Hamme (Thorgal, XII, and Largo Winch) and illustrated by Christian Denayer (Alain Chevallier, T.N.T, and High School Generation). In it, the fifty-year-old Vietnam veteran gathers his team together to break out the trucker. But just when everyone assembles in Turkey, a betrayal upends Wayne’s plans. It may sound like a simple men’s adventure story, but Van Hamme and Denayer execute it with panache, creating a best-selling comic that is still going strong today. Some English-speaking fans have compared Wayne Shelton to James Bond, but I find comparisons to Mr. Wolf from Pulp Fiction to be more apt, for Wayne is the man you pay millions to in order to do the impossible–or make the impossible go away.
Younger heroes often rely on strength and spirit to carry them through an adventure. Wayne instead relies on the resources available to middle-aged men: reputation, money, acquaintances from a long and successful career, and hard-won knowledge. While Wayne can still throw hands when needed, sometimes the gentle persuasion of money and favors yields better results. And with experience comes the wisdom of choosing the right means of persuasion. The promise of adventure for the thrill-seeking stuntman. Flattery and patronage for the struggling stage actor. Virile charm for the dusky grifter Honesty Goodness. A fist to the billionaire’s stooge. A briefcase of cash to free his old war buddy from a warlord, and a blind eye when said war buddy takes his revenge. Wayne explores a rare niche in fiction, the hero as a mature adult, offering a positive example of what a such man should attain to be. Stylish and worldly, but never to excess. Fit, with wisdom tempering aggression. In command of himself and his situations without the need to control. A man unwilling to cling to the glory days of his youth. And as I get older, I’m growing to appreciate characters like Wayne Shelton more.
The character design is clean and heroic, lacking the pockmarks and wrinkles common among adult characters in bandes dessinées–especially among those featuring young heroes.. At times, Wayne’s portrait resembles that of newsprint comics soap operas, but that might be because newspapers were the last place I saw middle-aged men in sequential art instead of youths and the elderly. And I will never not grow tired of marveling at the skilled use of contrast and color that fills each page. Yet for all the skill displayed, Denayer never grows indulgent in his illustrations, so the art never distracts from the engrossing story.
The next aspect that drew me into the unfolding heist was Wayne Shelton‘s sophistication. A musical score replaces the sound effects of a car chase, as one of Wayne’s associates tinkers on a piano inside the fleeing truck. My sight reading is a little rusty, but I recognize the bass drone/pedal that has been a hallmark of men’s adventure since Peter Gunn. Scores in comics are not a new occurrence, but one used rarely, and always for refinement, as in V for Vendetta‘s “The Vicious Cabaret,” but rarely as organic to the action in the panels as in Wayne Shelton. And the cultural references that flavor the present-day setting include the cinema and the stage. This presages the Daniel Craig James Bond movies’ incorporation of avant-garde exhibitions and shows, but without chasing after the trends of the day. The effect is a challenge to the reader, “You must be this cultured to properly enjoy this comic.” While I don’t always reach that lofty goal, the convenient footnotes allow me to remedy my ignorance.
I highly recommend Wayne Shelton for readers who want competent men’s adventure without the chest beating, heist fans, and anyone looking for a change in pace from caped superheroes and plucky young shounen punks.