Les Cités Obscures (The Obscure Cities) is a series of comic albums created by the French writer and comics specialist Benoît Peeters and the illustrator and scenographer François Schuiten. It includes twelve albums, from The Great Walls of Samaris (1983) to Souvernirs de l’Eternel Présent (2009), as well as some special issues including albums, books, dvds and cds. The first five volumes of the series were originally published as Cities of the Fantastic by NMB Publishing between 1987 and 2004. Alaxis Press, after a successful crowfunding campaign, managed to publish The Leaning Girl in 2014 and has announced the intention of continuing with the rest of unpublished volumes in English and releasing new editions of the first five albums.

The series takes place in a parallel universe, a sort of Anti-Earth where people live in city-states. Each city has a different architectural style and a particular organization and peculiarities. In this fashion, Xhystos is an Art Nouveau megalopolis of wild nature, glass and iron where rust and monotony are constant features and Samaris is dominated by Baroque tramp l’oeil buildings which cause space-time confusion (known as the Samaros effect) to those who visit the city. Even if most inhabitants of their universe are unaware of ours (and vice versa), there are passages which connect both worlds and some people have crossed them, such as the painter Augustin Desombres in The Leaning Girl. Some of the cities are inspired or directly based on real places (such as Brüsel, Phary, København and Genova), so Peteers and Schuiten manage to create an effect of both familiarity and estrangement in the reader

The cities, as the name indicates, are obscure and intriguing. In many albums, the reader, together with the protagonist, discovers one of the cities and a mystery that surrounds it. The cities are depicted as giant megalopolis in a retrofuturistic style. Architecture itself is one of the main topics in many albums, as in the the symmetrical obsession in city-planning in Fever in Urbicande or the “Brusselization” process (named after the careless urban developments which changed the Belgian capital in the 60s and the 70s) in Brüsel.

The series show the influence of a large number of artists and authors: from Jules Verne’s extraordinary voyages to Borges metaphysical imagery, from Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s imaginary prisons to Magritte’s surrealism, from Franz Kafka’s absurdity to Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities.  Peeters and Schuiten have created a complete universe with recurring characters and themes, which has expanded even more through spin-offs in collaboration with other artists and media. These works, such as Le Guide des Cités (a travel guide to the Obscure Cities) and L’Echo des Cités (a major Obscure newspaper) contribute to the verisimilitude and coherence of the universe.

 — Enrique del Rey Cabero

Further Reading

Enrique del Rey Cabero completed a Master’s Degree in Spanish as a foreign language (International University Menéndez Pelayo) and Master’s Degree in Literary Research (National University of Distance Education, UNED). He is currently enrolled in a PhD program (Universidad de Granada) exploring the traditional reading protocols and formats of graphic narratives and their fragmentation. Enrique has been a Spanish lecturer in Spain, Belgium and Australia since 2009. He has done research on Comics, Spanish tebeos, Spanish as a Foreign Language, Hispanic Literature and the relationships between Music and Literature.