Robot reviews: Two by Tardi

West Coast Bluesby Jacques Tardi and Jean Patrick ManchetteFantagraphics Books, 80 pages, $18.99.

You Are There by Jacques Tardi and Jean-Claude ForestFantagraphics Books, 196 pages, $26.99.

It makes perfect sense that Fantagraphics would want to start their introduction (or should that be re-re-introduction) of French cartoonist Jacques Tardi to American readers with the release of West Coast Blues. The book, is after all, a tightly-plotted little crime noir, just the sort of thing that today's discerning comic book readers seem to be interested in these days, given the proliferation of crime books recently.

The story itself (adapted from a novel by famed French crime writer Jean Patrick Manchette) is simple: an innocent, middle-class man who leads a life of little consequence finds that a pair of violent thugs are trying to kill him. He and the reader don't know why initially. It's only about 3/4 into the book we are able to piece together the various threads from the story's opening and find out why our hero George Gerfaut has become a target.

Before that point, we watch the man go through an almost literal hell, enduring tragedy after indignity after tragedy before coming out the other side changed, but stuck in stasis; transformed but unable or unwilling to do anything but return to his old ways. It's noir by way of existential hell, which, let's face it is very French.

This is certainly an admirable book, tightly plotted and full of great cartooning moments. Tardi has certainly never been one to shy away from violence and the key scenes have a gory, brutal energy that's as powerful as it is upsetting. But I think the book suffers a bit in that Gerfaut, despite his ordeal, never comes across to the reader as anything more than a cardboard stand-in. Tardi draws him with the same bored expression at the beginning and end of the story, with little variation in the middle except for moments of extreme fear or disgust. As a result, it's hard to empathize or delve into Gerfaut's character too much. Despite his journey he seems to remain in the same emotional stasis at the end that he was in at the beginning. No doubt that's part of the point, but it's hard to find such a character identifiable, much less likable, making Blues seem more like an exercise or treatise than a story.

A much more lively a protagonist is Arthur There, from You Are There, a seminal graphic novel Tardi did with cartoonist and writer Jean-Claude Forest (best known for Barbarella) that apparently was quite influential on a generation of artists when it was first published in 1979.

There is an easily perturbed young man, given to wearing a long morning coat and bowler hat, who lives atop a narrow but labyrinthine wall that snakes along and divvies up a countryside known as Mornmont. There's ancestors originally owned Mornmont but lost the property to a group of distant cousins, leaving There with little to do but engage in perpetual lawsuits with the landowners and operate the gates that allow access in and out of the area, charging a toll in some twisted form of revenge.

And, as you might guess by this point, we're a long ways away from the blunt simplicity of West Coast Blues. Indeed, You Are There is a heavily dense and convoluted book. A variety of subplots abound, many of them intersecting with There's own woes, such as Julie the weird but lovely girl There falls head over heels for, and the president and various politicians who attempt to use Mornmont as a pawn in their attempts to maintain political power.

All this is presented with a decidedly absurdist and surreal air. There's imagination frequently manifests itself in quite literal fashion, so that, for example, when he talks about "perking up an ear," we see a giant human ear blocking his path along the wall. Then there's things like There constantly talking to his mother on a phone that doesn't work, or the fact that his lawyers happily collect their fees in a big trash can. You Are There constantly skirts the edge of comedy -- it knows the language and does the dance -- but never becomes the outright farce it so clearly and consistently hints at evolving into.

Still, I liked You Are There, even if, despite it's manic behavior (and again, as in Blues), I felt a bit distanced at times from the proceedings. Several publishers over several decades have attempted to bring the glory that is Tardi to the philistine Americans. It's nigh-impossible to say if this newest attempt will stick at all. I can easily see readers dismissing work like this as "too arch" or  "too French" just as much as I can see them embracing thick, sloppy, black style and detailed compositions. I certainly hope it's the latter. Whatever flaws these two books might posses, they and Tardi remain too interesting and rich to be easily dismissed.

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