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

Goddam This War! – Jacques Tardi returns to the trenches

Goddam This War! (buy from Forbidden Planet/ Goddamn This War! (buy from Amazon)
Jacques Tardi, Jean-Pierre Verney,
Fantagraphics

goddam this war jacques tardi fantagraphics cover

I’m a huge admirer of the work of Jacques Tardi – I consider him to be one of the finest creators in the comics medium in Europe, with a diverse body of work and styles, from the fantastical adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec to his hard-edged adaptations of Manchette’s crime stories, or the Jules Verne homage of Arctic Marauder. His award-winning It Was the War of the Trenches is a remarkable entry in his oeuvre, even by his high standards, a blisteringly angry look at World War One. I was so impressed with it I struggled through it with my rather poor French skills until our friends at Fantagraphics announced their English language translation as part of their very welcome series of works by Tardi. Now, years after C’était la guerre des tranchées (as it was called in the original French language edition) Tardi has returned to The War to End All Wars. I’ve been eagerly anticipating this for quite some time – Trenches was on my Best of the Year list when it came out, an immensely emotional, powerful piece of work; Goddam This War had much to live up to.

Structurally Tardi takes a different approach this time – where Trenches was a collection of short slices of life at the Front with different characters, Goddam This War is chronological, a chapter dedicated to each year of the Great War from 1914 through to the 1918 Armistice and the aftermath in 1919, plus a text section by historian Verney giving a potted chronology of the war as the appendix. This time we mostly follow the war from the perspective of one French soldier, with some digressions to show other areas of battle – in the air (a brand new development) and at sea, as well as taking in others, away from our French soldier’s unit, the British Tommies, the Australians, Canadians, the colonial troops from French North Africa or Indian soldiers from the British Empire, and, late on, the arrival of the American doughboys, and he takes in life, and death, in the German trenches. There’s no jingoistic nationalism being waved here, Tardi has nothing but sympathy for the soldiers caught in this industrial carnage, his ire – actually his virulent rage – is saved to direct against the generals and the politicians. You know, those well-dressed, usually older gentlemen who direct the war efforts of entire nations and empires, who send millions repeatedly into the meat-grinder, order the shooting for ‘cowardice’ of those who refuse or who eventually break under the relentless strain, talk of ‘doing their duty’ for their country, but of course their duty doesn’t involve living in mud with rats with a view of what had been your friend rotting away on the barbed wire of No Man’s Land and wondering when it will be your turn, if it will be quick, or if you will linger in mutilated agony.

goddam this war jacques tardi fantagraphics 01

Yes, you can probably surmise from my tone that I am with Tardi on that score. In one scene our little French soldier wonder which is worse, the French generals, the British generals or the German generals, but surmises there is probably little difference between them.

We start, as you would imagine, with 1914: it’s the very early days of what will become a four year slaughter on a scale never before imagined. Unlike Trenches we begin not only in colour, but in bright, primary colours – vibrant blue, glowing red, the verdant greens and golds of summer fields through which our French troops march off to a war they are convinced will be finished so soon they are, as the narrator puts it, already imagining drinking a well-earned beer on the Alexanderplatz after they beat the Germans and march into Berlin. Despite this being 1914 the scene, at first, resembles the old-fashioned, large formation battles of previous centuries, and you can understand why the generals brought up in that mindset struggled to deal with the muddy, bloody deadlock of mechanised trench warfare that things would soon degenerate into (although the fact they could not or would not try to think on another strategy over the next four years as battle after battle revealed the futility of their approach is rather less excusable). Even the French troops look like something from the 18th or 19th century, in blue coats and caps with bright red trousers, uniforms more suited for drilling on a parade ground than fighting a modern battle. There are still the aristocratic cavalry units galloping around in their lordly manner as the brightly-garbed troops march towards the enemy through villages (where they are cheered) and fields.

Little August soldier in your madder-red trousers, you tried to hide but there wasn’t much cover behind the poppies. You entered the history books dressed up like a trooper in a comic opera, little August casualty.”

Our narrator, however is not convinced even at this early stage where most are optimistic – he already has the horrible feeling many are being cheered on by the civilians they pass to their certain doom. In one frame French troops are packed aboard freight wagons on the railways, all seemingly cheerful, sure they are off to deliver a quick knock-out blow and return as heroes while elderly grandparents look on admiringly and the mothers and wives carrying young children smile bravely for the soldiers, but there is fear behind their smiles: “Only the mothers really knew. They knew the babies in their arms were tomorrow’s war orphans, and the cattle cars (8 horse, 40 men) were noting but rail-mounted coffins joined end to end and headed for military cemeteries.” The page with this scene is mirrored opposite, with three large, broad frames showing the French preparing for a ‘quick’ battle and marching off to war, the opposite page in the exact same format but from the German point of view; military madness and rampant jingoism running rampant over common-sense on both sides, as Tardi shows, most caught up in it, not questioning, the few, like our narrator, who do realise they are powerless to change things, that no-one would even listen to them.

goddam this war jacques tardi fantagraphics 02

It’s not long before their illusions about the ‘glory’ of battling for one’s country – “the old lie, dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori”, how sweet it is to die for one’s country – are rudely, brutally shattered for all the armies on all sides of this massive, continent-crossing alliance of nations determined to march on one another. The peace of summer fields erupts into shocking violence and suddenly there are dead men lying on the ground, others screaming in agony from their wounds; the corn still sways, it is the men who have been reaped. The cavalry on both sides charge in a scene that could have come from the high age of heroic chivalry… Until misplaced artillery rains down blowing men and horses from both sides into butcher’s meat. It’s shocking and brutal to the reader, one panel graceful horses and riders, lances and swords drawn like knights, galloping across the frame, the next panel is a pure horror of explosions and pieces of animals and humans. The notions of grace and noble heroism vanish, and in a darkly humorous moment Tardi finishes off that misguided notion of honourable death in battle by having one poor German going behind a tree to relieve himself during a lull, suddenly finding himself face to face with a French soldier and is killed while his trousers are still around his ankles. So much for noble martyrdom for one’s country…

As we move on through that first year and into 1915 the palette slowly starts to fade, the world shrinking down for our narrator and his comrades (and those around them on both sides, for Tardi takes pains to show the universal suffering of all the troops regardless of nation), bleached of colour until it becomes almost monochromatic, the style here also making use of watercolours which, despite the subject matter, often give a softer feel than the art in Trenches, although it also helps convey the murky, muddy world of churned up earth and water-logged shell-holes and gas-misted trenches very effectively. The early mobility of those bright scenes of 1914 give way to digging in, then to serious entrenching, and the start of what we’ve all seen from the history books and early newsreels, the hell of trench warfare, where literally thousands of men could be slain in an afternoon for the gain of a few yards of mud. And it isn’t just the horrible ways the men can die, Tardi carefully articulates the mental anguish and suffering; the lice, the rats, the constant fear of a gas attack, the sight, day after day, of what had once been your comrade and friend, dead, caught on the wire in No-Man’s Land, rotting away, none of you able to pull him down without being killed yourselves, the body hanging there constantly to remind you of what happened to him and what you in turn may be by the day’s end too, a rotting cadaver flapping like a broken puppet in the wind between the lines, where even your mangled body will never know the peace of a simple burial. No wonder then that some break, succumb to shell shock, desert, try to get themselves wounded so they can be sent home, or simply kill themselves because they can endure this hell no longer.

goddam this war jacques tardi fantagraphics 03

Moving into the final years of the war, then the aftermath Tardi switches mostly from following his French soldier narrator to individual scenes, three frames per page (much like his earliest pages of the book, a circular return to the layout of the beginning) in broad landscape form, each a window into a different part of the war, from the German observer leaping from a flaming balloon to the disaster of Gallipoli, sailors clinging to wreckage in the cold sea after their ship has vanished below the icy waters taking most of their comrades with it, the poor horses forced to drag equipment through the shattered landscapes humans have made of the world, the nurse struggling to be professional, to stay strong and care for the hideously wounded while she worries about her own husband on the front line, looking at the wounded, thinking on her own son, wondering if some day he will go through this sort of hell too, if it ever ends.

goddam this war jacques tardi fantagraphics 06

The parades of the victors after the Treaty of Versailles is signed, the blind veteran who lost his eyes to a gas attack standing unseeing as they march past with flags and finery, the funeral parade of a French officer in a defeated, occupied Germany, the French soldiers beating any German civilian who refused to take his hat off as the funeral carriage went past, but as the dialogue points out, how hard it is for that German father to remove his hat out of respect when the French had killed his son in the trenches, and so the hatred is further sown in both sides (as with several scenes in the book Tardi has lifted this from an actual event, the picture matches remarkably closely a short piece of early film footage of this very scene which still survives to this day), or, in an ominous foreshadowing another of these scenes shows the chaos in post-war Germany as nationalistic right-wingers and far left socialist groups clash in the streets, a problem that would be there throughout the Weimar Republic and help sow the seeds for the rise of the Nazis to power and the war which would follow the War To End All Wars… A few pages towards the end are effectively a horror-show gallery of the maimed and wounded, the men with no limbs, other with large parts of their faces gone, masks to cover what remains of their visage. It’s horribly reminiscent of scenes we’ve all seen on the news of injured troops brought back from Afghanistan; the years advance, the number of casualties may be far smaller, but still in it’s fashion history repeats itself and men mangle other men with machinery, again and again, nothing learned…

goddam this war jacques tardi fantagraphics 04

 

goddam this war jacques tardi fantagraphics 05

There are the odd touches of humour here and there – the French looking at the Scottish regiments and wondering if they have pants on under the kilts or if they go into battle with everything bouncing around like something from Carry on up the Khyber – and a few other places, but mostly it is of the barrack-room mentality or else of the gallows-variety, two strands of black humour that have served soldiers to help them get through probably every war in human history. But mostly this, like the earlier Trenches, burns with anger for the futility, the sheer, vast waste of human life, the treatment of the rank and file, who the powers that be never cared about in peace time but come a war their political manoeuvres and treaties had created, expect to come forth and ‘do their duty’ by a country that previously didn’t care if those same men lived in slums. His fury pours off the page, mixed with huge empathy and sympathy for the suffering of those forced into those awful events, and there in lies the key which makes this such an affecting, powerful, emotional read: Tardi takes the vast scale of the war, the unbelievable casualty rate and he humanises it, puts it on a personal level the reader can comprehend, understand, sympathise with. When the fallen run into millions we are horrified, but at the same time the numbers go beyond our individual comprehension – add in the distance of years and with the best will in the world it is hard to see more than awful statistics. But when presented at the human scale we too can bear witness, and Tardi presents this in a wars-and-all human level. It’s not an easy read, nor should it be, and you too are likely to find yourself with mounting anger at what was perpetrated on so many, so needlessly, and you should feel that anger. That’s the anger that makes us question each time a new generation of leaders try to promote war as the ‘honourable’ thing for a nation to do, it reminds us of the individual cost behind the grand rhetoric of political leaders and why we should never take them at their word, why we should consider the consequences behind such plans. The last of the old veterans of that slaughter have finally left us, next year marks a century since the start of the Great War, but the hard-learned lessons from that conflict are still relevant, even now as the various powers posture and rattle sabres once more, each claiming to be with the forces of right. Tardi reinforces the old lesson, “never forget”.

It Was the War of the Trenches: Jacques Tardi’s WWI masterpiece

It Was the War of the Trenches

By Jacques Tardi

Published by Fantagraphics

I’ve been pretty delighted to see the crew at Fantagraphics translating and publishing some of the excellent work of acclaimed French BD artist Jaques Tardi over the last year or so (with more to come), but I’ve been especially keen to read the translation of his It Was the War of the Trenches, having first come across it in French a few years ago, just a few pages from it extracted in a French comics mag I’d picked up. Even those few pages made quite an impression on me and I’ve had a strong desire to read the whole book ever since, so before we start kudos to Fanta for publishing this and other works by Tardi for the English language readership.

Where do you start when your subject is the Great War? How do you approach a conflict which had casualties running into the millions? Which brought new levels of unbelievable, mechanised, mass-produced horror and slaughter to the world, which saw the fall of governments and whole empires, redrew the map, shattered an entire generation and broke social divides? The statistics from the First World War are mind-numbing; they become mere numbers after a while. Our brains simply cannot really process the fact of millions of deaths – we need the personal level in order for us to emotionally engage with the savage events and, like Mills and Colquhoun did with the classic British WWI series Charley’s War, we get that personal, soldier’s level view of events. The men in these trenches may only represent a fraction of the millions from many nations dug into the scarred earth of the trenches, but they are personalised, they’re real and that makes it much easier to identify with them and empathise with the awfulness of trench warfare.

(Tardi captures the industrialisation of the slaughter of war and contrasts the awful effectiveness of manufactured steel and explosives against human bodies and the very earth itself, a Hellish landscape where even the dead cannot rest; (c) Tardi, published Fantagraphics)

Lacking the ongoing characters of a serial strip like Charley’s War, Tardi opts for a more documentary approach, selecting scenes from the war and following a short story of a small group or an individual caught up in a collective madness beyond their control (reminiscent of Burns’ approach in the highly respected Civil War series, using personal tales and reminiscences to give us a human, personal face to vast events). Starting with an even-handed scene setter showing the daily routine of shelling from both the German and French, which then introduces the trenches and the hell of No Man’s Land, cleverly introducing the first man he will follow, Binet. Alas, when we first see him, Private Binet is already dead and rotting away in No Man’s Land, so we already know that he’s going to be one of those vast numbers of statistics. As Tardi goes back to fill in some of Binet’s life he becomes a person, not another number. I think it’s quite brave of Tardi to have as his first character a man who’s quite misanthropic and unlikeable; he’s not trying to paint all of the fallen as saints or heroic paragons of virtue and honour, they are people, some good, some miserable, some funny, some selfish. Binet is not very likeable, but he doesn’t deserve the dreadful death he will endure.

And that’s surely part of Tardi’s point, that this huge, mechanical, industrialised war swallowed all who came before it, regardless of their character, the good and the bad, the poor and the noble born. The suffering Tardi portrays is universal to all of the front line troops – on both sides – and civilians caught up in the maelstrom of events too. A scene from the earlier, more mobile segment of the war shows advancing German troops driving Belgian refugees in front of them to act as human shields, uncaring of the vicious immorality of their actions. It sounds like a piece of the (rather obvious to modern, media savvy eyes) propaganda that was circulated in Allied nations about the ‘monstrous Hun’, but actually it is based on real events. Not that Tardi paints only the decisions like this by war-mongering Prussian generals, he shows the French commanders as uncaring and immoral as the German ones, when they order their men to fire anyway because, after all, the human shield isn’t composed of their countryfolk…

(Belgian refugees caught between equally uncaring French and German troops in the early days of the war, (c) Tardi, published Fantagraphics)

A burning sense of injustice and anger runs throughout War of the Trenches, and rightly so; to anyone who has read the history of that disastrous, monstrous start to the last century it isn’t hard to see why anyone should still be angry about it ninety years after the Armistice. He highlights the sheer ridiculousness of the war, of how nations and entire empires were prepared to spend their entire wealth and resources on slaughtering millions and yet for far less they could have housed, educated and fed every single one of their own citizens (including the many who lived in squalor and poverty, ignored by their countries until their countries required them ‘to do their duty’). He sketches the global nature of the conflict, of regiments drawn from the far corners of the world empires of the French, British and others, the Sikh soldiers from India fighting for the British Empire that had happily taken their country, the Algerian and Vietnamese troops from French colonies who, as Tardi points out, were pressed into service for the glory of France and who would, only a few decades later, be killing French troops as they fought for their own freedom, making a few pages of a single war into a shorthand for the seemingly constant conflicts which litter that entire century around the world.

(past conflicts may have ranged across the world – the French and British empires fighting from the Indies to the Americas, for example – but it took the Great War to make conflict so truly global. Not the best way to bring together the peoples of the world… (c) Tardi, published Fantagraphics)

It isn’t an easy read – there are moments of humour, but it is of the gallows variety (a pair of police who harassed soldiers end up strung up in a ruined village in front of the Charcuterie – the pork butcher’s shop, a macabre pun on referring to police as pigs). But for the most part it is, as you would expect given the subject matter, often grim reading. Which isn’t to say you shouldn’t read it, quite the reverse – yes, it is grim and frequently horror-filled, but Tardi draws on history and personalises it, bring huge events down to a human scale we can understand and empathise with in a way that we don’t always get from a large history volume (although for those who do want to learn more I’d recommend the highly respected Hew Strachan’s The First World War as a very accessible single volume introduction). I have actually read quite a bit of the history over the years but the visual aspect that comics bring to the human aspect of the history adds enormously to its impact, even more so than other visual medium, such as film, can manage (the classic WWI film J’Accuse – obviously an influence on Tardi – is a masterpiece in imagery, but unlike a comic you go at the filmaker’s pace; here you can pause on a scene, a frozen moment, an expression, a detail).

(several times Tardi uses a page layout which is reminiscent of some of the illustrated gazettes of the era; (c) Tardi, published Fantagraphics)

When I was a boy, first reading comics, most of the strips of the time made warfare seem like something of a Boy’s Own Adventure, with the notable exception of Mills and Colquhoun’s Charley’s War, which left a lifelong impression on me. So when I say Tardi’s War of the Trenches is the most powerful comic I’ve read on World War One since Charley’s War, you’ll understand what a compliment that is. The black and white art is perfectly suited to the era being covered, an era we are most used to seeing in monochrome film and photographs, while Tardi, not for the first time, proves himself a master of expression, the looks on the faces of the men caught up in the war speaking absolute volumes (a hallmark of a true master comics artist, a single frame depicting men’s expressions is worth pages of eloquent prose) and some pages are laid out in a fashion reminiscent of an illustrated gazette of the era (a nice touch). It’s a hugely powerful work, both moving and horrific and filled with anger for the suffering and injustices one group of ‘civilised’ humans can visit upon another (and in some scenes on their own people); as I said it isn’t the easiest read though, but then it shouldn’t be. And it does deserve to be read; as the last voices of those who were actually there are fading into silence works like this are needed to remind us of the monstrous acts we can be capable of in service to the beasts of jingoism and nationalism and hubris, that we should read them and take cautionary lessons from them. Never forget.

This review first appeared on the Forbidden Planet blog