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Larry B. Max is a man with an unusual talent. He has a brain that is like a computer, figures just tumble into place and he can read tax statements like no one else in the world.
This makes him one of the top agents working for the American tax collecting agency... The Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
He is more than just a tax collector though, he works for a special section of the IRS and investigates the most complex and confusing of cases. Cases that only his talent to unravel the labyrinthine mazes that fraudsters use to avoid paying their taxes can solve.
He will do whatever it takes to bring these tax cheats to justice, even if it means sometimes resorting to becoming more like James Bond then a typical IRS investigator
In this first English language edition, reprinting the first two European volumes, the first story has Larry is investigating a Swiss banker who has moved to the US and seems to have done something odd in what he has declared as his monetary resources in his new US bank.
Larry is investigating him when he dies in a car accident that looks anything but an accident to him. His investigative nature leads him to look into the death and it soon leads him to a much more lucrative, and dangerous, target.
'Taxing Trails' is the title of the volume and the first story. It very quickly throws us straight into the action.
The story is only 48 pages long and the complex nature of it, involving foreign accounts, the treatment of Jews by the Nazis in WWII and how the Swiss banks have acted in regards of accounts set up by Jews who died in German camps since then makes for a somewhat confusing storyline. Though it also makes for a gripping one to.
Larry gets deeply involved in the mystery and he isn't shy about pulling a gun if he has one pointed in his direction.
The conclusion of 'Taxing Trails' does seem a bit sudden, leaving a lot of the puzzle to your own assumptions and deductions. You can work out a lot of what was going on but it isn't actually explained in the story.
Luckily for us English language readers we don't have to wait long for things to be cleared up as the second story in this volume, 'The Hagen Strategy', has Larry going to extraordinary lengths, and risking his life, by travelling to Switzerland.
He digs deeper into the background of the villain from the first story and, like a dog with a bone, refuses to let go of the slim snatches of information he has to find out precisely what was going on.
What makes IR$ such a great read though is that, like a lot of European comics , it is a complicated, intelligent and has a very real feel to it. This isn't simple stuff that you can read without paying close attention to. This is more akin to a novel with picture, or a short story at the very least. Comics have a bad rep in the UK, and to some extent in the USA as well, but in Europe (and in fact most of the rest of the world) they are popular with adults and children alike. That is part of the reason that stuff like this can be made. This is certainly not for kids as Larry is a man who not only seduces women to get to the information they hold but also holds regular conversations with a woman on a sex line.
Originally released in Europe in 1999 IR$ is a Belgian creation (proof positive that there is something good in the country!) written by Stephen Desberg (who also writes the completely different but equally brilliant 'The Scorpion' series also available from Cinebook) with art by Bernard Vrancken.
Comic artwork in Europe is a very different thing from its American counterparts. A lot of people will have read at least one Asterix or Tintin story and the page layouts of those are pretty much the same as this. By this I mean that rather than having innovative, over the top pages of art the Europeans go for a straight forward 8/9 panels of art per page set up.
They don't go for great big splash pages (one piece of art taking up a whole page) instead we just get a whole page full of beautiful art that concentrates on complementing the story rather than competing with it.
Vrancken is a very good artist indeed. The characters all look very realistic and there is a very European look to the art. It is hard to explain this unless you are familiar with comic artwork. If you took a piece of art done by an American artist and placed it next to a European one it would be immediately obvious which is which. There is a certain style to European artists that is not only instantaneously recognisable but is also very appealing.
IR$ has been released in the UK by Cinebook (cinebook.com) and has a RRP of £9.99 but is available, as of the date of this review, for £8.99 from Amazon.
If you like comics, or like a very good story that just happens to have illustrations to go along with the words, then this first volume of IR$ is well worth a look.
I have already got hold of the second volume myself which tells you more than anything else about how good I think this is.
A combination of a great character, terrific storytelling and top quality art makes IR$ one of the top European graphic novels now available in English.
Will it continue to be as good, to reach the classic heights reached by such luminaries as Charlier and Giraud's Blueberry, Pratt's Corto Maltese, Goscinny and Uderzo's Asterix, Christin and Mezieres' Valerian and Herge's Tintin...... only time will tell.