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L'Etrangleur, Jacques Tardi
posted May 5, 2006
 

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Jacques Tardi is haunting my time in France. I've been living in a small town in northeastern France since the beginning of April (the main reason that these columns have been so few and far between recently -- Internet access in remote rural French villages, and even some major cities, being next to non-existent). Since arriving here, I've had Tardi on the brain, and now I think that he might be stalking me.

The Tardi thing started early. On my way here after Fumetto I picked up a run of the first five issues of RAW from a friend who owns a comic book store in Germany, and I started thinking about Tardi because of his short stories ("Manhattan", a chapter from It Was The War of the Trenches) that appeared in that magazine. Re-reading those pieces inspired a trip through Verdun on the way home from a weekend in Bruxelles, visiting the trenches, the battlefields, the cemeteries, and the ossuary that mark more than 100,000 dead in an utterly pointless war.

I find it interesting how calcified our view of the First World War is. Whether in Tardi's work, or in films from Paths of Glory to A Very Long Engagement, the image of trench warfare is one of unending rain, shivering cold, and pointless, bloody death. For me, Tardi more than anyone, captures the brutal spirit of the encounter, his page-width panels full of detail contrasting sharply with the isolated, lonely, and tragically doomed figures. To visit Verdun one cannot help but recreate the now beautiful, sunny, treed valleys through Tardi's jaded eyes.

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Last weekend I was in Paris, where I picked up very little in the local comic shops, this being a sort of post-Angouleme pre-summer down period for new releases (I suppose). One thing that I did pick up, however, were the first two issues of L'Etrangleur, the serialization of a new graphic novel by Tardi. This work is being initially released by Casterman as a series of 16-page newspapers (on very nice quality paper), before being collected this Fall as Le Secret de l'Etrangleur. Adapted from Pierre Siniac's novel, Monsieur Cauchemar, the story is set in Paris in 1959 during a strike by the police. Foggy, cold weather, a police strike, these are perfect conditions for The Strangler who goes on a killing spree (two dead so far). But for what reason?

The story is told largely from the point-of-view of the Strangler, a bookseller named Valentin Esbirol. No motive is hinted at as of yet, and his entire disposition is icily removed from his crimes. The issue here has nothing to do with the question "who is the Strangler" but why is he doing this? What is his secret? And why does he now hope to enlist the young son of a police officer? I can't spoil the ending for you, as I haven't read the novel and the next issue won't be out for a week or two! This is perfect serial material (the feuilleton being a notable obsession of Tardi's), and Casterman has done a magnificent job with the presentation in this unusual format. The newspapers look like real papers, and that include news reports about the Strangler on the front page as well as political stories (by Dominique Grange) on the back. They are a bargain at 1.80€.

I didn't read these issues when I was in Paris but did so on returning to my little village. I was struck, therefore, that the opening scene takes place on rue de la Gaite, the same street as my hotel from a few days before. When the Strangler stalks his first victim he passes from rue de la Gaite to boulevard Edgar-Quinet, along the cemetary, across Raspail, down Montparnasse and to rue de la Grand-Chaumiere. Those are the streets that I walked only a few days prior (and which now flow around the grotesquely out-of-place Tour Montparnasse). Re-reading these scenes, one is struck by the image of Paris as it once was -- absent the McDonald's on the corner of Montparnasse, for example.

What amazes me is that it is literally possible to trace your way through Paris using Tardi's books as a map, even when those books are set decades in the past. So great is his skill as a cartoonist that he is able, almost casually, to change the way that you see the geography of his city, and the history of his country. Is there a greater living cartoonist? I'm happy that his work still holds the power to haunt me.