What the crap? A French comic? Are the French even allowed to make comics? Aren’t they too busy being snooty and smoking Gauloises and wearing inappropriate swimwear? Where do they find the time to make comics, anyway?*
Well, the French can do all those things as long as they keep making comics this good, I tell ya. West Coast Blues is a cracking good crime comic, not really noir but definitely a tale of bad people doing bad things to each other. It’s also, oddly enough, very wryly humorous, in a way we don’t often see in crime comics here in the States. It was a novel by Jean-Patrick Manchette in 1976, and in 2005, Manchette’s old collaborator, Jacques Tardi, finally adapted it to comics (and then Kim Thompson translated it into English). Presumably, had DC’s association with Humanoids continued, this would have been a DC book. As it is, Fantagraphics has published it in the States. Good for them!
The plot is deceptively simple, as for most of the book, we have no idea what’s going and Manchette simply follows his main character around.
We begin in the present with George Gerfaut, cruising around in his Mercedes in the middle of the night listening to West Coast style jazz (hence the name of the book – George digs the jazz!). After a few pages, we’re introduced to another man, Alonso Emerich y Emerich, a Dominican of German descent who used to be in military intelligence. We have, initially, no idea what his purpose is, because we quickly get back to George, who is passed by two cars, one chasing the other. The first car crashes, the second car takes off, and George helps the first driver to the hospital. Then he returns to his house. A few days later, his family heads out on vacation. It takes us a few pages to realize that this is happening in time well before the opening scene, because Manchette doesn’t give us any indication that we’ve flashbacked. That’s okay, though – the transition between the “present” and the “past” is interesting because Manchette links them through George driving late at night. While we may be a bit lost initially, we quickly regain our footing.
George doesn’t realize he’s being tailed by two hitmen in the employ of Alonso, who goes by Mr. Taylor. Again, we don’t know why they want to kill George (we can figure out it has something to do with the driver of the car, but we don’t know what), but that’s part of the fun. Because as the follow George to the seaside, the plot kicks into high gear. It’s rather humorous – the hitmen can’t kill George. Through, really, very little effort on his part, he manages to elude them. In their first attempt, he manages to grab one of the killer’s balls, which of course tends to put him off. This attempt switches something on in George, and he abandons his wife and returns to Paris. The killers can never quite catch up with him, and when they do, he escapes again, killing one of them almost accidentally. Then he flees into the forest and ends up in the foothills of the Alps, where he’s found by a slightly eccentric woodsman. And he simply stays there. He becomes someone else completely, learning how to be self-sufficient, hooking up with a woman, and changing his appearance by growing a beard.
But the second killer tracks him down, and George ends up back in the world, ready to find out exactly why these two men were sent to kill him.
The fascinating thing about this story is the character of George. Actually, Carlo and Bastien, the two hitmen, are pretty interesting as well, but George is the central character, so he ought to be fascinating. As I pointed out, he doesn’t escape from the killers because he’s tougher than they are; he might be a bit smarter, but he’s also really lucky. Manchette doesn’t make it a ridiculous, corny kind of luck, but he does show that George happens to do things that throw them off the track without knowing he’s doing it. This makes the pursuit rather odd and darkly humorous. The book is full of violent death, and it’s definitely not a comedy, but just the fact that these two professional killers have such a tough time blowing away this rather inept sales manager makes it border on the surreal. Then, we think the book will be about George becoming more of an independent dude and less of a simpering whiner, as he’s forced to live in the wild for so many months. But Manchette doesn’t quite give us that, either. George is a complicated guy who realizes certain things about the way society is structured but still yearns for other things. By the end of the book, we’re back on the freeway, but Manchette has made us see that George has changed, just maybe not enough that we would expect. West Coast Blues is, in my mind, very “European” in that regard – this is a broad generalization, but Europeans are more bound by history, both societal and personal, than Americans, so if this book had been written by a Yankee, it probably would have ended much, much differently. That it doesn’t is a testament, I think, to Manchette’s storytelling – he never takes the easy way out, even if George’s fate might seem like he does. George has been affected by what happens to him, but in not so overt (American?) way.
Tardi’s art is quite stellar, as well. He’s amazingly detailed, but he doesn’t pull any tricks on the reader – his work is very straight forward.
He relies on very strong storytelling skills, as he simply takes us through George’s story. We get a great sense of place from Tardi, either in the urban settings or, even more impressively, in the rural interlude George experiences. Tardi does masterful work with the characters, too – they look and move like people, stumbling when you might expect it, breaking bones when you’d expect it, acting like human beings. His best work might be with Carlo and Bastien, as George remains very low-key throughout (except for one brief scene). Carlo and Bastien, however, have a fun relationship, and Tardi helps with it. Manchette gives them good banter, but Tardi manages to portray their care for each other even as he keeps their faces impassive. It’s a very verbose comic, but Tardi matches Manchette with panels that demand a great deal of attention – this is a visual feast as well as a literary one.
I suppose the only problem one might have with the book is its somewhat excessive narration, because often Manchette simply tells us what the pictures already do (and Tardi adapted it to comics, so why he didn’t cut some more of it is beyond me). Occasionally, the narration is absurdly excellent – when Manchette lists all the weapons Carlo and Bastien have in their car, for instance, it’s a comic mini-masterpiece – but occasionally, we can tell exactly what’s going on and don’t need to be told. Again, this is a comic adapted from a book into French and then translated into English, so there are many filters for it to go through. I don’t have too big an issue with the words, but I should caution you that it feels bloated every once in a while.
Other than that, West Coast Blues is a very good crime comic. The fact that it has a slightly different sensibility than most American crime fiction makes it refreshing, and the fact that Manchette has a wry sense of humor about the material works well, too. And it looks great. And Ed Brubaker thinks Tardi is great. Dare you go against Ed Brubaker????
* Before you jump my shit, I’m joking. I am well aware of the long French tradition of comics, and cut my teeth on Asterix and Obelix before I had even heard of the X-Men when I was but a lad. Chillax, people!
Next: Can it be more Tardi? Well, of course it can!