The novels almost always follow explorers, cartographers or urbanists as they explore the mysteries of cities or buildings, only to be confounded by them. Illusions within illusions, manipulations of the individual for the "greater good" of a city or a regime, the effects of rapid urban and technological change on individuals, all these are recurring themes of the novels.
Schuiten being a trained architect, it is not surprising that architecture, and in particular urban architecture, plays a starring role in the books. The Great Walls of Samaris showcases a city made of shifting scenery, in Fever in Urbicand, a giant cube throws the city of Urbicand (and the life of an urbanist) into chaos. In The Tower, a man explores a city set within one seemingly endless tower. In Brüsel, the authors take up the plight of their real-life hometown, Brussels, and the destruction of its history by all-too-rampant modernisation. The Road to Amiliafeatures a zeppelin ride through much of the continent of the Oscure Cities, showcasing the extravagant architecture of a good many of them.
The stories are always highly complex, and not all their mysteries are resolved in the end. The tone is usually rather bleak, happy endings are rare. The world, and the themes, are in the tradition of Jules Verne and other 19th century science fiction novelists (if the books fit a style at all, it would be steampunk). The books' visual style uses many elements of Art Nouveau, while people's clothing ranges from the 19th century to the 1920s (although time doesn't stand still in counter-Earth: in The Invisible Frontier, which tells the story of a nascent fascist empire swallowing its neighbours, clothing and hair styles progresses to those of the 1930s/1940s).
The style of the illustrations varies: most books are told in sumptuous colours, but others use black and white drawings reminiscent of period etchings; one book, L'enfant penchée, utilises both photographs and drawings. The world is presented in amazing detail: every panel seems to ooze with incredible inventions that make the world come alive, and render the fantastic setting utterly believable. It is no wonder that the novels have spawned a cult movement that debates and dissects every invention and every theory voiced in the books.
The journey into the mysterious Cities of the Fantastic began in 1982 with the publication of The Great Wall of Samaris; the latest outing is the two part La Théorie du grain de sable, published in French in 2008 (and not yet published in English). So far, there are twelve official comics, and a series of spin-offs, such as tourist guides, newspapers and audio plays. Casterman, the French editor, has announced for 2009 a new edition of the outstanding The Archivist, a book consisting entirely of annotated one page spreads depicting various cities. A complete list of publications (in English) can be found under Les Cités Obscures on wikipedia.
I can highly recommend these graphic novels to anyone interested in steampunk, in intelligent comics and in discovering utterly believable "strange new worlds" while being thoroughly entertained.
Rating: 5 of 5.
Official website: Urbicande.be (in French).