Euro Comics For Beginners

Jacques Tardi: Important New Voice of the 1970s

(by Bart Beaty)

On this, the occasion of the 25th anniversary of The Comics Journal, it seems to me that it would be an appropriate time to dig through my files and unearth the first ever installment of the Euro-Comics for Beginners column. The following article was submitted to the Journal in the summer of 1976, but was rejected due to lack of space (or so I was told at the time). It appears here in its unaltered form as it was typed a quarter century ago.

The creation of a fan magazine dedicated to the serious consideration of comics as works of art is long overdue. We have finally entered into an era in which comics for adults can be seriously considered, and I look forward with great anticipation to the spirited discussions of Howard the Duck that are sure to follow. Finally fandom has a magazine that will pay equal attention to the significance of the work of newcomers like Harvey Pekar and John Byrne.
It is true that we are currently witnessing a golden age of comics for adults. While it is true that the underground movement seems to have cooled somewhat in recent years, a number of very solid anthology titles are going strong and should run for years, if not decades to come. I feel confident that someday this magazine will be celebrating the 100th issue of Arcade with the same enthusiasm as it currently greets the 7th.
Moreover, I am happy to finally find a fan mag that will take the widest possible view of comics as a medium. By this I mean a global view. It seems clear to me that some of the most exciting developments in the world of cartooning are those that are taking place on the international stage. France, for example, has always been a leader in terms of creating exciting and high quality adventure and humor comics, but in the past decade or so there has been a wide-scale shift in that country's comics production. It seems inarguable now that many of the best comics of all types are being produced in France. The launch of several new magazines specifically aimed at adult fans in the past few years confirm this trend.
Basically, it all seems to have started with "Pilote". This weekly over-sized magazine was launched in 1959 but didn't really come into its own until a couple of years later, when the editorial reins were taken over by René Goscinny. In the years that followed Pilote slowly has become the best comics magazine on the market. While the hilarious and subversive ongoing adventures of "Astérix" (by Goscinny and Uderzo) may be the magazine's calling card, the magazine also features a number of high quality strips including "Barbe Rouge" and "Tanguy et Laverdure". This is just the tip of the iceberg, however. Toss in the western strip "Lt. Blueberry" (by Charlier and Giraud) and "Les Dingodossiers" (by Gotlib and Goscinny) and you have the basis for what may be the best comics magazine of all time. In more recent years Pilote added a number of more intellectual strips by Cabu ("Le Grand Duduche"), Greg ("Achille Talon"), Mandryka ("Le Concombre Masqué") and Claire Bretécher.
If Pilote seemed like the type of comics magazine that America has always needed but never really had things really changed four years ago. In 1972 three of the best cartoonists at Pilote - Gotlib, Mandryka and Bretécher - left to form their own adultoriented magazine, called "L'Écho des Savanes". This magazine literally exploded onto the French scene, at once dimishing the importance of "Pilote" and raising the stakes for cartoonists all over the world. Finally, we are beginning to see the emergence of comics made for adults beyond the underground market.
Last year this trend was amplified by the creation of two new magazines that promise to be even more influential. The first of these is "Fluide Glacial", Marcel Gotlib's new adult-humour anthology, which has struck a blow to the older, duller humour mags on the stands. The other is "Métal Hurlant", a magazine launched by Jean Giraud, Philippe Druillet, Jean-Pierre Dionnet and Bernard Farkas at a new publishing company called "Humanoïdes Associés". From its very first issue, which featured Giraud/Moebius "Arzach" and work by Richard Corben, "Métal Hurlant" has signalled its intentions to be everything that is modern in contemporary comics. These are mature stories, filled to the brim with equal part humor and violence, and they are on the cutting edge of the medium worldwide. Indeed, I think that it is safe to say that an American magazine along similar lines would probably be the most important comics magazine of all time.
Each of these magazines (and we should add "Charlie Mensuel" to the mix as well) should have long lives. THey are the new face of comics in France, and the world leaders in serious, thought-provoking and intensely personal comics worldwide. At the same time, this new tendency is already showing a couple of signs of problems. These can be illustrated, I think, with reference to the case of Jacques Tardi, one of the most important new voices of the 1970s.
Tardi is still a young cartoonist (he turns 30 at the end of August) and has only been actively publishing since 1970. His first work appeared in "Pilote" and consisted of stories written by people like Jean Giraud and Serge de Beketch. He has done a bit of wester work, having collaborated with Claude Verrian on "Blue Jackett" and "Cheval Gris" for Record, but this doesn't really seem to be work that he has his heart in.
Over the past several years, Tardi has published short and long works in a number of the magazines that I have already mentioned. He has appeared in "Charlie Mensuel", "L'Écho des Savanes", "Ah! Nana", and "Métal Hurlant", among others. In many ways he embodies the spirit of the new generation of French cartoonist. His first book, "Rumeurs sur la Rouergue" (written by Piery Christin) is politically and socialy engaged with all of the most important issues facing contemporary Europe. At the same time, however, Tardi's case demonstrates the significance of the role that money plays in shaping the direction of comics production.
Tardi has, to date, published six books. Two have featured the character Lucien Brindavoine, two have spotlighted the character Adèle Blanc -Sec, and two have been one-offs (the book with Christin, and the Jules Verne homage, "Le Démon des Glaces"). The tension that I see facing French comics today, and perhaps all comics today, is the tension that exists in the failure of Brindavoine and the success of Adèle. In each case, of course, I am talking about the commercial success and failure, because artistically each of these book has a great deal to recommend it. But the way that I see it, if comics fans are unable to recognize the merit of Tardi's more nuanced and mature Brindavoine work, there may be no future for this medium after all.
It seems to me that Tardi's best book to date is undoubtly "La Véritable Histoire du Soldat Inconnu". This is the third book in the 30/40 series published by Étienne Robial's Futuropolis comics shop. The black and white 30/40 series is unlike anything ever seen in America. The term refers to the size of the printed pages in centimeres, the same size as those of drawings boards. This means that the book is printed at the same size that Tardi has drawn it. This is terrific news for comics fans. These huge pages really let the reader enter into Tardi's wonderfully detailed world. The characters here are a strange mixture of the precisely detailed and the overly exaggerated. Brindavoine's face is long and scruffy, his hands and body are meaty, almost pulpy. With his ill-fitting black suit and unkempt demeanor, he bears absolutely no resemblance at all to any comics hero of the past. He is a new kind of hero for a new kind of comic book, and Tardi conveys that sense not only through the writing but through the haggard look of his figures.
Still, the writing is also unlike anything we have seen before. In this book Brindavoine, a writer, marches to a place called Hammam Palace. Here he encounters some bizarre naked women before entering a dream state. In his dream Brindavoine moves through lushly illustrated classical architecture while encountering some of thew creations from his novels. He interacts with these characters in a bizarre way, often having sex with them and then killing them. The entire book is an extended psychological torture of its hero, condemning him in a sadicstic fashion for the way that he was callously disposed of the characters that haunt the fantastic regions of his adventure stories. Indeed, Véritable Histoire is a story about adventure stories, but it is not itself an adventure stroy. It is a psycho-drama writ large.
What is important about this book, it seems to me, is the uneasiness and paranoia that it contains. Most adventure stories of the type that Tardi references here lack anything resembling a subjective or psychological subtext. With Brindavoine Tardi has created an utterly new kind of hero. He does nothing to act troughout the book. Instead he floats through the pages, seemingly watching his life go by and doing nothing to act to change it in any way. Brindavoine has a large but weak body, totally incongruous in the tradition of comics storytelling. It is as if Tardi has taken every comics tradition and turned it on its head. Indeed, it is like he has taken so much of French culture and stood on its head. Bear in mind that Tardi presents Brindavoine's tale as the true story of the Unknown Soldier, killed at the end of the First World War. With the hapless Brindavoine, then, Tardi demeans one of the most significant of all French images: the noble warrior and the patrimony of France.
Key to the Brindavoine books is Tardi's engagement with narrative conventions derived from French literature of the 19th century. The same is true of the two Adèle Blanc-Sec books published to date (two additional volumes have been announced by Casterman for 1977). Here Tardi has fashioned a head-on colision between the 19th and 20th centuries. The Adèle books open in November 1911, three years prior to the outbreak of World War I. As such the books are set at the dawning of the modern age. Indeed, modernity infuses every aspect of the book, which in many moments read like narrative histories of the communications revolution. Adèle and her compatriots are constant readers, and newspapers and telephones take on an extraordinairy importance in these books, grounding them in history like so few other books are grounded. Similarly, Tardi includes the actual President of France, Fallières. These factors represent the dawning of the 20th century.
The 19th century, on the other hand, comes to bear in these books through the ludicrous plot devices that Tardi makes use of. These plots are incredible, hilarious ham-fisted things, drawn straight from the French feuilleton tradition. The first Adèle book, "Adèle et la Bête", has an over-the-top plot that has to be seen to be believed. Adèle herself is not introduced until page 11, and then only from behind and identified as another character. She is revealed as the protagonist only on page 23 and named for the first time on page 30. If all of this misdirection seems somewhat confusing, that is nothing compared to what comes later in the book. The story of "Adèle et la Bête" revolves around a pair of stolen bags, a kidnapping, several back-stabbing betrayals by loyal subordinates, and, oh yes, a killer pterodactyl roaming the night skies of Paris under the psychic control of a man in Lyon, and a second pterodactyl that turns out to be an airplane. Confused ? Try reading the book ! Tardi's wholescale embrace of the most ludicrous aspects of the feuilleton tradition mean that quick passages of action are followed by lengthy expositions about motives, spelled out by the participants. Tardi takes this logic so far as to create panels that literally threaten to crowd out their participants with lengthy expository dialogue. Characters are introduced only to be quickly dispatched with a bullet. Every new character is seemingly related to one of the previous characters, creating a world where each character knows each of the others but none is who they seem. It's a delirious and heady mélange of genre conventions.
At the heart of this mess is Adèle Blanc-Sec. If Tardi created this character because Lucien Brindavoine seemed a difficult sell to the public, at least he can't be accused of pandering. Adèle may be the first women's lib comics heroine, an impertinent investigator working for the forces of good outside of the laws of male-dominated Parisian society. Tardi presents Adèle as a women of means, and of great ingenuity, integrity and spirit. She is a feisty character and it is not difficult to see why she is already considered quite a success. Tardi serialized the first Adèle book not in a comics magazine, but in the newspaper "Sud-Ouest". Here she seemingly found a readership composed of people who might not necessarily be drawn to the traditional comics magazines, and this has to be one key to Tardi's success with these book so far. The contributing factors, of course, is the fact that the books are smart and subversive on one level, bit are also easily digested adventure tales on another. Clearly, in Adèle Blanc-Sec Tardi has found a character whose adventures could run as long as Tintin's.
What makes the Adèle books so different from Tintin books, however, is their strong sense of place and history. Following the Second World War and the charges that he collaborated with the Nazi's, Hergé set about the process of redrawing all of the Tintin books for publication in color and in standardized format. One change that he and his assistants made at that time was to remove any and all references to actual historical events and real people and places. In short, he stripped the history out of his books in order to give them timeless quality. The exact opposite is what is going on in the Adèle books, which seem to be about history more than anything else. I have already mentioned the cameos by actual French politicians in the books, but there is another sense in which Tardi historicizes his work: through the framing of the visual images. A typical Tardi image, it seems, features the characters in a very long shot - often from behind - and very few close-ups, particularly when the action is set in exterior locations. Tardi's panels are dominated by the architecture of pre-World War I Paris, and his buildings loom over his characters, threatening to eliminate them at times. This strategy suggests that the books themselves are more about the history of Paris than they are about the characters, Indeed, Tardi significantly names the second Adèle book "Le Démon de la Tour Eiffel", after the most famous Parisian modernist monument. It seems fair to say that no cartoonist has ever deicated as much effort to the rendering of real spaces in his stories as has Jacques Tardi.
At the same time, however, Tardi does not exactly treat the history of Paris reverentially. The Adèle books are chock full of humor, often deriving from the incredible narrative conventions of the feuilleton style. For instance, at the end of "Le Démon de la Tour Eiffel" Tardi introduces a scene in which a police officer chases an actress whom he has wounded through the snow. The officer turns the corner, the reader turns the page, and both are met by a tyrannosaurus leaping from the bushes. The officer shoots the dinosaur in the face, killing it. He is then confronted and chastised by two scientists who played a supporting role in the first book, but no role at all in the second. Immediately following this exchange another two minor characters from the first book are reintroduced as escaped mental patients. Why ? In narrative terms it makes no sense at all, but in the traditions of earlier storytelling techniques it fits perfectly. This bizarre two page sequence is laugh-out-loud funny and wraps up the adventure in the most absurd fashion possible. In all of the hubbub Adèle escapes, but we never see how as Tardi eclipses his heroine for a bit of slapstick. It is a bizarre and endearing bit of playfulness.
All of which leads us to the question of what it all means. Tardi's work is utterly dominated by two elements: the history of France at the turn of the century and the narrative traditions of the adventure stories of the 19th century. Moreover, he is seemingly obsessed with World War I. Recently Tardi published a short work entitled "Un épisode banal de la guerre des tranchées" in the newspaper "Liberation", which was subsequently reprinted in "Charlie Mensuel" last year. At the same time Véritable Histoire is explicitly about the First World War (or at least its conclusion is) and the Adèle books are set in the shadow of that war. Indeed, the anxiety that fills Tardi's pages is the anxiety of a civilization on the brink of total collapse into barbarism. Tardi's combines 19th century mythologies and 20th century high modernism in order to point to the way that the war put an end to the silly type of stories that run through his current work. It seems to me that the ultimate Tardi book would probably be a history of World War I in comics form.
But if that is to come it will likely come later. For now it is clear that Tardi has his vision set on the world of Adèle Blanc-Sec and will continue to create stories about her (although to be fair he is also currently illustrating a weird out-of-time story entitled "Polonius" for "Métal Hurlant"). This is cause for celebration because these stories are so good. It is also a cause for some sorrow because in moving from Futuropolis to the more established Casterman (publishers of Tintin) Tardi has moved into a more corporate atmosphere, where he publishes in the full color album format rather than in the unique 30/40 line. Further, he seems to have abandoned the bizarrely paranoid psyche-sexual dramas of Lucien Brindavoine in favor of slightly more traditional fare. This demonstrates the degree to which the French comics audience maybe hasn't come along as quickly as one would hope, and is still bound by traditional comics formats even in the presence of more avant-garde work.
Nonetheless, Tardi is probably the freshest voice in French cartooning today. One can only hope that he will be able to reconcile the competing imperatives of his various works in order to create even more noteworthy material. Perhaps this will mean inserting a little bit of Lucien Brindavoine into the world of Adèle Blanc-Sec.

So there you go. Not bad, especially when you consider that I was 7 years old when I wrote it. Sadly, however it just didn't measure up to the high standards set by Marilyn Bethke.
What ever became of this Tardi guy anyway ? As the most promising cartoonist of the 1970s he emerged as the most respected and admired cartoonist of his generation. Tardi's oeuvre stands out today as one of the most personal and compelling bodies of work over to grace the comics page. One year after this review was written Tardi published "Griffu", a noir written by Jean-Patrick Manchette in the short lived anthology BD. At the same time he launched the masterful "Ici Même" (written by Jean-Claude Forest) in the first issue of Casterman's (A Suivre). While the magazine set a new standard for mainstream adult comics in France throughout the 1980s, the 200-page graphic novel "Ici Même" stood as a landmark accomplishment of 1970s comics.
In the 1980s, Tardi put Adèle Blanc-Sec away for a while and began working on a series of crime comics based on the detective novels of Léo Malet. Tardi's Nestor Burma stories, set during the German occupation of France during the Second World War, are just as celebrated as his Adèle work, and he continues both series to this day. At the same time he has occasionally abandoned these popular characters in order to undertake the type of nongenre work that I originally urged him to pursue 25 years ago. Among the more notable works in this area would be his illustrations of the novels of Céline for Futuropolis/Gallimard, his First World War books - "C'était le Guerre des Tranchées" (partially translated by Drawn and Quarterly) and the more recent collaborations with Didier Daeninckx (at Casterman and L'Association), and last year's "La Débauche" (written by Daniel Pennac), a social satire set in contemporary - rather than historical - Paris. As for Lucien Brindavoine, I am happy to report that he eventually found his way into the Adèle Blanc-Sec continuity after all.
Tardi, therefore, presents a case study of the succesful career of the serious cartoonist. Having launched two succesfull series (there are now eight Adèle Blanc-Sec books, with no real sign that the series will wrap up soon), he has nonetheless undertaken a large number of highly personal projects. Moreover, each Tardi books seems to relate to the others through the strenght of Tardi's artistic vision. finding common themes in Tardi's work is not a difficult task and his highly personal vision, consistently engaged politics and unmistakeble visual style have coalesced to create a truly unique collection of works. If there is a single European creator whose career matches both the trajectory and the accomplishment of "The Comic Journal" over the past quarter century, it is undoubtedly Jacques Tardi. May both be as relevant, productive and challenging in another quarter century.

Cet article a été publié dans le magazine américain "The Comics Journal" en Juillet 2001, numéro 235, pages 146-149.

Revue de Presse

Retour à la Revue de Presse