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Home > Bart Beaty's Conversational Euro-Comics

Total Jazz, Blutch
posted November 1, 2005
 

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I've been waiting so long for the new Blutch book (C'etait le bonheur) from Futuropolis (still not available in Canada yet) that I thought I'd shorten the wait by taking a look at one of his other recent works. The book that leapt off my shelf was Total Jazz, last year's Seuil-published collection of single-page strips, from the pages of the French jazz magazine Jazzman. In re-reading it this morning, I was struck again by how amazingly great Blutch is, but also by some of the specificities of the comics form.

One of the things that is most difficult is to write about music. In comparison to music, written language often seems wholly inadequate, which is one of the reasons that music criticism can be so insufficient. Descriptions of unfamiliar music rarely refer exclusively to the work in itself, generally falling back upon comparisons: "It's like the psychedelic offspring of Sun Ra and the Dixie Chicks with a subtle Metallica influence". Except with the greatest writers, writing about music fails to live up to the experience of hearing music, and even the greatest writers fail to convey the sensations of the works of the greatest musicians.

So, what happens when one of the greatest living cartoonists (and if you don't think Blutch fits this bill you really, really need to read more Blutch) takes on the work of some of the greatest musicians in the history of jazz? To my mind, the results are a lot more compelling. Throughout Total Jazz, Blutch illustrates short, snappy vignettes about the music that he loves. Some are funny, some are sad; some deal with individual musicians, some with music in general; but, each and every one is memorable.

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In many ways, Total Jazz is a hagiography. Portraits of the evolution of Miles Davis (literally beatified) or the playing of Stan Getz are celebrations of their genius. But Total Jazz is a warts and all portrait of the musical form. Blutch does not back away from the racism in the musical form, the underlying sexual violence (La Scene is one of the most devastating single page comics I've read in some time), and the despair of trying to please an audience of hip-cats when you're just a little bird (literally). Each of the strips is razor sharp and smart as hell.

And of course, beautiful. Blutch's art in Total Jazz ranges from the hastily tossed off (a Josephine Baker piece appears to be from his sketchbook) to the elaborately worked out. His lines, as always, are expressive beyond words, and that is what allows him to say so much without using text. With a very few exceptions, Blutch's strips are wordless, requiring his images to carry the full freight of the aural experience. This is audacious and wildly successful.

The key to the visuals here is Blutch's ability to enact the sound of jazz simply through lines. Throughout, he uses a variety of approaches for the depiction of sound: twisted musical notes float from an Ornette Coleman album; Stan Getz slowly urges his signature from that tenor sax; the squiggles that signify the sound of Chick Corea are note perfect.

My favorite piece in the whole book is entitled "Sonny Sharrock", in which Sonny records with the Herbie Mann Group in 1969. Herbie's flute playing looks like clouds. Larry Coryell's is bubbling circles on diagonal lines. Bobby Emmons and Bobby Wood play puff of steam. But Sonny? He plays wild, heavy, thick zig-zagging lines that stop the other players in their tracks. Just looking at this page, even if you know none of the players, I guarantee that you can hear the music. Blutch is that good.

Increasingly, I've come to believe that comics and literature have very little in common, and it's works like this one that have convinced me of this. Comics are a visual language, and, in the hands of master, it's a language that can convey the power of a form as powerful and varied as jazz.

*****
Editor's Note: There's a cool slideshow if you scroll down a page length at this bitchin'-lookin' French-language webzine.

*****

Bart Beaty is the English language's top writer about modern European comics. Learn about his new book here, and contact him Possible conversation topics for Mr. Beaty could include sending his old friend Tom more art from the books he's reviewing.