Once Upon a Time in France

Written by Fabien Nury Sylvain Vallee
Review by John Kachuba

This graphic novel series, first published in France with over 1 million copies sold, has received several awards, including the Angoulême International Comics Festival Best Series Award. Dead Reckoning has collected the six volumes and complied them in one beautifully produced book.

The gripping novel is based upon the true story of Joseph Joanovici, a Romanian Jew, who emigrated to France in the 1920s and became fabulously wealthy as a scrap-metal magnate. When Europe is plunged into the nightmare of World War II, Joanovici’s business becomes critical to the manufacture of French war materiel to be used against the Nazis. But Germany needs metal as much as France, and Joanovici is quick to recognize the business potential offered by the Third Reich.

The shrewd businessman walks a tightrope in his business dealings as both a Nazi collaborator and member of the French Resistance. He sometimes finds himself involved in ruthless transactions that, in saner times, would clearly be viewed as illegal and immoral; at war’s end, there are many who would like to see him called to account for those actions. Joanovici sees his activities as necessary to his survival, but they exact a high price from his family and personal relationships.

The story is not merely a retelling of an obscure part of World War II history but also a profound moral investigation into the depths of a man’s soul that questions what he, or we for that matter, may be capable of doing in the worst of circumstances.

Nury’s fine dialogue and the excellent illustrations by Sylvain Vallée bring an almost cinematic perspective to the book that keeps the reader turning pages. This book is highly recommended, even for readers who do not typically read graphic novels.