Casterman

Billie Holiday (1991)

Billie HolidayBillie Holiday begins with a biographical essay by Francis Marmande. It’s from the 2000 Casterman edition. The original trademark is 1991, so Billie Holiday has had some editions, some revisions. At least in the packaging. Because Marmande’s essay, glancing through it, appears to give the reader a thoughtful, understanding quick biography of Billie Holliday.

The subsequent comic itself doesn’t do anything along those lines. There’s some connective tissue because the players can be the same, but José Muñoz and Carlos Sampayo aren’t really doing a biography. They’re doing biographical sketches, but there’s a lot going on.

For example, I wasn’t expecting Billie Holiday to have a guest apperance from Muñoz and Sampayo’s famous detective, Alack Sinner, but he’s here. He’s integral. At the end of the story, he’s maybe the most important character.

The structure is already convulted before Alack shows up. It’s about a reporter who has until morning to write about Billie Holiday. He’s a square white dude writing the story before sunrise. Billie Holiday, thirty years later. The reporter–who’s either nameless or should be–writes the biography, apparently, with nothing but veiled racism and class hatred. In the reporter’s story, Holiday is a dangerous drug addict. In the flashbacks, she’s this tragic figure, constantly abused by the men in her life. And since the flashbacks chop around, there’s nothing much but that abuse. When Alack arrives and gets a frame of his own into the story–he was one of the cops present at her death–his profound reaction to the anniversary overpowers the rest of Holiday.

The reporter is an obnoxious, loathsome idiot. Holiday’s tragic. Wonderful and tragic. She’s not really a character though. She’s not a dangerous drug addict, sure, but Sampayo doesn’t really want to get much further into her head. So she’s never a character. She’s the subject, nothing more. And she’s not subject to too close an inspection.

At least not narratively.

The art? Well, Muñoz is having a grand time. He’s ambitious and nimble and overindulgent and breathtaking. It’s a gorgeous comic.

And it’s a good comic.

It’s just a non-fiction Alack Sinner spin-off, which is strange and not the best way to do a biography.

CREDITS

Writer, Carlos Sampayo; artist, José Muñoz; publisher, Casterman (1991/2000), NBM (2017).

The Eiffel Tower Demon (1976)

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When Tardi opens The Eiffel Tower Demon with a recap of the first Adèle Blanc-Sec episode, I should have known he was going to be incredibly complicated again. It was just so nice to understand exactly what had happened, without all the MacGuffin.

But Eiffel Tower eventually reveals that previous story was basically all just MacGuffin for this story. I don’t know if Tardi will be able to keep up the continual unravelling in subsequent episodes; Eiffel Tower has a relatively final ending… with epilogues for some of the supporting cast Tardi would have to revise.

This story does reveal a little more about Adèle. While still a person of questionable morals, Tardi establishes she’s writing a true crime book and got involved with the criminal class–well, the gentleman burglar class–in her research. She’s simply pursuing a friend’s murder, the genre standard, and finds herself in further peculiar trouble this time.

This Paris of 1911 (and 1912) Tardi has created is, while dark and dangerous, quite wondrous. Ancient cults, dinosaurs and bumbling policemen. It’s a lot of fun. And Tardi’s having fun too. He gets caught up with characters and follows them around, so much so I wondered if Adèle would even appear in the epilogue.

But the exuberance isn’t just in the plotting or the art; Tardi makes some great dialogue decisions as well. Particularly nice is the running gag about a popular play–it’s popular because it’s so lame.

Eiffel Tower is gourmet French popcorn.

Pterror Over Paris (1976)

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Tardi’s approach, in terms of narrative and plotting, to Pterror Over Paris is surprising. For the entire first act, the reader is left without the expected protagonist. Adèle Blanc-Sec doesn’t initially figure into the story of a newly born pterodactyl terrorizing Paris.

The majority of the first act is newspaper reports and small scenes of the dinosaur’s adventures. When it first appears, on the second page, it’s kind of cute (Tardi doesn’t do cute often here and it’s subtle), but it soon turns into a vicious killing machine.

A young museum employee basically becomes the protagonist for the first half, until Adèle shows up and there’s a handoff scene where Tardi shifts the focus to her.

But Pterror isn’t some adventure comic, it’s a crime comic and a very confusing one. Tardi is being purposefully confusing, at one point having a chase scene between five people in bowler hats and fake beards. Even though there’s not much in the way of excitement, Tardi’s gleeful in the confusion he creates.

Strangely, the pterodactyl is a MacGuffin, which I was not expecting. But it’s almost impossible to talk about Pterror‘s actual plot–not because of spoilers, but because it’s so complicated. A couple integral cast members don’t even make any appearance and another only shows up near the end, without any immediate explanation.

As for Adèle herself, Tardi dissuades the reader’s judgment. Adèle’s likable, but obviously shady.

I like Pterror more than I expected; Tardi’s determination to confound is highly entertaining.

The Arctic Marauder (1974)

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It’s hard to know what to expect from The Arctic Marauder. It opens in the late nineteenth century. Tardi gradually establishes the protagonist–one Jérôme Plumier–who is conveniently on a ship traveling through the Arctic Ocean. The ship discovers a startling shipwreck (on an iceberg) and Plumier is part of the investigating boarding party.

Now, it did not occur to me Plumier’s presence was contrived until now, sitting after reading Marauder and trying to explain it. Tardi is wholly convincing in ignoring the contrivance of it. Plumier was the only passenger who the story might involve, making his survival essential for there to be a story at all.

But, like I said, Tardi sells it.

Maybe I just wasn’t paying attention because the artwork is so amazing. Marauder is very, very dark. But then there are these icebergs or there’s nineteenth century France and Tardi works in all this detail. The people are not the point in Marauder–at one point, Tardi doesn’t even bother giving the supporting cast faces–but the landscapes and technology.

The layout is also important. Tardi’s panel composition and his placement of the panels on the page are amazing. In some ways, it’s my favorite art from him and in others not. He sacrifices personality and emotion for a great look.

Yet he still manages to tell an excellent story. Once the mystery perturbs far enough, he switches gears, turning it into a great riff on 20,000 Leagues.

Marauder is excellent, but not profound.

120, rue de la Gare (1988)

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120, rue de la Gare has enough story for three full narratives. Jacques Tardi is adapting a novel–Leo Malet’s 1943 debut–and it’s unclear how much came from the source material and how much Tardi included because of the setting.

As a comic, 120 is historical detective fiction. But when Malet published it… the novel was just a detective novel. One assumes Tardi added a lot of historical details, but also a decidedly negative look at his protagonist. 120‘s hero, private detective Nestor Burma, is rude with his friends and frequently gives expository monologues in public. The people around him watch in silence. These are hilarious little touches, which occasionally imply Burma’s delusional.

I had read 120 before (it was my introduction to Tardi) and I still wasn’t positive Burma was a real detective with a real mystery to solve.

Tardi opens the comic in a POW camp, then moves to Lyons, then moves to Paris. Each setting is distinct from the other, especially in how Tardi moves Burma through the landscape. There is a lot of walking in Lyons, with Burma recently freed, and it discreetly fits the character–finally able to move about, he does.

The art is excellent, particularly when it comes to the supporting cast. Tardi doesn’t change characters’ looks much (Burma’s momentary five o’clock shadow is a shock), but they’re all fantastically distinctive. Even the silent scenes are full of personality.

120 is great historical fiction. As a mystery though, it’s too short.

It Was the War of the Trenches (1982-93)

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Tardi jumps around quite a bit in It Was the War of the Trenches, but does follow a general sort of narrative progression. Though the stories–it was originally serialized, with some delay, in anthologies–all feature their own characters and situations, they move forward in time. Even when Tardi resets at one point, the subsequent vignettes resume that progression. The book ends with armistice.

To say the book is anti-war is something of an absurd understatement. It’s impossible to imagine a pro-war approach to the first World War, but here Tardi does find some–inspiring poetry and songs from 1915, juxtaposed against the book’s only trench warfare scene. Though most of the book takes place in the trenches, as the title suggests, he only does one sequence with the soldiers running out and getting gunned down. He does it against a white sky, so just the soldiers and the battlefield are visible. It reminds of Goya, maybe the only time in the book the visuals are truly horrific, as Tardi lets the reader imagine most of the violence. When he’s upfront about it, a soldier holding his intestines in with his helmet, the soldier’s monologue is more terrifying.

Tardi’s vignettes eventually leave the trenches, with a particularly jarring entry starting in a lush forest. He goes through a lot of narrative devices to get the feeling across; it’s never a history lesson, instead an imperative look at the nature of humanity.

It’s an outstanding piece of work.

CREDITS

Writer and artist, Jacques Tardi; letterer, Ian Burns; publisher, Casterman.

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