Catching Up with Tardi

When you’re a comics fan, being monolingual stinks—especially if your mother tongue is English.  The wealth of superior graphic novels derived from rich foreign traditions and available only in other languages—from Japan, Europe, Korea and elsewhere—is tantalizingly huge.  Should any such exotic volume fall into his hands, the English-centric viewer can study all the pretty pictures, of course, but never grasp the totality of these works.

Every now and again, the U.S. market sees fit to produce a graphic novel in translation, and the eyes of readers are opened to vast new worlds.  Barefoot Gen or Kampung Boy hint at scores of allied books of equal worth left silent at our shores.  Still, each rare visitor here should be savored for introducing us to new voices, new visions.

Fantagraphics Press has always sought to play a part in remedying this deficit in the comics marketplace, and last  summer they embarked on an ambitious program to introduce one particular writer-artist to American audiences, the French creator Jacques Tardi.  Their first two releases are West Coast Blues and You Are There, with It Was the War of the Trenches slated to follow in April of this year.

Because Tardi’s career stretches back forty years, and because he is still active, we are assured of a steady stream of books from his pen under the Fantagraphics imprint:   a prospect much to be anticipated, based on the achievement displayed in these first  offerings.  But as part of the opening salvo, we also get a bonus.  For Tardi did not script these two books.  His collaborators were the noir novelist Jean-Patrick Manchette on West Coast Blues and Jean-Claude Forest, creator of Barbarella, on You Are There.  So, lucky American readers are also granted an introduction to two French literary figures who otherwise might escape their notice.

Let’s look at West Coast Blues first.

Manchette (unfortunately deceased by age fifty-two in 1995) originally issued Le Petit Bleu de la Côte Ouest as a pure prose novel in 1976.  He later worked hand-in-hand with Tardi to adapt the story to graphic form.  Luckily for us, an English version of the original is readily available, under the title 3 to Kill.  Reading it prior to tackling the Tardi rendition is illuminating.

Manchette’s brand of punk noir bears an existential, leftist tinge, with traces of Ballardian anomie.  Our hero’s nearly Kafkaesque dilemma undermines the bedrock rationality and core virtues of society in a kind of anarchic assault, reducing human relations to a Darwinian struggle.  But at the same time, Manchette never neglects the virtues of pulp storytelling, providing suspense and action aplenty.  This is a novel in love with classic American noir, explicitly referencing such landmarks as Sam Fuller’s Pickup on South Street as touchstones.

Georges Gerfaut, a bored, restless businessman with a seemingly ideal life, performs a simple act of Good Samaritanism by succoring the victim of a car crash.  The next thing he knows, pitiless contract killers are inexplicably assigned to waste him.  He avoids their first attempt during a family vacation by luck and resourcefulness.  But instead of confiding in his wife or the police, he uses the threat as an excuse to abandon his family, plunging into a rootless, Camusinian existence of violence and moments of surprising grace.  This intermittent cat-and-mouse game lasts for nearly a year, during which Gerfaut is deemed missing forever by all his loved ones and undergoes a kind of psychic and physical annealing.  Finally achieving a harsh victory over his tormentors, he simply shows up on his family’s Paris doorstep, claiming either faked or actual amnesia—Manchette never reveals which.  Ultimately, “there is no way of saying exactly how things will turn out for Georges Gerfaut.”

Manchette’s sardonic, blackly humorous voice, heavy with mocking scientific precision like some Dr. Benway, contours the whole telling, and the reader immediately wonders how this appealing viewpoint will survive the transition to comics form.

Opening Tardi’s adaptation, one is quickly reassured by the faithfulness to the original novel.  Unafraid to rely heavily on omniscient captions—a mode rather in disrepute these days among American comics creators—the story instantly replicates the tone and heft of the original, with Manchette employing the novel’s exact prose in measured doses.  He will eschew the omniscient narration during crucial action scenes, where dialogue and art are sufficient to convey the story.  But much of the strength of the tale resides in these floating boxes.

Tardi seems to have read Manchette’s mind when it came to visualizing the characters, scenery and action of the novel.  His renderings of faces, places and events conforms brilliantly to Manchette’s descriptions.  However, there are instances where even Tardi’s superb skills cannot trump Manchette’s prose.  Consider the first appearance of Béa, Gerfaut’s wife, in the comic:  rather drab and lackluster.  Now, from the novel:  “Béa was…a superb and horrible mare of a woman:  big-boned and elegant; with big green eyes; thick, healthy, long black hair; big, hard white breasts; wide, round white shoulders; a big hard creamy ass; a big, hard white belly; and long, muscular thighs.”  Hands down, the colorful winner!

At only eighty pages, the graphic novel encapsulates ninety percent of the 134-page novel, with a couple of omissions, such as the useful view of Gerfaut’s office life.  There are one or two tricks the story pulls that the novel does not and possibly cannot, such as when a superhero beloved by one of the killers manifests over the killer’s shoulder at an emotional juncture.  The graphic novel mysteriously falters in a couple of places, simplifying the deaths of the second killer and of Gerfaut’s lover in a manner that diminishes their horror and impact.  But overall, it provides a highly satisfying incarnation of the novel.

But what, you ask, of Tardi’s art?  He is a follower of the “clear line” school developed by Hergé, Tintin’s creator.  This style might almost be dubbed “journalistic,” in that mimesis and naturalism is favored over expressionism, with uncluttered and effective page compositions as well.  Not that Tardi’s unique drawing style is not instantly recognizable or idiosyncratic.  His depictions of facial expressions in particular are quirky and wry.  But his superior drafting skills are always in service to a tight rendering of the real world, from trains to forests to city streets. 

Curiously enough, this style has never been much in vogue in the USA.  A few affinities exist in the work of Will Eisner, Milt Caniff, Alex Raymond or other adventure-strip artists.  Perhaps EC comics auteur Bernie Krigstein or DC comics standout Alex Toth are the closest American exemplars of Tardi’s mode.  Curiously enough, the recent Darwyn Cooke adaptation of Donald Westlake’s Parker:  The Hunter provides an intriguing point of comparison:  a more cartoony version of clear line, American-style.

Turning to Tardi ‘s earlier work, You Are There, scripted by Forest (like Manchette, lamentably dead too young, aged 58 in 1998), we encounter a looser, sketchier style, admirably suited to the baggy-pants, fabulistic story and exhibiting similarities to the work of such artists as Moebius, Rick Geary, Aubrey Beardsley and Edward Gorey.  Outburst of calculated surrealism complement his unswerving attention to the quotidian.  The beautiful and sensitive architectural renderings, as well as shots of nature—fields, a lake, birds, trees—contrast with the goofiness of our protagonist to good effect.  The same serene page compositions, no single panel bigger than half a page, continue to contribute to a transparent storytelling methodology.

Forest’s 1979 tale exudes a fin de Sixties, fey whimsicality.  Think The Mouse That Roared crossed with Gormenghast and The Prisoner.  Beckett-like soliloquies and Pinteresque dialogue round out the ambiance.

A small patch of France known as Mornemont, or “The Land Within,”  is structured as a series of estates bounded and subdivided by a labyrinth of walls.  Atop these walls, and only atop these walls, forbidden to set foot on earth, lives Arthur There, as both warden and inmate.  His family once owned all of Mornemont, and he has a legal suit underway to reassert his rights.  Meanwhile, the courts have given him the walls as his exclusive domain.  He utilizes a system of locked gates to hinder the residents and earn his living, granting passage for a fee.  That this annoying role requires the utmost excruciations from him pales beside the pleasure he gets in frustrating the usurpers.  He lives in a walltop shed, utilizing a walltop outhouse and adjacent lake for ablutions.  A passing aquatic grocer supplies his other needs.

Arthur’s life undergoes a major seachange when he begins a relationship with a nymphomaniacal woman named Julie Maillard.  But the most consequential development is occuring at a distance:  in the capital, the government has plans for Mornemont, and the troopships are loading…

Forest’s script provides clever segues between Mornemont and the capital.  But the governmental subplot is a tad heavyhanded, and much less interesting than Arthur’s daily life.  Luckily, Forest realized that, and the majority of the tale focuses satisfyingly on the sad Mr. There.  His life is the paradigm of senseless, spiteful self-immolation, an indictment of modern deracination.  His lugubriousness infests the whole novel.  I do not believe there is a single smile portrayed in the entire story.  In fact, Julie’s deadpan face, even in moments of exuberance, becomes something of a running joke, and we are reminded of Barbarella’s unfazeability amidst the most alarming circumstances.

But there is no such stolidity in Jacques Tardi’s  larger art, gifted as it is with a facile line that can replicate both reality and the outre products of a writer’s imagination.  More vitally, these two volumes testify to his born storyteller’s flair for pacing and plotting, a trait that most graphic novel artists would give their entire walled kingdoms to possess.