Sunday, March 27, 2011

Comics Review: The Arctic Marauder, Jacques Tardi

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

This early effort by French cartoonist Jacques Tardi is a diverting entertainment--part Hergé, part Jules Verne--dressed up in gorgeously detailed though easy-to-read art

A couple of years ago, in a review of José Muñoz and Carlos Sampayo’s Joe’s Bar, I said some disparaging things about the major European cartoonists of their generation, such as Jean “Moebius” Giraud and Hugo Pratt. I wrote that the “principal distinction of their work was the extraordinarily high level of the graphics; one often found the material was considerably more rewarding to look at than to read.” This isn’t entirely fair; it denies that escapist entertainment has its place and value. I’m certainly more than content to sit down with a volume of Giraud and Jean-Michel Charlier’s Blueberry or Pratt’s Corto Maltese. They’re first-rate examples of adventure comics, and it’s enjoyable at times to put aside one’s highbrow predilections and get caught up in the sweep of an unpretentious, well-crafted narrative and elegantly bold visuals.

I didn’t group Jacques Tardi with Giraud and Pratt in that essay. I wrote that he instead deserved to considered alongside of the Muñoz & Sampayo team and Joost Swarte. He was a cartoonist who aspired to more than just creating escapist entertainment; his “literary focus was more concerned with the human condition.” As it turns out, this was sometimes true and sometimes not. The material of Tardi’s I was familiar with at the time was the short “Manhattan” (featured in the inaugural issue of editors Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly’s RAW) and It Was the War of the Trenches. These were certainly the work of a cartoonist with ambitions beyond creating enjoyable suspense stories with dazzling visuals. But a good deal of Tardi's career has been devoted to turning out material that doesn’t strive for anything more than keeping the reader happily turning the pages. And that’s not a disappointment.

The Arctic Marauder is the earliest of Tardi’s works to be released in English thus far. It was originally published in France in 1974, and is the only volume of an apparently aborted series starring the Jérôme Plumier character. The story begins in 1889, on a passenger ship making its way through the Arctic en route to France. Plumier is a Parisian medical student traveling on board. When the ship encounters a wreck perched atop an iceberg, he volunteers to join the boarding party. While he and others are exploring the shipwreck, their own vessel is inexplicably blown out of the water. Plumier is among those rescued a few weeks later, and he returns to Paris only to be confronted with news of his favorite uncle’s death. While going through the uncle’s house, he finds a laboratory that appears to be the setting of all sorts of strange experiments. He’s bewildered by what he finds, but he’s quickly distracted by the discovery that his ship was only one of several to be destroyed while traversing that particular region of the Arctic. He joins an expedition that’s investigating the phenomenon, and he discovers that the rash of destroyed ships and the bizarre goings-on in his uncle’s laboratory are related. As the story progresses, he joins up with a pair of mad scientists who are bent on revenge against the world. And their nefarious activities aren’t just confined to the Arctic. The book ends with the three traveling to the Amazon jungle, in what is a clear set-up for a follow-up volume.

Tardi is obviously trying to create a Tintin-style feature here. The twists are that the protagonists are villains, and that Tardi takes a mildly parodic tack. (The parody elements are minor: deliberately overripe narration and occasional snarky asides directed at the characters and goings-on.) The guiding premise is the same as Hergé employed in Tintin: use a roving set of characters as the anchor for a series of adventures in exotic locales. It’s the Arctic in this episode, ostensibly the Amazon in the next, so on and so forth. Tardi borrows heavily from Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea for his particulars: the two mad scientists are essentially grotesque reworkings of Captain Nemo, and they even have their own version of the Nautilus submarine. The feature is derivative, but its tone is different than its predecessors, and it has the makings of an entertaining serial.

Central to that enjoyment are Tardi’s remarkable skills as both illustrator and storyteller. His panels are extraordinary; they flow beautifully as a continuity while remaining compelling to look at as single images. His strategy is again rooted in the approach that Hergé took with Tintin. The settings are elaborately drawn, but the character designs are quite simple. One’s eye can easily track the characters no matter how detailed the pictures. But Tardi also reimagines this technique in his own terms. He eschews Herge’s ligne claire style in favor of a more densely rendered approach (The Arctic Marauder was drawn using scratchboard), and he largely limits the idiosyncrasy of the character designs to the faces. These are actually the only element of the panels that he keeps simple. The contrast with the surrounding ornateness makes the faces stand out all the more; one essentially reads the story by following them. One is aware of the immense detail in the art, but it doesn’t distract from the narrative. It’s only when one is done with the story that one feels compelled to go back and savor the gorgeousness of the individual pictures. The Arctic Marauder isn’t as visually compelling as many of Tardi’s later efforts--the art in the seafaring sections is a bit too obviously inspired by Gustave Doré’s illustrations for The Rime of the Ancient Mariner—but it’s still a fine piece of eye candy.

And candy is really the right word for a work like The Arctic Marauder. It’s tasty, it goes down easily, and it gives one a little buzz. It doesn’t offer the more demanding (and rewarding) pleasures of a more substantial effort any more than a candy bar can compare to a gourmet meal. But sometimes, like a candy bar, a work like this can be what one has a craving for. The fun of getting caught up in a story that’s convoluted for its own sake, or the dazzle of pictures that preen the skill and effort that went into crafting them--they’re the hallmarks of a book that one reads to relax. Books that require an effort are ultimately more satisfying, but the smaller satisfactions are occasionally what one needs. The Arctic Marauder is fun, and it was nice to sit down with it after a long day.

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