Review: District 14: Season One

District 14

District 14

District 14: Season One

Written by Pierre Gabus
Art by Romuald Reutimann
Translated by Natacha Ruck & Ken Grobe
304 pages/Black & White/$39.95

Humanoids, Inc.

Orwell knew it when he bought that farm. Art Spiegelman knew it when he first played cat and mouse. Old Aesop knew it when he pointed the bitter, hungry fox toward the vain, satisfied crow.

The other animals with which we share this rock are uniquely suited to parading our every flaw and foible, marching us through the most scathing morality plays, up on their hind legs, garbed in our Sunday best.

Most recently, books like Blacksad cast cats and dogs and gorillas and roosters in the roles of cops and robbers, politicians and femmes fatale. Exquisite and essential as that book remains, it’s not nearly so insightful or surprising as District 14, a newly collected French fable from the fine people at Humanoids.  Though it is unrelated to the sleeper hit sci-fi action film District 9 or Luc Beson’s District 13, the works share some fascinating corollaries, including French pedigrees and treacherous high-rises (13) as well as actual extra-terrestrials (9). This is a story about isolation, even ghettoization, in a world of towering paranoia.

From District 14, art by Romuald Reutimann

From District 14, art by Romuald Reutimann

In his foreword, Bone and RASL cartoonist Jeff Smith likens District 14 to Little Orphan Annie, Dick Tracy, a smattering of noir and gangster films and Babar the Elephant, and he’s hit it right on the trunk. Not just because our anti-hero Michael is a hulking pachyderm, but because he’s an immigrant in a strange land. We’re introduced to Michael’s sordid history as this first ‘season’ progresses, though all the while he’s settling into a new life in a bizarre new society. District 14 plays host not just to anthropomorphic animals, but to humans, squid-like aliens and even costumed superheroes. Unlike in Maus, these groups don’t represent a specific kind of person or rank of social class. A toad might represent a particularly grotesque figure and aliens might be universally maligned and mistrusted by the rest of society, but it’s not quite as clean cut as mice representing Jewish peoples or cats standing in for nazis. Add in the exploits of vigilantes like Tigerman or the mind-melding abilities of the aliens, and readers are presented with a rich, multi-textured world far more complex than the typical fable.

Perhaps the creators’ most elegant inventions is the dilapidated high rise where Michael comes to live. It towers high above the streets and several floors aren’t even accessible by elevator or stairs, requiring a perilous excursion out to the fire escape. Climb even higher and one floor of the tower is connected to a neighboring skyskraper via cable car shuttle. Then, up amongst the highest spires, dirigibles putter through the clouds. The building itself serves as a cross-section of the District’s peculiar culture and classes, its occupants bullied by horse-faced mobsters forcing protection services and membership dues. Michael tangles with these goons early on, but it’s far from the only corruption he encounters as an immigrant in this raucous, tawdry underworld. Along with his first new friend, a wise-talking beaver who fancies himself a crusader of the fourth estate, Michael confronts actual gangsters with severed heads in their suitcases.

While not so exquisitely rendered as Blacksad, District 14 boasts a whimsical, Sunday strip aesthetic in perfect contrast to its sinister themes. This is a bona fide dog-eat-dog world, so to offer it in a style not so far removed from Babar’s makes for a delightfully subversive juxtaposition. Cast in stark black and white with some muted gray tones, it’s a deceptively simple presentation that allows for huge shocks when the story wanders into the salacious and horrific. This is the natural progression of the gallows-humored fables and fairy tales before the zeitgeist sterilized and de-clawed them.

This is the simple, mercy-free law of the jungle as it persists in our urban domain.

Story: 4/Art: 3.5/Overall: 4

(Out of 5 Stars)


  1. Actually the art is precisely the reason I want this book…

  2. I loved reading this for a lot of the reasons you mentioned. Thanks for the nice review. Everyone in for something different should try and get this. The book seems to be OOP print already though.

  3. I pre-ordered this from Amazon, but eventually cancelled the order because it was taking forever to ship and I hadn’t really heard any buzz around it. It still sounds really good, so I may try and scoop up a copy when I get the scratch together. Thanks for the review.

    • Yeah, Amazon cancelled mine a while back. There seems to be some distribution snag going on with Humanoids and Amazon as none of their recent books are being listed. I purchased it through DCBS/InStockTrades.

  4. Also, not to quibble, but did you mean District 9 as the surprise sci-fi movie or were you making a joke about the direct to video District 13?

  5. Gotcha. Great review as always.