Written by Fabien Nury
Art by Sylvain Vallée
Translation by Ivanka Hahnenberger
Lettered by Haley Rose-Lyon
Publisher: Dead Reckoning / Naval Institute Press
An international bestseller with over one million copies sold, the French series Once Upon a Time in France, collected here in one omnibus edition, has won the BDGest’Art Best Scenario Award, BDGest’Arts Album of the Year, and Angouleme International Comics Festival Best Series Award, among many others… and I’m not surprised, because it’s a truly astonishing piece of work, on many levels.
Based on a true story, Once Upon a Time in France follows the life of Joseph Joanovici, a Romanian Jew who immigrated to France in the 1920s and became one of the richest men in Europe as a scrap-metal magnate. For some, he was a villain. For others, a hero.
During the German occupation of France, he thought his influence could keep his family safe, but he soon finds that the only way to stay one step ahead of the Nazis is to keep his friends close and his enemies closer.
Although he plays both sides of the fence as a Nazi collaborator and French resistant, a tangled web of interests forms around him that proves it will take a lot more than money to pay for the survival of his family.
Readers coming to this expecting a comics version of Schindler’s List should be dissuaded of any such notions. Over almost 400 pages of, frankly, gorgeous art, Once Upon a Time in France introduces us not only to a complex, driven central character, one who has known persecution since youth and barely escaped with his life; we also meet family, friends and foes, a rich, diverse and at times bewilderingly complex cast, all largely dealing with the Nazi occupation of France during World War Two for much of the tale.
Once Upon a Time in France isn’t just a historical wartime adventure. Throughout, as Joanovici’s story unfolds, this powerful graphic novel holds up a mirror on humanity, presenting him with near impossible choices. You can’t help but wonder just what you might do, faced with some of the dangerous choices Joanovici has to make to keep family and friends safe, and wonder just what drives him onwards against the odds. Is it purely a matter of survival, or something more?
(His motivations are, I’d suggest, deliberately kept vague and accusations that his characterisation is somewhat flat, without merit).
In the end, I’d venture to suggest that there are no heroes or, for the most part, villains in Once Upon a Time in France. What there are, are people – some trying to do the right thing, be it those seeking to bring Joanovici to justice, with their own flaws, or Joanovici whose path proves, for the most part, a decidedly unhappy one, for all those he saves from Nazi execution and his obvious wealth and talent.
The creative team on Once Upon a Time in France fully deserve the many credits lauded on them for this frankly cinematic, powerfully graphic novel. It’s no easy read, posing questions of ourselves as well as its characters.
• Once Upon a Time in France is available now from all good bookshops, including AmazonUK (Affiliate Link)
• Fabien Nury has scripted more than fifteen comics series, including Once Upon a Time in France, which won the Best Series Award at the Angoulême Comics Festival and The Death of Stalin, published in English by Titan Comics, which was adapted to the film with Steve Buscemi. Nury is also a television screenwriter and has created the Guyane TV series | Europe Comics Profile
• Sylvain Vallée graduated from the Saint-Luc School of Brussels. He started as a freelance illustrator in advertising and cartoonist. He published his first comic book with Glénat at age 25 and has worked on a dozen series | Facebook | Europe Comics Profile