Templar from First Second Books is a 480-page graphic novel and one of the most perfect representations of what the term means. The enormous work has a strong protagonist with complex and even conflicting goals, a wealth of secondary characters with their own goals and stories, and a rich background in a troubled world. It even comes with a selected bibliography and a discussion of further reading. Not many other graphic novels go to that length.
Jordan Mechner is the spirit behind the beast. Well known for his outstanding writing for the video games Karateka and, even more famously, Prince of Persia, Mechner is a master of giving depth and spinning mysteries to be unraveled. His characters are rich and, quite importantly on the subject at hand, fallible. Rather than the flat characters often seen in Medieval romances, the period is seen in a genuine light. Europe at the end of the Middle Ages was not a writhing cesspool that saw only starvation and plague, nor was it a glamorized realm of polished castles and delighted peasantry who sang alongside woodland creatures. Just like today, there was bad and good. People dumped their sewage into the street, true, but the streets were designed to wash it into sewer systems. Every class of citizen had its joys and problems.
Mechner gives a human face to one of the most whispered-about and objectified organizations in Western history: the Knights Templar. As he states in the afterword, “Much nonsense has been written about the Knights Templar over the years,” and he readily agrees that his fictional tale of treasure-hunting is as ridiculous as the rest. The background, however, is as accurate as possible. He uses actual speeches from Knight Templar Grand Master Jacques de Molay, cardinals, and lawyers in the order’s trial. Fourteenth century Paris is riddled with politicking, power-mongering, rumors, and counter-rumors, just like today. The Medieval period did have its torture and assassination, however, which gives Templar a sickening realism.
The initial plot is the return of protagonist and Templar knight Martin, who discovers the girl he left behind to join the order with promises of “wait for me” has not waited. While Martin and his friends sneak out of the Paris Temple to drink away their woes, the mass-arrest of the Templars is ordered by the king. After months hiding out, Martin discovers that the Templar treasure, missing since the beginning of the trial, is still hidden, and he assembles a crack team including his lost love to find it, steal it, and return it to the remainder of the Templars in hiding.
Illustrated by LeUyen Pham and Alex Puvilland, the drawing is perhaps best described as “gritty cartoon.” It has etching and broad uses of color reminiscent of Frank Miller’s 300, but the human proportions and faces are softer, like something from the darker end of Disney. It becomes very dark indeed, showing the gruesome Siege of Acre, torture under inquisition, and hardship. The illustrations match the writing well, showing the complexity of life alongside its wonder, including the fabled Treasure of Solomon.