Monday, July 31, 2017

Fantagraphics: Tardi & Malet's Fog Over Toliac Bridge

Fantagraphics' sadly-deceased co-publisher made it his life's mission to get the books of Jacques Tardi translated into English, but it took him a long time to build any kind of audience in the US for this kind of work. An early attempt came in serializing a story in the now-defunct Graphic Story Monthly, one that he translated himself. Years later, Thompson finally achieved success in getting Tardi recognition with nine volumes, including a few that won Eisner awards. It's only now that Fantagraphics has gotten around to publishing Thompson's translation from Graphic Story Magazine, Fog Over Tolbiac Bridge, as the tenth volume in the Tardi series.

This was one of several books that Tardi illustrated, as he was fascinated by hard-boiled detective stories set in Paris. Leo' Malet wrote it, and it's full of detective-story cliches, racist caricatures (in this case, a common one of referring to Roma as "gypsies" and depicting them as unrelentingly violent and immoral), and hard-boiled action. There's also something very French about it as well, as detective Nestor Burma is trying to find out who killed a friend of his from his former anarchist days. Set in the 1950s, the image of the bomb-throwing anarchist was as fresh then as the concept of the terrorist is today.

The book is pretty much the pinnacle of genre fiction, or what Thompson might call "good crap". The source material is fine, as Burma gets tangled with a Roma woman who was befriended by his dead former comrade, gets mixed up with other former anarchist friends of his whom might have had something to do with his friend's murder, and has to outwit cops who are circling around him at the same time. Burma is a detective with no special, poetic qualities; he's just a man trying to do his best by others. What makes the book special is Tardi's immersive, evocative art. Every brick, every cobblestone and every archway feels real and trod upon. The reader smells the smoke of pipes and cigarettes, feels the icy rain, feels the punches thrown and tastes the wine thrown back. It's not just that Tardi has a compelling, realistic style, it's that he knows precisely how much to render on a building to make it come alive on the page. He's a master of perspective, switching between foreground, middleground and background with his characters as he turns a corner. There's one scene where Burma and Belita (his Roma love interest in the story) are questioning a ragman who knew his friend. In the story, he was a bust as a witness. Tardi framed this by putting their encounter in the middle ground, with the bustle of the street in the foreground and various buildings dwarfing the characters in the background. It's a clever note that subtly accentuated the text, one of many in the book.

The verisimilitude of the setting is contrasted by Tardi's cartoony, exaggerated faces. Burma has ears like the handles on a trophy, but Tardi is especially good at drawing middle-aged men with comb-overs and narrow faces. That stylization of character allows Tardi to exaggerate action here and there when he needs to, as well as provide the audience a point of reference that they should be concentrating on. Tardi's work is dense, exciting and captivating, powerfully evincing the experience of times past, even though the reader has no connection to this time or place. It's a satisfying bit of comic book junk food that goes down easy but still pleasantly lingers long afterward.

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