Balkans Arena is a deeply emotional, layered story that is very difficult to sum up. It’s difficult because so much of what it’s about unfolds until the very end of the story. The story follows Fran (Which is a man’s name in case you were wondering); he’s originally from Croatia and he’s learned that his mother has died. He hasn’t been back home since leaving and so he reluctantly heads home with his son. His son Ben has never been to his father’s home and so he’s rather excited about it. From there we dive into the complex family drama that is Fran’s life. His brother that feels abandoned and left in Fran’s shadow, his father that’s crippled the family with his debts and the overall resentment towards Fran for leaving them all behind for Canada. Ben starts off carefree and happy. Until he’s forced to play with his cousins and they pick on him for being Westernized.
At this point you’re probably thinking, oh some Taken-esque shit is going to happen right? Not really, no. Ben is kidnapped, but there’s no ransom and no demands. Fran starts to lose it in trying to track down his son, but he never busts out a retired skill set to do so. No he’s very much like any parent that’s lost their child, angry, frustrated and looking for answers.
As for Ben, well after being kidnapped, he’s trained at hand-to-hand combat. Why you ask? Because his kidnappers run an underground kid fighting network that broadcasts all over the world to the rich and deprived. It is truly a fucked up situation as this gentle and caring kid is slowly broken down and made into a fighter so that he might survive and see his father another day.
There is a ton of story left for you to read. There’s a lot going on with Fran’s family and with Ben’s captors. Ben’s captors in particular are an interesting aspect of the story. Once they find out about Ben’s background most of them panic and constantly want to either free him or kill him, but the leader refuses. It’s one of the aspects of the story that play out over time and concludes at the very end.
Balkans Arena is a slow burn. You really spend a lot of time with Fran and Ben before Ben’s kidnapping and so a great deal of the opening leaves you wondering what exactly the story is about. Especially if you haven’t read the back cover, which I don’t tend to do. The writing really emerges you into this world. In a way we experience the story as a member of the family looking in on our relatives as they go through something tragic. The dialogue is sharply written and the conversations feel genuine. There’s a huge character arc for Ben in particular, but Fran and his family go through growth as well.
I can’t talk about the writing without mentioning the ending. No, I’m not telling you the ending, but rather comment on it. It’s okay. It honestly gets a little sloppy at the end and then lingers a bit too much after the main story is resolved. In a way this starts another part of the story, but it obviously doesn’t have the page count to continue it. It’s a solid ending, but like I said, sloppy compared to the rest.
The art is photo realistic and never drops in quality. There’s a variety of character designs and Fran’s family look like a family rather than just a bunch of similarly drawn characters. There’s a big difference between the adults and the kids, at least in the beginning. The adults tend to have extra details and scratchy lines, while the kids remain smooth and innocent looking. That is until the fighting later obviously. The coloring has a lot of muted tones. It’s good looking, but not vibrant. It’s just kind of somber and depressing at times which really matches the mood of the story. Overall, the art is very good and since this is translated material it shows how strong it is by standing on its own.
You can probably decide for yourself if this is a book for you. It’s not really a genre specific book nor does it have something that I can equate it to. It is in a lot of ways a family drama with some very dark elements. I’m glad to have read it and that Humanoids published it because it’s not a story most American publishers would take a chance on and that’s a shame because it really is story worth reading and sharing.
Balkans Arena Writer: Philippe Thirault Artists: Jorge Miguel Colorist: Javi Montes Publisher: Humanoids Price: $24.95 Format: OGN; Print/Digital