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March 10, 2009

CR Newsmaker: Kim Thompson On Fantagraphics Publishing Jacques Tardi


I learned recently that Fantagraphics has entered into a long-range publishing arrangement to bring Jacques Tardi to English-language readers through a series of books, the first of which will come out this summer. This is interesting to me for a few reasons. One, Tardi is one of the great cartoonists. Two, I don't think any of his work is currently available in English, or what is is older work kind of playing out the publishing string. Three, he has a reputation of being sort of been sales death or at least sales long and debilitating nap in previous incarnations over here, and I can think of at least four publishers who have given him a shot. Fourth, this move would be made more in the spirit of arts comics publishing as we've come to understand it the last few years -- in other words, no serialization, and whatever comes out, well, we'll get whatever comes out.

Since one of my New Year's resolutions is to make a bigger deal of publishing announcements that I think will lead to people getting access to great comics, and because I have Kim Thompson's e-mail, here's their letter and then a short follow-up interview with the publisher, editor, translator and big Tardi fan.

This summer, Fantagraphics will launch an ongoing series of hardcover books presenting the works of the legendary French cartoonist Jacques Tardi.

The first two books will be West Coast Blues (Le Petit bleu de la Cote Ouest), a hard-boiled crime thriller adapted by Tardi from the novel by Jean-Patrick Manchette, and You Are Here (Ici Meme), a satirical, surreal story written for Tardi by Barbarella creator Jean-Claude Forest that many consider one of the first true French graphic novels. Both will be released simultaneously, in what series editor Kim Thompson calls a "double-pronged shock-and-awe assault on the American readership, to immediately show off Tardi's range."

Planned for Spring 2010 is the graphic album World War I-theme It Was the War of the Trenches, chapters of which had previously appeared in RAW and Drawn and Quarterly magazines during the 1980s and 1990s.

"Tardi has always been one of my top favorite European cartoonists," said Thompson, who will also be translating the books. "I've wanted to do this for many years -- pretty much as long as we've been publishing -- and I think the time is ripe. In today's graphic-novel world, the audience is finally ready for Tardi."

Tardi's best known creation is the saturnine early-20th Century heroine Adele Blanc-Sec, the first two of whose nine (to date) adventures were released by Dark Horse and NBM in the early 1980s. (A series of Adele Blanc-Sec movies is currently being prepared by French filmmaker and comics buff Luc Besson.) American readers may also remember Tardi's "Nestor Burma" stories (based upon stories by French crime writer Leo Malet), the first of which was serialized in the Fantagraphics anthology Graphic Story Monthly in the 1980s, and the second of which was released as a graphic album by iBooks two decades later -- or Tardi's multiple appearances in RAW magazine. All of these, as well as NBM's Cockroach Killer and the hardboiled detective story Griffu (written by Manchette for Tardi) which appeared in the Fantagraphics anthology Pictopia, have been out of print for years.

Tardi has won every French cartooning award in existence including the Grand Prize of Angouleme, and has created over 30 graphic novels in a wide variety of genres. He continues to produce work to this day at a pace that puts his contemporaries to shame, including last year's World War I story Putain de guerre, 2006's satirical thriller Le Secret de l'etrangleur, and the epic 300-page Le Cri du people, set in 1871's Paris Commune. He is currently working on two new projects, including another World War I volume and an adaptation of a third Manchette-written crime thriller. He lives in Paris with his wife and his cats.

Short Interview With Kim Thompson:

TOM SPURGEON: A real nuts and bolts question to start: can you describe the parameters of the project -- what we'll get and when? Is there someone with whom you're working on the project, or is it being done in-house? If in-house, who is the point person and who is the designer? Is Tardi involved?

KIM THOMPSON: We will launch the project with the simultaneous release of West Coast Blues (Le Petit bleu de la cote ouest) and You Are Here (Ici Meme); they're scheduled for release in August/September, and I hope to be able to premiere them at this year's San Diego Comic-Con. Then we'll follow up with It Was The War Of The Trenches next summer.

I'm the editor and translator of the project, and Adam Grano will be designing. I'm in direct contact with Tardi, and he'll be involved as little or as much as he wants to be. I like to get foreign cartoonists as involved as possible, including vetting the translations if they speak English, but generally they seem quite happy with what I do and their role is reduced to, basically, saying "looks good to me."

I do hope to lure him to the U.S. for a convention in 2010. I know San Diego Comic-Con is very keen on it.

SPURGEON: How easy or difficult has it been when putting stuff together from production standpoint? Were there any projects that were outsized or difficult to process? Didn't Tardi recently do a project on fake newspaper broadsheets?

THOMPSON: Almost all of Tardi's books are standard European format, actually, and the few that aren't are not on my immediate "to do" list anyway. He and his publisher used the newspaper broadsheets format to serialize his two most recent books, but both were designed to later fit into the standard format -- the broadsheets were totally a pre-publication device that didn't affect the format of the final work at all.

SPURGEON: Can you describe Tardi's place in his own culture's comics firmament? I have a better sense of how several artists are seen over how Tardi is seen. What is admired about his work in Europe? How is he viewed by the subsequent generations of talented cartoonists?

THOMPSON: I think it's safe to say that Tardi is considered one of the grandmasters of his generation, someone of such commanding skill and breadth of achievement that he's sui generis. I'd almost have to go outside the world of comics and say he's maybe like the Martin Scorsese of European comics. He not only draws beautifully but draws with tremendous effectiveness as a cartoonist, which is a rare combination -- his work is beautiful but not necessarily pretty. Many cartoonists who draw what I'll call "realistically" as opposed to "cartoony" lose the punch and efficacy of the best "funny" cartooning, but he manages to combine the best of both.

I'm pretty sure Tardi is as revered by later generations of European cartoonists in the same way that Crumb is revered by American cartoonists.

What's interesting is that a lot of Tardi's work is genre fiction -- certainly far more than in the U.S. where "adult" cartoonists tend to look down their nose at genre fiction. I once had an American cartoonist I was trying to urge to read a Tardi book sniff, "I don't read detective stories." I think it's part and parcel of the French understanding that high and low art aren't separated by any particularly huge gulf, so Tardi can draw a surreal satire like You Are There or a World War I "reportage" like War of the Trenches on one hand, and a series of kick-ass crime stories on the other, and it's all on the same level. But, you know, Truffaut's first movie was The 400 Blows and his second movie was Shoot the Piano Player. Is there any cinephile who would rank The 400 Blows better purely because serious, low-key autobiographical material is inherently superior to a crime movie?


SPURGEON: I couldn't possibly say. Hey, why have previous efforts to publish Tardi in North America failed? What makes you think this one will succeed?

THOMPSON: I think there were a variety of reasons. Part of it is just timing, I think that between the continuing, aggressive efforts of Drawn and Quarterly, First Second, and NBM, readers are getting more comfortable with the European style of storytelling. And this is going to sound arrogant, but I think we may succeed because we'll do a better job, both in the execution of the books (thanks to, uh, well, me and Adam Grano) and the promotion of the books (thanks to Eric Reynolds) and second because Fantagraphics has a sort of built-in "hey, I should check this out" factor.

But I'd be lying if I didn't admit that I worry that there's something so inherently European about Tardi that American audiences might find him hard to digest. I've found some American fans seem to like his work better in principle and theory than actually having to read it.

SPURGEON: How complete a picture do we American comics fan have of Tardi? What do you think might surprise us? Has anything surprised you, now that you've had your hands on this material?

THOMPSON: I've read pretty much every single Tardi book as it has come out ever since the 1980s, so there are no surprises for me. I think You Are Here will surprise Tardi fans at least in terms of content.

An American Tardi fan who doggedly tracked down all his work starting in RAW and the Fantagraphics anthologies and going through the Adele Blanc-Sec books from NBM all the way to the recent iBooks release The Bloody Streets of Paris probably has a pretty good idea of his range.

SPURGEON: Why aren't you doing the Adele material? Isn't there going to be a movie adaptation of that soon? It seems that would be a great tie-in.

THOMPSON: First, I wanted to start out with something fresh and previously unseen in the U.S. (which is why I put War of the Trenches third instead of first), and the first couple of Adele books have been published here. You can still find them on Amazon. Second, there is what I call the popularity paradox, which is that sometimes the most popular French work is the hardest to sell as compared to the "art" comics because the more mainstream work loses some of its "alternative" audience without replacing it with a "mainstream" audience. So Adele, with its playful Euro adventure tropes, is in some ways less accessible to American readers than, say, Trenches. It's why we can publish a successful Epileptic in the U.S. but not a successful Lucky Luke. (Granted that some books straddle all categories, like Persepolis, a classic "art" book and mainstream success all at once.)

That said, Adele is on my long-term list, but I've got at least three or four more books beyond the first three I'd like to do first.

SPURGEON: One of the things that struck me looking at the scans you sent over is how confident Tardi is in using a variety of panel and page structure to communicate his stories. The work grips. Is there a distinct Tardi approach to pacing and page design, do you think? Would there be a tradition to which he belongs?

THOMPSON: "Confident" is a really good word for Tardi. You look at his work and it just exudes this "I know exactly what I want to do and how to do it" authority. I think he's actually a hybrid of traditional European cartooning (including a strong "clear line" sensibility, especially in his early work) and the dynamics of American cartooning. This may come as a huge surprise to Americans, but one of his idols is Joe Kubert (when I talked to him one of the first things he asked was where he could get a copy of our Kubert biography Man of Rock), and if you think Enemy Ace and look at Tardi, especially the World War I stuff, you can see the kinship -- a bit like the way Frank Robbins influenced Hugo Pratt. Or McManus influenced Herge.

SPURGEON: Another thing that struck me in your samples is the lettering -- it seems like it would be really important to the overall visual feel of the piece. How was the lettering done?

THOMPSON: Ninety-eight percent of the lettering will be done using a Tardi font we're creating -- actually, two Tardi fonts, one for his earlier work and one for his later, looser work. The other two percent, "effects" lettering, people yelling, longhand correspondence (a chunk of You Are Here's narration is done that way) which can't be done convincingly using fonts, will be hand lettered by Rich Tommaso.

SPURGEON: I have to ask this of anyone starting a new project: are there concerns specific to this project about the economy -- perhaps in terms of extra production costs or forces that might hit an audience you perceive to be an effective one for the work?

THOMPSON: No. European comics used to be horrifically expensive to do because you had to start by paying a normal royalty and then add in the translation costs, the hand-lettering costs, and lots of film stripping. Translation isn't costing us anything except the sweat of my brow, lettering using a font is far cheaper than hand lettering, and everything is digital. As far as the economy goes, I think it'll adversely affect everything across the board -- possibly a few superstar cartoonists will be immune, but I think most will suffer and most will suffer about equally.

posted 8:30 am PST | Permalink

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