Goddamn This War!
On today of all days, the centenary of Britain’s declaration of war against Germany in 1914, Jacques Tardi stands as one of the most insistent and clear voices in modern French comics and graphic novels recording and criticising the horrors of this ‘war to ends all wars’, and of other wars since. To mark this, here is my profile of Tardi from Escape Magazine No. 8 (1987). Let me urge you to seek out his remarkable oeuvre made available in English by Fantagraphics.
Jacques Tardi is a man uncomfortable with success. He distrusts it and the media hype it brings. He shuns the cocktails and celebrity, the trappings that come with winning the Grand Prix for the best French comics artist at the Angoulême International Comics Festival in 1985. At the following year’s Festival, he was asked to exhibit his originals as is the tradition. But characteristically, Tardi chose to avoid the usual self-congratulatory show and instead with François Vié devised an arresting exhibition entitled ‘One Hero Can Hide Another’. “I want visitors to come out of this exhibition feeling depressed”, Tardi explained. It certainly achieves this.
At the entrance you put on a sort of infra-red stereo Walkman which lets you listen to passages of a story written and narrated by Tardi. As you walk through the seven different ‘sets’ - crypt, muse, secret corridor - you are actually inside the thoughts of Tardi’s anonymous civil servant in a bowler hat (below) in a three-dimensional story. You wind up in ‘No Man’s Land’, a six-minute audio-visual display based on his ongoing series It Was The War Of The Trenches. It’s not a happy ending. “The truth is sad: man is a monster - look at him, he’s made two absurd destructive World Wars in the space of thirty years.”
The exhibition and much of Tardi’s work reveals his strong anti-war feeling. It’s an obsession that goes back to his childhood, part of it spent in post-War Germany. “When I was small, my grandmother used to tell me stories about my grandfather in the First World War. I think the first book I read that wasn’t a picture book was a war story about an army dog who saved his master. And I still get this recurring nightmare of finding myself standing in front of a Call-Up poster - it’s a personal anxiety of mine, being caught up in a situation I can’t control.”
The theme appears in some of his earliest stories such as Adieu Brindavoine (1973) and Le Fleur au fusil (‘The Flower in the Rifle’) (1974), through to his sporadic series in (A suivre…), the literary bande dessinée monthlymagazine, It Was The War Of The Trenches, an episode of which was translated in Raw No.5. Although he has been researching the 1914-18 period meticulously, his main interest is not historical detail but human drama. “In a way, the trenches are a symbol for life. You try to stay in your quiet shelter, but you have to go out, there are people in power who can force you. Then once you’re out, there are others who will shoot you down, who want your skin.”
Tardi has finished his second adaptation of a Léo Malet detective nove, 120, rue de la Gare, which opens in a prison-of-war camp. He was anxious to avoid familiar images. To help him put it across in a fresh way, he used some precious sketches which his father, a soldier by profession, had drawn during a six-year imprisonment in a stalag.
This story, together with almost all of Tardi’s other comics, have been serialised in (A suivre…) going right back to its first issue in 1978. The publishers, Casterman, have had great faith in him from the start, commissioning him to develop a continuing series modelled on Hergé‘s Tintin books, which Casterman also publish. He came up with The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec, set in Paris in the years leading up to the First World War.
Adèle is an eccentric heroine, not beautiful but enigmatic and feisty, a writer who drinks, smokes and shoots ‘like a man’. She lives in a Paris that is historically accurate and yet at the same time terrorised by fantastic mysteries and monsters - a pterodactyl, a prehistoric man, an Egyptian mummy brought back to life, a cult of demon worshippers - the stuff of early fantasy fiction and horror movies.
The series has proved to be his most commercially successful work to date, although Tardi has some mixed feelings. “I like getting back to an Adèle story from time to time, because it’s familiar territory. But the character of Adèle doesn’t interest me so much now. She’s there to justify the secondary characters who are much more interesting to me. I go on doing it because the series sells well, but I can’t churn out one a year systematically. I’d get bored if I had to slog away on it for too long, so I prefer to alternate it with different projects.”
To add variety he draws his own more personal stories and collaborates with other writers on albums set in a variety of environments. As well as the Léo Malet novels. he’s collaborated with Jean-Claude Forest, creator of Barbarella, on a surrealist epic Ici Même (‘You Are There’); with Picaret on Polonius, a Fellini-style tale of Ancient Rome; with Jean-Patrick Machette on the detective thriller Griffu; and with Benjamin Legrand on Tueur de cafards (‘Cockroach Killer’) (below) [included in the English collection New York Mon Amour].
Present-day New York is the setting for this last album, which grew out of Tardi’s and Legrand’s fascination with the city after several trips there. “Ben and I had watched the TV coverage of the assassination attempt on President Reagan, repeated over and over in one evening. To us it looked like it was straight out of a Martin Scorsese film. The twist was that the man who had shot at Reagan turned out to be a fan of the Scorsese movie Taxi Driver and was madly in love with Jodie Foster. We were struck by the fact that in this sort of assassination (of Reagan, or Kennedy, or Lennon), the killer is always crazy or unbalanced. That intrigued us and gave us the idea of a criminal organisation on Wall Street which recruits these poor guys and uses them to assassinate top people, knowing full well that they’ll be caught and make perfect culprits.”
The culprit in their graphic novel is a pest-exterminator named Walter Eisenhower. “Appropriately, he starts on the little bugs before graduating onto the big ones!” Eisenhower looks like Jimmy Carter and in his bright red and overalls he stands out from his black-and-white urban surroundings, “clearly marked as the principal character and victim.”
Contemporary New York is also the location for ‘The Murderer of Hung’ and first translated in Escape Magazine No. 8 and reprinted in The Mammoth Book of Best Crime Comics and New York Mon Amour. It was written in 1982 by Dominique Grange, who married Tardi in 1983. They portray the Big Apple with a seedy atmosphere and a toned photo-reference realism. Their story returns to Tardi’s obsessive theme of the horror of war, in this case Vietnam, following one of the ‘boat people’, a refugee in New York, as she tries to hunt down the ex-American solider who raped her and shot her young boy. Preferring pathos to hysteria, Tardi and Grange question the true value of vengeance.
The late and much-missed Kim Thompson tirelessly championed the translation of Tardi’s graphic novels and Fantagraphics have issued an essential collection in English. Among them is Goddamn This War! (above), Tardi’s latest return to The Great War in a searing narrative spanning each year of the conflict, illustrated in colour and written with historian Jean-Pierre Verney. In 2014, the original artworks from this epic were exhibited at the 41st Angoulême Comics Festival (below) and later at the Espace Niemeyer in Paris and the Comic Salon in Erlangen, Germany. In Tardi’s ongoing oeuvre, the unlearnt lessons of war after war have rarely been so forcefully communicated.
To learn more, The Great War In Comics is the first of five special Comica Conversations at The British Library Conference Centre on Sunday August 17th, 11am to 12 noon. Pat Mills, author of Charley’s War, will explore portrayals of World War One in comics with contributors to three powerful new anthologies, To End All Wars (Soaring Penguin), To Arms! (Process Comics) and Above The Dreamless Dead (First Second), and with Alys Jones, writer-artist of Beyond The Wire from Atlantic Press. Book your tickets now for this fascinating discussion followed by book signings in the Centre Foyer.
Posted: August 4, 2014