Monday, July 25, 2011

Talking Tardi

Let's examine the recent (and welcome) spate of English translations of books by the great French artist Jacques Tardi. Thanks to translator Kim Thompson's tireless efforts and an American audience that may finally be opening up to French comics, there have been five Fantagraphics translations released to date, with two more due for imminent release and others in the pipeline. Tardi is an interesting figure because he felt comfortable writing mainstream material like detective stories, mysteries, fantasy and even science-fiction (though usually of a period nature; The Arctic Marauder, for example is a steampunk book) as well as more experimental and mature fare. No matter what the subject, his books always have a density and meatiness to them that rewards multiple readings. I'll briefly examine each book roughly in order of narrative complexity. Here's a link to my review of the other Tardi book that's been released in the last year or so by Fantagraphics, West Coast Blues.

The Arctic Marauder. This was Tardi's third graphic novel, done back in 1974. This was a bewildering read, combining elements of Jules Verne, G.K. Chesterton and a feverishly-rendered scratchboard style. In contrast to Tardi's more rubbery, visceral style, the images in The Arctic Marauder look carved out of a page. The density of the inking and hatchwork and the moodiness of the grays conjures up a forbidding, dangerous world of instant death at sea. After a while, it felt like Tardi cared less about his story than the opportunity to draw incredibly cool-looking ships, machines and battles at sea. In a book that's already pretty short (just 63 pages), The Arctic Marauder feels quite padded. The book's saving grace is that Tardi doesn't seem to take much of it that seriously. Indeed, his narration is so over-the-top that it spills over into being straight-up purple prose. The plot, such as it is, is paper-thin. What isn't immediately obvious comes out of nowhere, and the characterizations (and their reversals) are frequently baffling. That said, the ending (featuring the villains making a daring get-away in their quest to menace the world) was a bit unexpected, and the narrator's final statements add to the tongue-in-cheek nature of the story. Fans of Tardi's more mature works might be disappointed in the story but will certainly be taken aback by the sheer beauty of its images on page after page.

The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec, Volume 1: Pterror Over Paris and The Eiffel Tower Demon. This book, collecting the first two volumes in the series, was previously translated and published by NBM & Dark Horse in the 1980s (thanks to Tom Spurgeon for that particular tidbit). Like all of the previous attempts to translate and publish Tardi for the American market, it was met with indifference. In an interview with Spurgeon, Kim Thompson offered a few theories as to why he thought this was. Essentially, the most mainstream of French novels were too genre-oriented to draw in American art-comics audiences but were too weird for the average American mainstream comics fan. That weirdness, in my view, has to do with a visual approach that's taken for granted in Europe but is jarring for American audiences. There's a tradition of bigfoot and even slightly grotesque character design paired with rock-solid naturalism in terms of the action and backgrounds in European comics that starts with comics aimed at kids and is not unusual to see even in comics aimed at adults. Art-comics audiences might dismiss the cutesiness of the bigfoot drawing while mainstream audiences have never been kind to that sort of art crossing over into their genre stories.

What's changed is the rise of manga's popularity in the US. Cutesiness (as interpreted by an American) in serious stories is a given for many such comics. At the same time, the reputation of artists like Jack Cole (a classic bigfoot stylist) has risen in the past two decades in the art-comics crowd. The proliferation of artists fusing art-comics sensibilities with genre stories has no doubt made Tardi more palatable for American audiences, especially with Lewis Trondheim finally breaking through in the US. Tardi's cranky female adventurer Adele Blanc-Sec has starred in nine albums written & drawn by the artist, and they've been his most popular creation in France.

The books are period pieces set in early 20th century Paris, and while there's much about them that's predictable and formulaic, Tardi throws in bizarre narrative monkey wrenches at unexpected times. For example, the first story in this volume ("Pterror Over Paris") quickly establishes the book as a sci-fi mystery with conspiracy and murder thrown in as well. However, we don't meet the series' titular character until page ten and don't learn her real identity for another ten pages. Even at that, the reader is given little information as to who she is, what her motivations are or even if we should be rooting for her. This first story, concerning a pterodactyl hatched & mentally controlled by a man's mental powers and a murder subplot that attaches itself to the main narrative, is dizzying to the point of incomprehensibility at times. The reader is introduced to nearly two dozen characters in quick succession, many of whom prove to be turncoats within a page or two of their introduction. Major characters continue to be introduced up until nearly the end of the story. As an American reader, the slightly goofy & grotesque character design (lots of funny-looking facial hair and eyes, for example) make identifying the many characters a chore. That said, the pluck and cantankerousness of Adele herself make her a compelling hero.

The second story ("The Eiffel Tower Demon") is far more assured than the first. Of course, one must bear in mind that these stories were originally published in the mid-1970s and thus were some of his early work. This story was a lot clearer and sharper in terms of its narrative than the first without eschewing any twists and turns. This story of a lost Babylonian idol eventually turned into a plot to wipe out the populace of Paris using the plague, once again touching on anarchist conspiracies like Chesterton might have. Characters from the first story weave their way in and out of this one, adding additional color and complexity without cluttering up the plot. Tardi even has characters like Adele and one of her compatriots summarize the plot up to that point a few times in what seems to be a service to the reader; the dim-witted policeman who winds up saving Adele even notes that "it's all a bit confusing" when everything's explained to him! Like in his other adventure books, the protagonist manages to triumph but it's not a clear win for good over evil, as several malefactors either escape or face no repercussions whatsoever. I'll be interested to see if Tardi was able to ratchet up the level of excitement in this series another level as he got a better feel for the narrative world he created. In any event, he certainly does create a world; I've never seen an artist who could draw such solid seeming buildings, bridges, stones, etc while still never letting the reader forget they were looking at a drawing. In terms of sheer comics drawing ability, he has to be in the top ten of all time.

It Was The War Of The Trenches. Some of this book was originally serialized in the old Drawn & Quarterly anthology, but it has a far greater impact appearing in one collection. Tardi listed a number of sources that he drew from for this book about the common soldier's experience of World War I, but I thought that Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet On The Western Front may have been the most important. That book lays out quite clearly that what I call the "Throckmorton factor" was in full effect for that war. That's a reference to the famous Bill Mauldin cartoon wherein an old, rich man sitting in a parlor says, "I say it's war Throckmorton, and I say let's fight!" It was a war manipulated by those who would not fight for reasons that no one really understood. What it came down to was a bunch of guys in a hole fighting a tedious, agonizing battle. Fighting and gaining ground was, at its essence, just another job. The problem was that this was a brand new kind of warfare, further complicated by new and deadly technology like mustard gas, flamethrowers, incendiary bombs, grenades, tanks and fighter planes. Suddenly, no one really knew how to do this job.

Tardi gets at the brutality of the battle, the absurdity at the heart of the conflict, the hyprocisy of ideas like patriotism and honor in the face of officers who were opportunists and the desperate brotherhood that formed between soldiers. He keeps the stories grounded in a series of unconnected vignettes about a variety of soldiers that flow into one another. Tardi sets the tone with an opening salvo of a story about a French soldier named Binet who thinks long and hard abou the France he's been charged to defend and how much he hates the people who live in his old building. He bemoans the idea that an accident of geography has set him on this course, cursing every moment he's there until he dies alone when investigating the fate of another soldier. It's an incredibly nihilistic story that is astonishingly beautiful to look at; Tardi's inventive page composition features a wordless center panel that's set off the from the rest of the page that draws the eye in and summarizes the action on the page.

That story sets the tone for the rest of the book. In the trenches, concepts like good and evil are outmoded since neither is punished nor rewarded. Instead, there is only life, death and the random chance that determines which you get. Tardi spins tales of a soldier who is captured by a German when he gets separated from his company, only to be executed as a traitor when he's discovered again. Another story features men trying to give themselves gangrene in order to get off of the front, with highly mixed results. Throughout, the viciousness and hyprocrisy of the officers and the brutality of the military police are excoriated by Tardi in a style reminiscent of a far more vicious Bill Mauldin. Only the last chapter of the book, which tallies up the numbers of the dead and the money spent on the war, is too on-the-nose. Keeping the book at a human level is what makes it so effective. The true revelation of the book, as noted in the first story and throughout, is that most of the soldiers were barely adults. They were forced to grow up quickly, but Tardi never lets the reader forget that these tales of grizzled soldiers are really just boy's stories taken to their logical, horrible extreme. World War I left a wound that never quite healed right, a conflict so barbaric that new international laws had to be created to prevent its excesses from occurring again. In page after relentless page, Tardi aims to make the reader never forget what can happen when the jingoistic fantasies of the powerful consume the lives of the powerless. As proof of Tardi finally conquering America, It Was The War Of The Trenches just won two Eisner awards at the 2011 Comicon: for best reprint of international material and best reality-based work.

You Are There. This was is by far my favorite of Tardi's books that have been translated to date. Written by Jean-Claude Forest, this psychedelic social satire is given its power thanks to Tardi's line that embodies farce, horror, dementia and eroticism in turns. The book's protagonist is quixotic figure named Arthur There who lives on top of the walls that encircle every house in a small French village called Mornemont (alias "The Land Within" and literally "dreary mountain"). Though his family historically owns the properties there, they were swindled out of everything years earlier. The only victory There won was to have the walls built and have the people of Mornemont pay a toll every time they wanted to leave home, though he notes at the beginning of the book that his lawyers were working hard to win him back everything.

The resolution of that story alone would have made this book oddly charming, as the hatted, thin and angular There is a magnificent triumph of character design. With his long, thin face, he almost resembles Stan Laurel. However, You Are There contains enough plot details for five books and character arcs for another five. Arthur winds up as the unwitting pawn of France's prime minister, who is in danger of being voted out of office and desperately tries to find a way to come back into power after this happens. Arthur has regular conversations and debates with the captain of a grocery barge who happens to be the only merchant who will sell to him. Most importantly, there is Julie, the daughter of one of the Mornemont families. She's in turns bawdy, foul-mouthed, charismatic, and sexually transgressive. She's presented as both childlike and wise beyond her years, understanding and anticipating complex events before they even occur. Her connection to the prime minister (as a child, she was a lover to him but fascinated him most with her piss play) and Arthur make her the books' pivotal character in many ways.

This is satire in the Rabelaisian or Swiftian sense: hyperbolic but earthy. The pretentious are ever reminded of their status as human beings obsessed with sex and bodily functions. The seemingly ignorant have lessons to impart on their hypocritical betters. Poor Arthur is somewhere in-between: as the book unfolds, we discover that he's not just eccentric but entirely unhinged and delusional. At the same time, he's a victim of the manipulations of others, though not without pity and mercy of his own (as his friendship with a Mickey Mouse-reading boy attests). While crazy, he's still a sympathetic character. The same can certainly be said of Julie, who is also unstable and damaged in some respects, yet has achieved a freedom of movement, access and belief through this process. She fears no one and loves Arthur, perhaps because he is a true innocent.

The political machinations in the other half of the book in retrospect are hilariously oily, with the Prime Minister hatching a plan that's sort of the reverse of The Mouse That Roared: after he is defeated, he plans to retreat to what will be regarded as the sovereign state of Mornemont. A variety of ministers, writers, back-stabbers, libertines and secret agents swirl around all of this activity, all of which winds up backfiring in an amusing but still tragic way. It's all nonsense, really, compared to the ways in which the desperately damaged Julie and Arthur are trying to make sense of their lives.

In the end, Julie and Arthur experience interesting turnarounds as characters. The restless Julie decides to return home in an effort to rescue and care for the lost and innocent. The xenophobic and routine-driven Arthur is unleashed on "the machine" that hurt so many for no reason at all, frantically rowing a dinghy to Paris and carried away on the waves of fantasy and destiny. It may well be a doomed enterprise, yet Arthur always did manage to triumph against the odds. In a political landscape where delusion is the currency of the land, who can say what would happen when Arthur made the scene? The last image of the book, with Arthur rowing, inspired by the image of his old grocer/captain friend, is one of many hallucinations that are given a deliberate firmness by Tardi. Just as he imagines the young boy to be surrounded by waves of books, or the townspeople to have giant clippers arrayed to trap him on the wall, so too he imagines this scenario. Of course, the book posits that truth is far stranger and more demented that fantasy or delusion, as the townspeople dressed up in costumes coming to lynch him, the decadent nature of the political world or the grocer's own bookshelves will attest. Even if Tardi didn't write this comic, I'd still say it's his greatest work. He creates a world that is fever-dream vivid and populates it with characters one imagines you can see, hear and smell. His character design makes this world simultaneously sad and hilarious in a way that the written word alone could never capture. You Are There is relentlessly powerful, silly, tragic and beautiful in the ways it captures both the betrayal of and irrepressibility of fantasy.

1 comment:

  1. I like when I've not had a chance to visit this blog in some time. It means a full nights reading of well written reviews followed by some paypal transactions. Your one of the best in the game Rob.