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.