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The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec, Vol. 1
posted January 17, 2011

imageCreator: Jacques Tardi, translation by Kim Thompson
Publishing Information: Fantagraphics, hardcover, 96 pages, 2010, $24.99
Ordering Numbers: 9781606993828 (ISBN13)

One small cultural matter after which I wonder constantly is the relationship that comics readers younger than I am have to art that's older than they are. My generation suffers for the fact it was midwifed during a period of unhealthy veneration of popular art from years just passed, a value system cobbled together from nostalgia and a broad, poorly-articulated conspiracy theory that all the best work has already been made and in some cases is being withheld from re-discovery. We tend to look at the reappearance of past works of high reputation with something closer to awe than an open mind. That's how part of me will approach the new Adele Blanc-Sec series from Jacques Tardi one collected in handsome hardcover form from Fantagraphics, the first of which has already classed up a comics shelf near year. I'm confident that people of any age lucky enough to pick this book up will appreciate Tardi's essential visual sumptuousness, the mix of elegant yet vaguely grotesque character designs and the artist's famously crisp, architecturally-sound settings. Several artists have the ability to capture some physical element of a city or a time; Tardi summons all of that with a fealty to detail and a consistency that eventually yields a more rounded, complete experience. Go all in, and by the book's final 20 pages one can feel the air hit people in the face when they stumble out of doors, sense the temperature, smell the panoply of city-borne scents.

What I'm less certain of is how any number of younger readers encountering this work for the first time might process its story. Like the car chase in Bullitt or the songs in West Side Story, the break that this volume's lead signifies in relation to more traditional heroines has a different context now. Blanc-Sec and other no-nonsense characters like her have re-shaped this kind of adventure story around them; her placid willfulness is being served a la carte in this volume, and I worry that others will accept it as a meal. Moreover, I wonder if they'll place too much emphasis on the individual when it seems that the satirical force of the entire setting, with the title character as its fulcrum, facilitates the work's greater points about the kind of material of which it is both an example and gentle satire. I'm not certain of the political and societal similarities between the period before World War I and the 1970s when this book was published, but both stories reprinted here with Kim Thompson's droll translation positively whip at the notion of competence in higher places, the rationality of power, that anyone rich ever pays for anything, and the law-driven society generally, all until the skin shows, raw and bleeding. It's a gas, but I was around in the latter period, at least. I could personally read 10,000 pages of this material, stopping to stare at the prettier parts, returning to such a book over an entire summer. And yet I can't help wondering if others aren't disappointed by the relative lack of people getting punched in the face, or explosions, or that this work comes without such consistent underlining for effect. It's a rare work that makes you like it and wish others would, too, that's for sure.