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Bart Beaty On Putain de Guerre! 1914-1915-1916
posted March 20, 2009
 

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By Bart Beaty

Last week brought the wonderful news that Fantagraphics is embarking on a large-scale project to bring the works of Jacques Tardi to English-reading audiences. I couldn't be happier about this. Like so many fans of Tardi, I have been continually mystified as to why his work has failed to find an audience in North America. In France he is widely -- and rightly -- considered among the most important living cartoonists and his new releases are consistent bestsellers, yet over here his work has consistently failed to connect.

Tom Spurgeon's interview last week with Kim Thompson about this project set me to thinking about Tardi again, and so I grabbed his newest book, Putain de Guerre! 1914-1915-1916 (Casterman, 2008) from my bookshelf. This is the first half of a work that Tardi serialized last year (the second volume will, not surprisingly, cover the years 1917-1919). I hadn't really planned on reading this, let alone reviewing it, until I had the second volume, but I was immediately grabbed by the work and quickly devoured it.

So, I just wanted to remind people of why Tardi is a genius.

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Jacques Tardi is 62 years old, and has been doing comics since he was 23. I think that it's a commonplace to assume that many cartoonists who have been at their trade so long have long since passed their peak of creativity (of course, Crumb's Genesis may put the lie to that notion later this year). With Tardi, nothing could be further from the truth. This book, along with his recent history of the Paris Commune, Le Cri du people, reminds us once again that he is a master at the absolute top of his form.

In his interview with Thompson, Spurgeon brings up the "confidence" of Tardi's page designs. I want to focus just on his use of panel shapes to demonstrate how unbelievably great his work is (I could write an essay of similar length about his writing, his character drawing, his backgrounds, his coloring, but here page design will have to suffice). Putain de Guerre! tells the story of the entire First World War from the point of view of a single French infantryman. There is no dialogue nor sound effects -- all the text is in caption boxes from the soldier's point-of-view. These caption boxes, which are highly subjective and place us in the mindset of our protagonist, are starkly at odds with images, which take on a more objective, or neutral, standpoint.

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With a few exceptions, that I will address in a moment, each page of Tardi's book, like his previous C'Etait la guerre des tranches, is composed of three panels that stretch horizontally across the totality of the page. The width of these pages give Putain de Guerre! something of a sonorous quality, reducing even moments of high battleground tension to quietude. The effect is monumental, and perfectly fits the subject matter.

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At the same time, this simple panel arrangement allows Tardi to use attributes of the comics form in canny ways. Take, for example, the two-page spread depicted here. On the left, French soldiers gather in Paris at the Gare de l'Est and gather on trains that they assume will shortly be in Berlin. On the right, Germans soldiers do the same for trains bound for Paris. The mirroring effect is central to the book's meaning, and the way that the two trains are composed implies the imminent collision between forces. Several pages later this effect is even more pronounced, as Tardi depicts the two sides arming themselves for battle. Each page moves from a more distant shot towards close-up, and the parallels between the images slowly bring the French soldiers towards their slaughter. These are simple arrangements, but they are highly effective. On another page, Tardi moves his soldier slowly across the page from left to right in successive panels, marching him through chaos and death. It is subtle, but it is also the key to comics' specificities.

In the 48 pages of comics in Putain de Guerre! (there are also 18 pages of background provided by noted French historian Jean-Pierre Verney, and a useful two page slang glossary), there are only eight pages that deviate from the three-panel grid. Their rarity, of course, provides them with heightened importance. Perhaps the best of these is a two-page spread in which Tardi breaks up several of his tiers into two panels, generating mirroring even with the page. As the French fire rockets, the Germans are killed. As the French are killed, the Germans fire rockets. Tardi returns to his vista-like panels, only to round out the grid on the next page with a split-image of dead soldiers being hauled away, delaying the effects of his cause from the previous page.

Unlike many cartoonists who have raised the stakes in page construction (notably Chris Ware) there seems to be little attempt by Tardi to foreground these devices or to make them central to the work. Tardi is a master craftsman who knows intimately the construction of the comics page, and how to make it work smartly and unselfconsciously. In this regard, he has few peers.

With his interest in French political and cultural life, and in the great struggles that defined the 20th Century, Jacques Tardi is among the great chroniclers of Modernism. His individual works have tremendous depth, density and beauty, but, taken as a whole, his oeuvre touches on all of the important issues that have structured the world in which we now found ourselves living. There may be no greater living cartoonist than Jacques Tardi, and I hope that this time American readers will learn that for themselves.

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* all images from Putain de Guerre! 1914-1915-1916

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To learn more about Dr. Beaty, or to contact him, try here.

Those interested in buying comics talked about in Bart Beaty's articles might try here or here.

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