REVIEW: Marathon by Nicolas Debon

Reviewed by Andy Fraser, Zoë Collins & Shura Price from Todmorden Writers’ Collective

Writer and artist: Nicolas Debon

Publisher: Europe Comics

Release date: 22nd September 2021

Price: £6.27

In any narrative journey there are well-trodden routes, and paths not taken. This beautiful graphic novel by Nicolas Debon, translated from the original French by M B Valente, is a bit of both. Marathon, about the unlikely victory of the Algerian runner Ahmed Boughèra El Ouafi in the Olympic Marathon of 1928, is essentially an “underdog” tale we’ve heard before, but it is told with style. The historical detail, such as use of a speech by Pierre de Coubertin to open the novel, sets a place and time within seconds; and the use of a sports commentator as the narrator, whose opinions are very much of his time, is also inspired.  

But it’s the art style that really sets this novel apart. The limited colour palette can at times be oppressive and emotionally charged; for example in the confined space of the Olympisch Stadion in Amsterdam at the start of the race. Elsewhere, there is a confidence in leaving large parts of the frame uncoloured: no lettering, maybe just a broad wash background. Whole textless sequences evoke the freedom of running through the flat landscapes of the Netherlands as the competition thins out, and allow thoughts to race as quickly as the runners. The  salmon-tinged base colour reminded us of a sepia photograph, giving a period feel; while bright blues are used effectively to pick out details such as the French team’s shirts, including, of course, El Ouafi himself. As the race intensifies, the light pastel gradually darkens to red swirls and spatters, as the exertion begins to tell.

The stark Futurist verticals and crossbeams of buildings contrasts well with the rougher, sketchy portrayal of landscape and people. The figures are simple and expressive, and the cross-hatching evokes real emotion, movement, and period detail. The fields and rivers seem wide, endless and beautiful, and provide a real sense of continual movement.

At times, the moments of activity – the flap of wings as doves take flight, the starting pistol and hustling of bodies to gain a position – could almost be heard.

We also appreciated the historical notes at the end of the novel. El Ouafi’s biography was unknown to us, but it was such a fascinating read that we were left wondering if the 1928 marathon wasn’t merely one small avenue in a busy network of story-paths that would have made an even more interesting graphic novel.

The story of Marathon is slim and well-trodden: the plucky underdog romping home triumphant. The way it is told is fresh and new and beautiful, and it suits the medium of a graphic novel in a way that made it hard to imagine it being told as well in any other artistic form. However, the story of El Ouafi before and after the marathon of 1928 was where our attention lay: the furore surrounding his success, and his subsequent fall into forgotten poverty when the French state no longer needed him. That is the story we longed to read; the enticing path not taken.

Buy your copy of Marathon here.

Todmorden Writers’ Collective is a group led by writers, and based in Todmorden, West Yorkshire, UK. They organise public events to foreground underrepresented writers worldwide. Find them on Twitter @ItsTheTWC