Kenya, 1947. A hunting expedition led by American writer John Remington makes a startling encounter, and then vanishes without a trace. Shortly afterwards, Katherine Austin, agent of the British Secret Intelligence Service, arrives in Mombasa. Her mission: investigate a series of mysterious sightings and incidents, of which the disappearance of the Remington party could be the latest. Undercover as a teacher, courted by colleagues who may be working for competing secret services, she’s about to enter a whole new reality…
Kenya is five-issue comic book series from French artist Luiz Eduardo de Oliveira (pen name Leo) and co-written by Rodolphe (who I can’t find any information about). The series debuted in 2001 and was translated into English in 2014. The story is a mashup of spy story, safari adventure, and pulp sci-fi, all centered around the mysterious reappearance of long-extinct animals in post-World War II Kenya. The comic is beautiful to look at but not always a pleasant read, being populated with some truly unsavory characters.
The series opens with safari led by John Remington, an American writer who enjoys drinking too much, beating his wife, and regularly threatening his male companions. (The character is modeled after real-life writer Ernest Hemingway.) The hunters are setting up camp one day when they come across a strange animal that towers over the giraffes grazing near it: The giant rhino Paraceratherium. Before we learn what happens next, the story jumps ahead in time and introduces us to Katherine Austin, a British spy who is ordered to look for Remington’s safari, which has disappeared without a trace. She soon meets two men—both possibly spies—who immediately set out trying to woo her. Her investigation leads to reports about strange lights in the sky and the discovery of the charred remains of a species that died out millions of years ago.
I won’t delve any further into the plot because most of the enjoyment to be found in reading Kenya comes from unraveling the central mystery, which is engaging. And there is certainly a lot of plot in the series, as each of the five issues is a hefty 48 pages. The problem is the creators are never quite sure what direction they want to take the story. In the first issue Kenya is clearly a science fiction mystery. The second issue starts out as a safari adventure, then briefly transforms into a monster story before introducing an element straight out of Aliens. After that the comic suddenly veers into Close Encounters of the Third Kind territory while at the same time becoming a Cold War thriller. It finally settles back on science fiction mystery in the concluding issues, but by that time most readers will have suffered literary whiplash. The constant shifts between genres leave the story unfocused, like the creators had a lot of neat ideas but not a good handle about how to fit them into a coherent narrative. Also not helping is seemingly important characters are frequently introduced only to be casually killed or, more often, just exit the story with barely another mention.
Unfortunately flaws in how characters are handled don’t stop there. The men are… how can I say this… well, they’re a bit rapey. Remington is by far the worst, but he is written as an asshole and isn’t someone readers should sympathize with. However, he is also one the characters we spend the most time with, and when he engages in what is by definition rape, the target of his lust is shown enjoying it. Other men in the comic spend time either forcing their affections on women or fantasizing about it. Meanwhile, all the female characters are drawn with supermodel figures and usually end up undressed at some point. (Apparently the English-language version of the comic censors the nudity from the original French version.) Listen, I’m no prude and I understand attitudes towards women in the 1940s were far different than they are today, but I’m pretty sure the creators weren’t commenting on gender relations of the era. They just have creepy ideas about how to treat women.
If you can look past the problematic characters, by far Kenya’s greatest asset is the artwork. While the humans can at times look more like mannequins than people, the artist excels at landscapes, which are as rich and colorful as the African setting demands. The prehistoric animals are not illustrated in any great detail but the art is still effective. A paleo-nerd like myself was able to easily identify the different species that appear throughout the series.
To summarize: Kenya is narratively muddled and saddled with backward attitudes about sex, but the story’s central mystery is interesting and the art beautiful to look at. I give the series a qualified thumbs-up. Yes, I have reservations, but on the whole I felt it worth the read.
- A sequel titled Namibia was released in 2010. I haven’t read it, but as far as I can tell the plot involves Nazis and giant insects.
- Samples of art from the series can be viewed on the official English-language website of the publisher.
- Grovel (Issue 1, but with links to reviews of other issues)
- Down the Tubes (Issue 1)
- The Slings & Arrows Graphic Novels Guide (Issue 1, with links to reviews of other issues)