Parisian Noir: Malet & Tardi’s Fog Over Tolbiac Bridge

Fog Over Tolbiac Bridge,

Leo Malet, Jacques Tardi,

Translated by Kim Thompson,

Fantagraphics

I absolutely love the work of Jacques Tardi, from his crime tales to fantastical Jules Verne-esque yarns like the Arctic Marauder or the bitter, powerful anger of It Was the War of the Trenches (see here) and Goddamn This War (reviewed here), he is, for me, one of Europe’s great masters of the ninth art. I also have a fondness for a dash of Noir, so combine Tardi with a Noir murder featuring Leo Malet’s detective Nestor Burma and oh yes, you better believe I wanted to get my little ink-stained paws on it. And rather a handsome edition it is too, a slim hardback album, with some nice metallic highlights on the front and back cover (sadly not so obvious in the scan above, but quite striking when you see it with your own eyes), a nice addition to Fantagraphics’ Tardi library on my shelves. It even comes with nice end-papers detailing a map of the relevant part of Paris, marking the location of the main events; in conjunction with the actual comics art it gives a great impression of the place, you can feel your way around the mean streets.

Nestor receives a letter from Abel Benoit, claiming to be an old comrade who desperately needs his help, “a scumbag is planning something dirty.” He addresses Burma as both “comrade” and a “brother” and hints at their old days in their youth. There’s one problem – Burma doesn’t recall ever knowing an Abel Benoit at any point in his life, the name means nothing to me. But the detective is intrigued, and so he ventures off across a rainy Paris, the trademark trenchcoat collar turned up, heading to the hospital this Benoit is being treated in. And he’s being followed, by a mysterious, dark-haired woman; she’s behind him right from his office, on the train and the station, before finally approaching him.

It transpires she posted the letter for the ill Benoit and she tells Burma that he is wasting his time – Benoit is dead. This gypsy woman, Benita, refuses to accompany him when he insists on still visiting the hospital – he clearly doesn’t trust this stranger, for all he knows she was sent to divert him from his appointment with Benoit. But she does promise to wait across the road from the hospital for him. Benoit does indeed prove to have given up his breathing rights, just as Benita told him. And on being taken to view the body in the morgue he meets an old associate, from the police, waiting for him. Why are the police interested and why do they think Nestor know something that they want to know? It seems several people have an interest in this mysterious man and case, and they all seem to think Burma already has the inside track, while he’s left wonder who Benoit is, why he thought they knew each other and why the cops are staking out the morgue waiting on his visit…

I don’t want to get into much more plot detail – I’d rather not potentially spoil any twists and turns, after all those are part and parcel of the fun of a good crime story. I will say that it involves elements from Burma’s own mis-spent youth, and mixes in the police (who have a fairly chequered past with Burma), an old case, a femme fatale (naturally) and more, in a very satisfying ratio. And this being Tardi, the visuals and layouts are just utterly superb. 1950s Paris, the streets tramped by our rumpled detective, usually in the rain (of course), the streets of the rough XIII arrondissement – now a bustling place with a large Asian community and shiny new business cenres on the Rive Gauche, but in this period it’s a down-at-heels, tough neighbourhood that Burma sneers at (fancy street names can’t hide the poverty and shabbiness), and yet he also clearly has some dogged affection for the area.

Drawn in monochrome, which suits the very Noir atmosphere, there are some gorgeous visual throughout this book. Many scenes follow Burma in his trenchcoat, scowl on his face, through those XIII arrondissement streets, the “camera” angle often directly behind of in front of him – the effect is reminiscent of those cool and stylish handheld camera shots through the Parisian streets by film-makers like Goddard, and makes the reader feel as if they are walking those street with Malet’s detective. The rain-lashed 1950s streets are grey and chill, the pacing and sizing of the panels changing to reflect the story, smaller, more frequent during sequences where Nestor is being tailed, larger and slower for more dialogue-heavy character moments, while Tardi uses variable lettering sizes to convey emotions, shouting and other effects, a device he’s used very effectively before.

An afterword by Malet confesses he was never a fan of comics, but he saw one of Tardi’s Adele Blanc-Sec books in the Casterman shop, and was taken by it, and then later by Tardi himself, leading to their collaboration, with Fog Over Tolbiac Bridge first appearing in serial form in A Suivre. Malet was impressed, he describes Tardi as approaching his novel like a film director (which I found interesting as I had the same impression prior to reading the afterword), and how he felt disappointed in attempts to make a film of Fog, but he had better than a film he had Tardi: “No one else can so perfectly enshroud the setting with such a dampness and thickness. No one else can bring the underlying depression to the surface.”

A gripping mystery, executed with some of the finest comics art Europe has to offer, mysterious dames, tough guys with a moral centre, an old case knocking insistently on the door of the present, and an atmosphere that oozes Noir so much you’d think the fog itself could wear a Fedora. This is one to curl up with, and like a good Raymond Chandler, or Malet for that matter, this is a book that you know you are going to go back and revisit.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

The dark side of Tinseltown – Angel City

Angel City #1,

Janet Harvey, Megan Levens, Nick Filardi,

Oni Press

angel_city_1_harvey_levens_onipress_coverHollywood. Tinseltown. The land of glamour and possibility. Show up on the bus. Get a soda at Schwab’s. Become a star. That’s the dream of a thousand pretty girls across America. A lot of them have bus fare. Frances Faye was a good kid. She had lousy taste in guy, sure. But in this town that can be an asset. We were friends, a log time ago. I always wondered what happened to her. Now? I wish I didn’t know.”

That opening dialogue takes place over the first three pages of Harvey and Levens’ first issue of Angel City, and, lover of Film Noir and classic-era Hollywood that I am, I imagine it delivered in a world-weary voice of someone who once aimed for the stars and was hit repeatedly by how low down and dirty the reality behind the screen magic actually was. A perfect Film Noir opening voice over, really, overlaying image of Grauman’s famous Chinese Theatre, but here silhouetted against an ominous bloody-red sky and long shadow, a hint of the gruesome scene we’re about to find just yards from where those oh-so-famous and glamorous film star hand prints are in the sidewalk by the cinema. the 30s/40s newsmen in their Fedora hats, flashbulbs (remember those?) popping brilliantly in the dark alley behind the movie palace, where a young, battered woman’s body lies among the garbage of the dumpster.

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It’s a chilling opening, within two pages establishing that Golden Age Hollywood setting and glamour then tearing back the curtain to show behind the scenes and the way so many young would-be starlets were eaten up by Tinseltown. One of the newspapermen, Joe, develops the photos in his dark room (a nice dramatic scene, the slow reveal of the image appearing on the paper under the red light, something you don’t get with digital, that pause, that reveal). And realises as he looks more closely that battered face in the press photo is someone he knows. Or rather now someone he knew… He goes to call on Dot – now re-branded as Dolores (identity is plastic in La-La Land), who at first appears to be living the film star life – big house, palm trees, pool, lounging around in her swimsuit and oh-so-chic turban sipping a cocktail in the sun. And he tells her their friend is dead, brutally, dumped like yesterday’s old trash. She affects not to care – it was a long time ago they came out here to California seeking fame and fortune like so many others – and he leaves her angrily, informing her the funeral is tomorrow, as he departs.

All those hopes. All those dreams… It hits too close to hime. Frances Hallmeyer. Faye was her middle name… We came in together on the goddamned Greyhound bus… We ran out of money in a week.

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But Dolores – who was Dot when she and Frances Faye arrived on a Greyhound bus with their cheap suitcases and no money but a pocket full of dreams of making it in this town – can’t stop the memories. In sepia-tinged flashbacks (in contrast to the colour-drenched present day scenes, nicely crafted by Levens and Filardi’s artwork and colouring) we see them trying for everything – the cattle-calls of an open audition (let’s see those legs, toots!) to all the creeps and lechers in bars and clubs, full of promises of connections to famous producers and directors, in exchange for some companionship, in a city where pretty young flesh is the cheapest and most readily available commodity of all (and all some have to trade). And eventually Dot, before she becomes Dolores, in her bunny costume as the cigarette girl in the clubs. Except when one guy gets too fresh with her, Dot doesn’t take that pat on her bum, oh no, she turns around and clocks the guy with her tray. Catching the eye of the gangster who runs the club and who can use a feisty dame like her (although to be fair he does seem to develop genuine feelings for her too).

No that first impression isn’t right, Dolores as he now calls herself is no movie star in her luxury home and pool, she’s working for a gangster. It’s a clever bluff and reveal by Harvey and Levens and given how closely the gangsters and the film set were often intertwined abck then in LA (and Vegas, come to that) it’s pretty appropriate to see her seemingly glamorous lifestyle comes from violence and crime hidden behind a veneer of respectable, wealthy living, a mask, just like those the directors and actors and producer who live in neighbouring big homes all wear too.

This opening issue is dripping in nods to Golden Age Hollywood, right down to the presence of Eddie Mannix, the famous/infamous “fixer” for the old studio system (which could mean anything from hushing up and paying off old, undesirable boyfriends or an abortion for studio starlets to much darker and heavier actions to protect the carefully managed public persona of those stars), and it also oozes that Noir mixture of style and disturbance. The reveal of poor Frances in the dumpster recalls the horrid, wretched fate of poor Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia, one of the most infamous and macabre unsolved murders in Hollywood history (later immortalised by the great crime writer James Ellroy as part of his LA Quartet).

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And that’s no accident as is revealed by the creators in an afterword, the Dahlia’s gruesome fate was an inspiration, along with the always-hushed-up but well-known knowledge of the systematic abuse of young starlets to be for the promise of a chance at silver screen fame (terrifying how many of those rumours were actually true, creatures like Trump would have been in their element back then). And that theme of the use and abuse of women – especially young, impressionable and desperate ladies – and the lingering threat and often actuality of the violence men hold over them pervades the story. And as recent events remind us – as if we needed reminding – that’s not something that vanished with the Hollywood of the 30s an 40s, it still lingers, it is still there, from the vile misogynistic rantings of someone like Trump to the internet trolls who try to silence women who dare to voice opinions with the threat of sexual violence. No, it’s still here, sickeningly here in 2016 when we should know better, and that makes Angel City not just an atmospheric period crime thriller, it makes it disturbingly pertinent to the modern day.

If you enjoyed Brubaker and Phillips’ superb The Fade Out (reviewed here) or enjoy classic Film Noir then this is an ideal companion to read. And if you love that intoxicating and now vanished Hollywood of the period with its mix of glamour and sleaze I’d also recommend the quite excellent You Must Remember This Podcast by Karina Longworth.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews from the past: 5 is a Perfect Number

This is an old review of an English translation of a European graphic novel by Igort – we’re still not seeing as many translations of some excellent (and bestselling) graphic novels (or bandes dessinées) of European works as I’d like, which is a great shame as there are some wonderful books, both for adults and younger readers, but they just aren’t being picked up and translated in great numbers. Still, it has improved a little in the last few years and was probably less common when I first reviwed 5 is a Perfect Number for The Alien Online back in 2004:

5 is the Perfect Number,
Written & illustrated by Igort,
Published by Jonathan Cape

A Mafia graphic novel with Giallo undertones

Peppi is a retired Guappo, a Mafia gunman from the old school. The story opens with him making coffee for his son Nino, who has followed in his footsteps and is about to embark upon a hit. Nino is clearly disturbed about something, so his father makes him sit down for a chat and is soon reminiscing about ‘the good old days’. Nino confesses that he has been feeling out of sorts lately and that he isn’t sure the job of a Mafia killer is really for him anymore; Nino has been having disturbing dreams. Peppi produces a box wrapped in a bow and presents it to the depressed Nino, telling him that although his birthday isn’t for a few days tonight feels like the right time. Opening it up Nino’s mood changes instantly to joy as he beholds the top-of-the-line new handgun his father has bought him and decides to take it with him on his job. As the rain starts to come down Nino leaves his father’s home; it is the last time Peppi will see him alive.

It transpires that Nino has been set up for reasons which never really become clear. Obviously whoever ordered the hit is nervous about Peppi’s reaction – he may be old but he has a formidable reputation – and two corpulent gunmen are dispatched to ensure the old man meets his son in the afterlife swiftly. Relaxing with his fishing rod Peppi is oblivious to his son’s fate and his own approaching danger; just another old, retired man fishing happily. Until he is blinded by a vision of the Madonna and realises what this portent means – his son is probably dead and he is next. His old instincts kick in and he soon finds the two fat gunmen looking for him and dispatches them with great violence. Calling on some very old friends for help Peppi find that his son has indeed been killed on orders from the top of the Family. Girding his old loins, Peppi vows to wage war…

The story here is one of classical simplicity – wrongful family death and a mission of retribution. However the way in which Igort takes us through this tale is the beauty of the piece. Dreams and portents play a significant role in the book; Peppi’s vision of the Madonna saving his life, his own disturbed dreams of being chased, Nino’s troubled soul coming out in his dreams. They serve to give us insight into the mind of the protagonists, but do so in a wonderfully stylised manner. Instead of giving us direct access to their thoughts and fears we share the metaphorical imagery of their dreams and visions and, like them, must interpret them for ourselves (which I found to be both a clever and engaging move – it draws you into the character far more than if the author simply spoon-fed the reader the character’s thoughts directly).

Flashbacks are also a major component of the story, from Peppi’s cherished tale of how he met his late wife to his days of glory as a great Guappo. Indeed the whole story is infused with a loving (but never cloying) nostalgia for the 40s and 50s (classic Noir period). The artwork moves from a much stylised but not too unrealistic form to increasingly odd-looking art for the dream sequences. The detail helps to fill out the period feeling, with movie posters and, in one scene, a fabulously stark silhouette of a 50s garage which sets the scene and period perfectly. Films, especially the old crime and Noirs, are obviously a huge influence in this tale and the style of it’s telling, giving it a very expressive imagery.

As with the finest Noirs or the old Giallos there are rarely any truly innocent or good characters as we would understand them. Peppi is the central character and we are encouraged to sympathise with his quest for vengeance, but Peppi is also a stone-cold killer who has taken many lives. Of course, he sees himself – and his son – differently, as men of honour; their moral outlook in life is, like that of most heroes (or anti-heroes) in a Noir is flexible and somewhat different to the norm for society. Peppi, disparaging the modern hitmen, exclaims at one point that you can tell a man by the way he kills and adds proudly, “My son, thank God, kills the right way.” His reminiscences of the good old days are also laced with violence he finds acceptable – he talks happily about how “people killed one another by the rules” as if this makes everything alright (in his moral outlook it does). It is to Igort’s credit that he does not whitewash his characters into simple good and bad but presents them to us in this manner and yet still he manages to win the reader’s sympathy for Peppi.

This is an unusual graphic novel by English-language standards (although not for European BD), laced with nostalgia for the old films of the 40s and 50s and featuring some lovely and incredibly expressive artwork. It is not afraid to show us the violent past (and present) of our characters; it makes no judgment on them and leaves it very much to the reader. Igort even manages to slide a little humour into such a bleak tale, notably when Nino tells his father he is running late for a job and Peppi tells him that’s fine – it gives the soon-to-be deceased a few more minutes of life and so shows the hitman has style and class. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this and found it is one of those books that demand a re-reading to look for little pieces of dialogue and artwork that you may have missed first time around. This will appeal to anyone who enjoys a Raymond Chandler novel or even Altered Carbon (or indeed any Noirs).