Jacques Tardi

With the possible exeption 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.
The 20 graphic albums Tardi has drawn (and, for the most part, written) are like 20 chapters is some gigantic, ongoing epic of human cruelty, treachery, and misery. Even as Tardi shifts from sardonic humor to gruesome realism, from historical drama to genre fiction, from parody to reportage - even from original work to adaptions of pre-exesting genre fiction - his themes, his obsessions have remained constant. His passion, his intelligence, and his craftsmanship make him, along with Munoz/Sampayo, Claire Bretecher, Hugo Pratt, and Moebius, one of the dominant figures in European comics of the '70s and '80s.

Jacques Tardi was born in 1946 in Valence, France. The son of a career army officer and the grandson of a World War I veteran, Tardi spent his early years in post-war Germany - a sojourn that allowed his to witness first-hand the devastation caused by the world-wide conflagration.
Like most Frenchmen, Tardi read comics avidly in his youth. He was specially enamored of the works of such classic "clear line" virtuosos as Herge ("Tintin"), Jacques Martin ("Alix"), and E.-P. Jacobs ("Blake and Mortimer"). These pioneers' sober, meticulous approach to storytelling and graphics would eventually contribute to molding his own comics work.
After fine art studies in Lyon, Tardi moved to Paris in 1967 to continue his education, where he met some of the cartonists for "Pilote". At the time, the weekly comics magazine was, under the creative aegis of "Astérix" creator René Goscinny, at the very height of its creative and financial success. Its pages included such series as Goscinny & Underzo's "Astérix", Jean-Michel Charlier & Jean Giraud's "Blueberry", and Pierre Christin & Jean-Claude Mezieres's "Valerian", as well as a wave of bold new talent, including Philippe Druillet, Claire Bretécher, Enki Bilal, and many others.
Tardi eventually became an occasional contributer to "Pilote". He debuted in 1970 with the short story "Un Cheval en Hiver" ("A Horse in Winter"), written by Giraud. Shortly thereafter , he was tapped by Pierre Christin to illustrate the first of his "Legendes d'Aujourd'hui" ("Contemporary Legends") albums, Rumeurs sur le Rouergue.(1)
Tardi found his definitive style with his second album length serial - the first to feature his own writing - "Adieu Brindavoine", a loopy sf period piece set in the early part of the 20th century. Despite the fact that a succesful continuing character was (and is) a virtual prerequisite for a career in European comics, Tardi did not immediatly seize upon Brindavoine. He did, however, keep a soft spot for both the time period and the character, later on, he would choose the same setting for his first major series, Adèle Blanc-Sec, and would eventually integrate Brindavoine into Adèle's continuity.
Tardi became part of the "Pilote" diaspora of the early '70s, leaving both magazine and its parent company Editions Dargaud (which had published his first two albums) in 1974. Like most former "Pilote" creators, he went through a period at the newly-formed underground/alternative "Metal Hurlant", where he published several short stories as well as, with writer Picaret, the album-length historical drama "Polonius". He followed this up with a foray into hard-boiled detective stories, "Griffu" (written by privaty-eye author and comics aficionado Jean-Patrick Manchette), which was serialized in the short-lived magazine BD.
At this point of his career, Tardi decided to return to his beloved pre-War Paris, for the occasion, he created a new heroine: the acerbic, cynical, but essentially admirable "Adèle Blanc-Sec".

Conceived as a parody of the early 20th century French adventure serials, "Adèle Blanc-Sec" was deliberately episodic and implausible: the heroine was to confront the most unlikely adversaries, including mad scientists, scheming politicians, evil dwarves, and a battery of monsters and grotesques. Moving at a breakneck pace, with event piling upon event, Adèle Blanc-Sec succeeds both as a recreation of the spirit of ealy 20th century feulletons and as an arch commentery on same; Tardi has never been looser nor funnier than he is in the best episodes of Adèle. (It's also one of the few major color works of his career)
Adèle Blanc-Sec also began Tardi's long relationship with Editions Casterman (who had published the complete works of two of his childhood idols, Jacques Martin and Herge). Unlike most other comics publishers, Casterman did not at the time have its own magazine in which to "pre-publish" graphic albums(2), as a result, the first several Adèle stories were released directly in album format - at the time, a fairly unusual practice - from 1976 to 1978.
When Casterman finally did take the plunge and created a house publication, (A Suivre) (i.e., "To Be Continued"), it instantly became Europe's best comics magazine, effortlessly plucking the torch from such relative burnouts as "Pilote" and "Métal Hurlant". While the meticulously produced monthly provided a spectacular context for Tardi's worl, the benefits were mutual: there can be no doubt that (A Suivre)'s preminence was due in no little part to Tardi, who in the very fist issue turned in the initial chapter of "Ici Même", an enormously long (163 pages), baroque, somewhat abstruse fantasy written by "Barbarella" creator Jean-Claude Forest. Published as a graphic album in 1979, "Ici Même" would become one of the touchstones of the decade: one of the first serious, literary, novel lenght comics stories to completely eschew the conventions of genre fiction. (In a poll conducted earlier this year among European comics professionals, "Ici Même" was ranked as the second Most Significant Graphic Album of the years 1978 - 1988, behind Moebius's "The Airtight Garage"; Tardi himself garnered a landslide victory in the "Most Significant Author" category.)
Since then, Tardi has serialized seven major works in (A Suivre), including two more Adèle Blanc-Sec stories; Benjamin Legrand's New York-based, Martin Scorsese-inspired political/psychological thriller "Tueur de Cafards" ("Cockreach Killer"); the as-yet unfinished World War I comics documentary It Was the War of the Tranches; and three serials starring the latest major figure in Tardi's personal mythology, Leo Malet's private eye "Nestor Burma".

While Adèle Blanc-Sec dominated Tardi's drawing board for the latter half of the '70s, Burma essentially took over in 1981. Adèle is still very much alive (Tardi has insisted in recent interviews he plans to continue the character indefinitely), but that series' rhythm has been cut away down (only two books in a decade) to make way for Nestor Burma. This is in some respects a peculiar development, since Tardi did not create Nestor Burma, nor was he even involved in the conception of the character.
Burma is the star of a series of novels by Leo Malet, a French hard-boiled crime writer. Malet is completely unknown in America, even among devoted mystery aficionados. (There is no evidence that any of his work has been translated to English.) Yet he is a major star in France, having written a shelf-ful of books (including 29 "Nestor Burma" novels, three of which have been made into movies).
For the first two stories in the series, Tardi chose to adapt existing works in the Malet canon: "Brouillard au pont de Tolbiac" (which begins on the next page) and "120, rue de la Gare". Having familiarized himself with the characters and the style, he has now begun to write his own Burma material(3): The first all-Tardi story, "Une Gueule de Bois en Plomb" ("A Lead Hangover"), was serialized in (A Suivre) earlier this year.

Meanwhile, Tardi (who has won every major and minor award given to cartoonists in Europe) continues to surprise. He recently illustrated a best-selling edition of Celine's "Voyage to the End of the Night"; several books devoted to his career have been published in Europe, including an analysis of his second Burma adaption; a monograph on his career; and a superb set of two hardcovers reprinting his various commercial and illustrating work.
On this side of the Atlantic, Tardi was first printed in "Heavy Metal", which serialized "Polonius" in its early issues (to crashing indifference from the readership). Tardi was first really noticed when he appeared in RAW magazine, beginning with "Manhattan" in the second issue.(4) A subsequent issue reprinted the first episode of "It Was the War if the Trenches," and next years edition, Vol 2 No. 2, will feature a lenghtly Tardi piece "La Bascule a Charlot" ("Basket Case"). Tardi's Adèle Blanc-Sec is now also being serialized in Dark Horse's "Cheval Noir" magazine.
It's a shame it's taken this long for Tardi to gain substantial recognition among American readers; we believe that with the publication of "Fog Over Tolbiac Bridge" in these pages, his obscurity is about to end.


(1) Bilal would illustrate most of the later albums, whose titles include "Phalanxes of the Black Order" and "The City That Didn't Exist", both available in English through Catalan.
(2) cf. "Spirou magazine" for Editions Dupuis; "Tintin magazine" for Edition du Lombard; and "Metal Hurlant" for Les Humanoides Associes
(3) A decision partly brought about by the fact that all the other 27 Burma stories are owned by Malet's publisher. Rather than getting involved with negotiations with the publisher (for whom, incidentally, Tardi has been drawing covers for the Burma re-issues), the decision was made for Tardi to inherit Burma and three major supporting characters (only one of whom is actually seen in Tolbiac) and continue with his own stories.
(4) Also available in Read Yourself RAW.

Cet article a été publié comme introduction à "Fog over Tolbiac Bridge" ("Brouillard au Pont de Tolbiac") dans le magazine américain "Graphic Story Monthly", numéro 1, pages 2-4, 1990.

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