Kivu tells a tale of Africa, one that certainly needs telling, exposing the brutality, the death, the horrors – and all for what? The exploitation of mineral resources that have ripped the region of Kivu in the Congo apart. Here, Jean Van Hamme and Christophe Simon attempt to tell a worthy tale with the structure of a thriller but fall foul of old mistakes…
The cover should give you an idea of the problematic nature of Kivu. The brave white saviour holding a child in his arms. It’s such an old image, an old idea, and one that could so easily have been avoided in this graphic novel that does an awful lot well but has that fatal flaw at its heart.
As most of us know, or at least most of us should know by now, the province of Kivu in the Congo is rich in rare and precious minerals, a lot of which ends up in our modern tech. But so much of that wealth is taken from the region, corporate greed stripping a country for profit.
And that battle for the region’s wealth results in genocide, terrible civil wars, corruption, villages burnt to the ground, the men and boys forced into work or soldiering, the women and girls raped and multilated, something Van Hamme and Simon cover unflinchingly in the opening section of Kivu…
Belgian journalist Colette Braeckman begins her foreword to Kuvu with this:
The heroes of this story are almost archetypes, simultaneously symbols of human decadence, greed and cruelty, but also of generosity, empathy and resilience that is one of the main traits of the Congolese people…
She’s wrong. As sadly, the main hero of this story, François Daans, a young engineer sent to the Congo by his Belgian multinational company, is far more stereotype than archetype. He’s painfully naive, a shining white knight who swiftly learns the error of his ways and sets about rescuing the poor and the oppressed – quite literally, as practically the first thing he does after landing in Goma is rescue a 10-year-old girl, Violette, who’s escaped the destruction of her village with her brother, Jeremie. A little exposition and development later and this shining knight has decided to ditch his job here and play the hero.
It’s a particular shame that it goes this way as Van Hamme misses a great opportunity to deliver something more vital and original. He does a little of this every time he brings in the two real characters of Kivu. There’s Dr Denis Mukwege, a genuine hero, Nobel Peace Prize winner, founder and medical director of the Panzi Hospital in Kivu, whose work operating on countless abused and mutilated women, really does warrant an entire book. Alongside, Mukwege, we see Guy-Bernard Cadière, professor of surgery at Brussels Free Universities who brought minimally invasive surgery to Africa and a man who operates regularly with Dr Mukwege.
Instead, Van Hamme falls back on his thriller template that works so well in the worlds of XIII and Largo Winch, with our pure white hero marching forth to right wrongs and save the oppressed, and by doing so, falls into the old, outdated trope of the white saviour, thus undermining the important facts behind the story he’s telling. There’s even a few pages, almost a footnote to the book, where we get to see the valuable surgery work the men, especially Mukwege, do here, saving the lives of thousands whilst under considerable threat from the various factions, government, corporate, militia, whose interests lie in continuing the terrors that have ravaged the Congo for decades.
This isn’t to say that the story here isn’t a thriller and isn’t good in the context of that template. This is Van Hamme after all, and of course, it functions as a very readable action-adventure. But it’s just flawed from the outset.
As for Christophe Simon, his artwork here is impressive, yet all too often, he’s reliant on photo reference, never more noticeable as with Peter De Bruyne, the white corporate fixer who serves as Van Hamme’s expositionary prop here, but is immediately recognisable as Sir Anthony Hopkins playing the role here as the artist’s reference.
What Simon does well is deliver art that functions to tell the tale. By which I mean it’s never showy or overly flashy, rather that it is very nicely done art that simply serves to tell the tale, utilising straightforward panel and page layouts, allowing the story to come through. Although there is a case to be made that, just as Van Hamme’s plot uses old ideas and tropes, Simon’s character designs fall foul of playing to the stereotypes as well.
So, when all is said and done with Kivu, we have a book that’s a really well put together action-adventure from Van Hamme, supported well by Simon’s clear, simple artwork that favours storytelling over grandstanding. The problem is that it’s a book that shouldn’t really be an action-adventure tale and one that relies far too much on the outdated tropes of yesteryear, rather than telling a modern African tale taking its starting point from the atrocities going on and the steps to change what’s gone on. It is, sadly, a well-meaning yet misguided book that, despite the best intentions of all involved, has flaws that simply cannot be overlooked.
KIVU – by Jean Van Hamme & Christophe Simon, published by Cinebook