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The Arctic Marauder
by Jacques Tardi
Fantagraphics Books, 64 pages, $16.99
Based on what’s been translated in English so far, it seems as though are two kinds of Jacques Tardi books. The first is the dark, grim and gritty type, best represented by books like the wonderful but harrowing It Was the War of the Trenches and the steely-eyed noir West Coast Blues. The second is what I’d dub (rather awkwardly, because I can’t for the moment find better terminology) his goofier, more tongue in cheek style, best seen in the Adventures of Adele Blanc Sec series (and, to a certain extent, the satirical You Are There).
The Arctic Marauder, Fantagraphics’ latest entry in their Tardi line, easily fits in the second category. It’s a wickedly sly take on classic turn-of-the-century pulp adventures that nevertheless manages to both tweak and evoke those stories. It is, in short, a blast to read.
In many ways Marauder, which was originally published in French in 1974, points forward to the Blanc Sec series, which he would start in ’76. Like Blanc Sec, it is very clearly designed to remind readers of the type of fantastic fiction of the late 19th and early 20th century, particularly the work of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, though Marauder in particular probably owes quite a bit as well the Fantomas, Dr. Mabuse type of pulp villains that ran rampant through European novels around that time.
The story involves young, fresh-faced Jerome Plumier, who, while navigating the Arctic Ocean, comes across a icy, abandoned ship perched on top of an iceberg, just before his own vessel mysteriously explodes. One hospital recovery later, he’s searching for his missing scientist uncle, who may or may not have something to do with all of these ships blowing up in the Arctic, not to mention the mysterious old lady who keeps following him around and shooting strangers in train compartments. Could there be some sort of vast conspiracy at work? (Answer: Yes.)
Tardi writes all of this as if he was getting paid by the exclamation point. The book’s nameless narrator throws as many 50-cent adjectives out there as possible, while asking rhetorical questions like “Why are we always so disappointed in the ones we love?” If the prose were any more purple, it would bruise.
But as much fun as the overwrought text is, the art is the book’s main draw. Each page is laid out in an ornate art nouveau fashion, with circular panels, rounded corners and symmetrical patterns giving off the languid, fluid style of the fin de siecle era. Long, narrow panels dominate the page, to add a sense of scale, particularly when icebergs, ships or ornate, villainous hideouts are involved. In order to best evoke the woodcut engravings of the era, Tardi used scratchboard style, drawing in the main characters and then using a variety of knife and comb-like tools to carve out the backgrounds. Apparently it was such an arduous chore that he swore never to do it again, but the effect here is magnificent. Marauder looks quite unlike any comic you’ve read before.
Whatever problems the current comics marketplace has (and there are plenty to be sure), I continue to be amazed and grateful that it can (after all these years) accept an artist like Tardi and a quirky book like Arctic Marauder into its fold. I hope you’ll join me in welcoming its arrival.