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Comics College is a monthly feature where we provide an introductory guide to some of the comics medium’s most important auteurs and offer our best educated suggestions on how to become familiar with their body of work.
This time around we’re looking at one of the bright stars in the firmament of Eurocomics, Jacques Tardi.
As Fantagraphics Co-Publisher Kim Thompson put it, “With the possible exception of Robert Crumb, no contemporary cartoonist has succeeded in applying as serious, as personal a vision to as wide a variety of locales and as diverse a range of subjects as Jacques Tardi.” A colossus among French cartoonists, Tardi’s black humor, eye for the grotesque and love of adventure has won him considerable fans, acclaim and awards. Though the bulk of his material seems fascinated with World War I and fin de siecle and early-20th century France, he’s done modern noir stories, sophisticated satire, parodies, adaptations of novels and historical dramas, all while retaining his own unique voice. Though his comics can be horribly bleak at times, he remains a consummate artist and storyteller, one more comics readers should be introduced to. Doing that used to be extremely difficult, as the few bits of Tardi that were translated into English were scattered amongst various anthologies and publishers. But thanks to Fantagraphics, which in 2009 began a concerted effort to bring the Tardi library to North America, acquiring his work is an easy, if wallet-draining, proposition.
My personal favorite Tardi book, and the one that’s generally regarded as his finest book to date, is It Was the War of the Trenches, his brutal and emotionally devastating look at a soldier’s life during World War I. There isn’t any main character — Tardi prefers to offer different stories, creating a kaleidoscope of horror that serves to underscore the inhumanity that typified this war, and all wars in general. Yes, it can be a difficult book to read, especially if you’re the squeamish type, but Tardi’s at his absolute best here, and you will marvel at his artistry as much as you are taken aback by the torment on the page.
But perhaps you’re not a historical fiction fan. Perhaps you prefer crime dramas or noir instead. The good news is Tardi is pretty adept at that type of material as well, and there’s no better place to start than the book Fantagraphics chose to debut their new Tardi line, West Coast Blues. The story, an adaptation of a novel by Jean-Patrick Manchette, concerns an average, middle-class man who, in a case of absurd mistaken identity, finds himself on the run, his life in dire danger. There’s more than a little bit of black humor running through this book — the main character remains a bit of an enigma from beginning to end, which is sort of the point — but it’s certainly a high-stakes, grim, gripping (and decidedly bloody) drama that any serious noir fan should check out.
Tardi teamed up with Manchette again for Like a Sniper Lining Up His Shot, which, if anything is even bloodier and bleaker than West Coast Blues. Concerning a hired killer who, naturally, is trying to retire from his chosen profession and track down his teen-age love, though not without some trouble from his employer. Tardi and Manchette play expertly with the cliches here, there are no heroes here — indeed the contract killer comes off as buffoonish more than once. Even if you’re familiar with this type of story, Sniper will surprise and (if I can use the word) delight you.
Before you read Vol. 2, however, I recommend segueing over to The Arctic Marauder, one of Tardi’s earliest books, mainly because several of the characters from that book turn up in Adele Vol. 2, and the reference is worth catching. A straight-up parody of late-19th century adventure tales, Marauder concerns the mysterious sinking of ships up north and the young man who tries to find out if his missing uncle is somehow involved, all related in Tardi’s breathlessly purple prose. Tardi drew the comic using a scratch-board approach, giving it a unique and ornate look and feel (supposedly it was so labor-intensive making it nearly drew the artist around the bend).
One of his longest works in English to date, You Are Here, a collaboration with Barbarella creator Jean-Claude Forest, is a surreal satire involving a hapless young man who lives and traverses along narrow walls dissecting his ancestor’s former property, land which is his perpetually suing the current owners to try and retrieve. It’s an odd and decidedly off-kilter book, with the main character’s fantasy world frequently intruding on the book’s reality, to the point where it can be difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. That isn’t to say it’s not funny or perceptive book, because it totally is.
Fantagraphics’ latest Tardi book, New York Mon Amour, collects four stories about the Big Apple, most notably the Kalfkaesque Cockroach Killer, originally published in the United States by NBM. It’s a tight, claustrophobic collection of stories about desperate, lonely people. Cockroach Killer is easily the best of the bunch, but they’re all good, dark tales, if not quite accurate in their depiction of New York City life.
Tardi first collaborated with Manchette on Fatale, an assassin-for-hire story that for various unknown reasons was never completed. You can get the unfinished comic as a mini, however, when you make a purchase at the Fantagraphics site.
If you can’t wait for Fantagraphics to publish more adventures of Adele, you can find some other tales in Dark Horse’s late, lamented Cheval Noir anthology series, especially the Adieu Brindavoine story, which falls between Adele Vol. 4 and 5.
Along with Cheval Noir, many other publishers attempted to publish Tardi over the years; if you’re intrepid enough you might be able to find some of these 120 Rue de la Gare was published as The Bloody Streets of Paris by iBooks. Polonius was serialized in Heavy Metal in the 1980s. Griffu was serialized in Pictopia and Fog Over Tolbiac Bridge in Graphic Story Monthly. And Raw published the short story Basket Case in Vol. II #2.
If you’re looking for some background details on the mater artist, the next phone book-sized volume of The Comics Journal, #302, will feature a massive interview with Tardi by Thompson
If all that is still not enough Tardi for you (and there’s plenty more on the way) there’s always the Adele film, directed by Luc “Fifth Element” Besson. Copies are easily available on Amazon for about $22.95.
With nearly half of Tardi’s output available in the United States, at this point there’s really nothing I wouldn’t feel comfortable recommending to readers. It’s all good.
Note: My gracious thanks to Kim Thompson for his help in compiling the various non-Fantagraphics Tardi sightings.