War Was Made for Comics: Tardi’s I, Rene Tardi, Prisoner of War

I, Rene Tardi, Prisoner of War
By Jacques Tardi
Fantagaphics, hc
185 pgs, $29.99

When it comes down to it, War comics have a top tier place in all things comics, with their constant struggle, conflict, and resolution in story format. Never a big genre of our generation, but at a time when physical war between large powers was still possible, war comics held their own as a genre in this hobby. Obviously, the World War Two propaganda lent itself to the dramatic storytelling of comic books, using their aggressive dogma to accept a favorable influence, it was the human element however, that stretched and defined what war comics were and what they could be in this post war lack of innocence period.

During the actual struggle of World War Two, the romantic, psychological, and yes, even patriotic slant fueled the emotional flames of their essence. One rebel with a cause, Harvey Kurtzman’s war books for the EC line of comics of the fifties, let creep out an eerie underskin of war, its effects, and exactly how unromantic war can be to the helpless civilians caught in it. This decidedly contrary attitude marked many of the EC’s war tales, and along with their top level art, made an indelible mark in war comics history.

While during the sixties, hippie comic artists were hardly proponents of war, but their comics didn’t shield readers from what it was and its graphic finishes. While was not a huge driver in underground comix subject matter, Jack Jackson, Greg Irons, Rich Corben, and Spain Rodriguez among others created memorable war stories for the revolutionary in us, both realistic and fantasy inspired.

The introduction to more biographical war stories ascends here with the Japanese series Barefoot Gen (‘73-‘85), an actual first person narrative by Keiji Nakazawa, depicting his own survival of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, with the horrendous tale of the remaining members of his family and their day to day existence.

After the seventies softening up of the mainstream publishers, honest, graphic, and more realistic war stories started taking hold. Sure, you could pit the mindless adventures of Sgt Fury and his Howling Commandos against the more pertinent tales of Sgt Rock and Easy Co., but for the most part, war comics in general not only became pretty realistic, but also great narratives for those of strong enough chops to weave a story within them.

From the gritty Vietnam era and an exact respect for military detail not seen since the 50’s EC’s, Dan Lomax’s Vietnam Journal featured a writer that scanned every angle he could to show what life was actually like there in the jungles, to the rough, nasty, post modern Punisher tales by Garth Ennis, who would latter take the modern throne with War Stories, incorporating actual historical wartime events into personal life changing moments of the folks that lived them.

A later example of the biographical strain, where the story is related by the one that lived it, being Art Spiegelman’s Maus, the story of his father’s survival from the German WW II prisoner of war camps. Related visually in a slightly distancing manner that utilizes anthropomorphic animals as upright replacements of humans in a dark cartoonish, expressionist style, its emotional underpinnings are written on its sleeves. Given a Pulitzer for its success, the book is masterful in getting across the wounds of war in a somewhat digestible manner.

Spiegelman, listening to his fathers stories, relays them to us, both as a bit of mental release, worked out from conversations with his father that he recorded, and adapts to comic book form.

In his approach to his own volume, Jacques Tardi also relates his fathers time at war as a POW, depicting some generationally related discussions over the years, but inspiration from the biggest details come from a series of three sketchbooks his father did as a way of keeping it alive.

While both fathers to the artists were prisoners of war, both reacted differently to their time (which makes sense, Tardi’s father being French, and part of Germany’s shared occupation of France with the French, and Spiegelmann’s father a Polish jew), but there we begin to part ways. While Spigelman’s history is related in an highly dramatic, immediate manner on explicit reality, Tardi’s is softer, and slower in tone, gathering many details as it goes along.

Tardi, a renowned French cartoonist in his own right, has practiced quite liberally relating tough war stories on WWI to get to this point. His drawing style, not changing much, here uses three horizontal panels per page, constantly reinforcing the panoramic nature of the camps, and the environments within them. Photo derived at times, they exude a simpler, inkyness to them that keeps the compositions easy to comprehend, yet provides many shapes for the eyes to wander in. Also involved is Tardi’s younger self, walking alongside the tank his father drove, and shared space with a modern version of his father during the camp scenes. They provide a father/son back and forth that keeps the modern perspective in, yet also a reverence for what happened and the respect its reflected in.

A successful mix, the book had me gliding effortlessly throughout its run, its dozens of haunting images hard to take in, but not be scared or scarred by. Tardi is living this period of his Dad’s life with him, and they relive it with different sensibilities, and mostly diplomatically.

Life in the camps gets the full treatment, with its own rules and regulations, laws of supply and demand, and the sheer myriad of personalities that thrive and fall here. Reni’s communicative skills help him survive, and thrive a bit compared to those less fortunate. Tardi also successfully impresses the overall weapon of hunger used against the prisoners, seen as the most potent and painful of all the sins committed against them by the Nazis.

This book performs its service nicely, keeping me curious and wanting for more after every page, perhaps slightly disappointed at the end with the finish promised in the NEXT volume. I guess a 350 page trade paperback may not of been wieldy, but hopefully its sequel will be along soon. Tardi is a modern master of depicting war, and the intertwining of his fathers life gives it half of its punch, an ingredient missing in many lesser war comics.

While the inevitable comparisons arise when two masters of comics tackle almost the same exact subject matter, each comes away with a hard sought, highly labored effort that easily convinces us of sheer amount of work it took from its authors to visually create these stories.

War is hell, and for those involved in its detail, Tardi doesn’t shy away from the facts, but keeps them manageable for even the most casual listener. There’s something about an artist that will take the time to do the research for accuracy, and Tardi helps set the standard for it.

In a round about way, each generation of great artists involved with stories of war were able to step up to the playing field, accomplish something their predecessors couldn’t, and generally elevate the details of war and its effects in ways that real war can’t. Not only entertaining, I, Reni Tardi, takes its place among successful war comic stories, and helps raise the bar for the next one.

Love and Rockets #42 (August 1993)

Love and Rockets #42

I’m wondering if Love and Rockets #42 reads different knowing there are only eight more issues. Though Beto’s Farewell, My Palomar certainly hints at something coming to a close. And maybe so does Jaime’s opener, which is a Maggie and Penny story only it’s all about how Maggie’s real nick name is Perla and it was the Hoppers punks who called her Maggie. It’s a weird story, mostly because it’s like Jaime’s… regretting the early stories? He’s definitely changing the narrative distance to Maggie, but with a sense of finality.

Or I’m reading the foreshadowing into everything because I know it’s ending soon.

The Maggie and Penny story is quite good. Jaime’s doing his good girl art so much on Penny it carries over to one of his other stories where Hopey’s brother Joey, with his long flowing locks, is quite lovely. So much so it plays against that story’s script, which resolves who put Hopey on the milk cartons a dozen issues ago. Jaime got a lot of pages out of that subplot.

But back to Maggie and Penny. It’s a kind of grown-up Locas story, including the now muted fantastical Penny lifestyle. It’s nice. And so much more successful than the Joey Glass story.

Let’s just get Jaime done before Beto and Palomar.

Jaime illustrates a script Beto wrote when he was ten. It’s absurdist, involving easter eggs and flying saucers. Jaime draws it with Hopey and Maggie, punk days, in the leads. So it plays off the thread Jaime started in the Maggie and Penny story–we need to start understanding how Maggie remembers her early stories and not how the early stories actually read–it’s really weird and sort of disquieting juxtaposition, which also makes the disposable Joey Glass story even more annoying.

Two out of three great, with extra points for Jaime doing Beto’s old script but making it relevant to the ongoing Locas plots.

Now. Farewell, My Palomar. Jesus gets out of prison and returns to Palomar. Stopping by for a quick orgy with Israel, and to watch Satch abuse his grown children, and to meet up with prison lover Marcos. In a few panels each, Beto does postscripts on all his open Palomar plot threads. He’s putting each character to bed. Everyone’s last panel is iconic.

It’s a Palomar party story once Jesus gets to town. It’s set parallel to some of the action in the previous Love and Rockets story. Steve the Surfer is still in Palomar as background. Beto briefly explored developments in Palomar in that story–what everyone is doing a few years after the previous long Palomar arc. Farewell, My Palomar could be an epilogue on the Rockets postscript, but it’s instead this thoughtful rumination on the town and its residents through Jesus’s perspective.

Mixed into the present action are occasional flashbacks to old Palomar, one set just after the first Palomar two-parter, thirty-eight issues ago. It’s an all-encompassing conclusion. Focusing mostly on Pipo and Guadalupe–Jesus has crashed their going away party–and their immediate relations. With a bunch of cameos. And a glorious conclusion.

It’s wondrous, particularly since some of the best material are followups to stuff he just introduced in that Love and Rockets Palomar postscript. He’s doing character development through the party, bouncing all around. It’s awesome work. And his visual pacing is similarly fantastic.

Farewell, My Palomar has four parts, read two and two, with Jaime’s stuff before, then after the first parts, then the second parts closing the issue. So the issue has all this weight as it goes out with Farewell. Beto hurried this Palomar conclusion and it’s still phenomenal. And it also means, with eight issues to go, Beto’s going to be doing something new, different, or both. Again, the knowledge of the series’s impending conclusion might play a factor in the read.

Love and Rockets #41 (May 1993)

Love and Rockets #41

Love and Rockets #41 is kind of strange. Both Beto and Jaime have somewhat peculiar story subjects. Beto opens the issue with an Errata Stigmata comic, but about her parents trying to ward death away from her. It’s four disquieting pages. Beto concentrates on the mood and lets the narrative bewilder. It’s an experiment in making the reader squirm for mixed, murky reasons.

It’s quite effective. But also an inglorious return for Errata.

Then Jaime does this sixteen page wrestling epic. It’s Maggie in the present at her aunt Vicki’s wrestling camp for girls and it’s flashbacks to Vicki’s wrestling career. Specifically how she let her homophobia ruin her life. In the present, while Maggie considers her experience at Chester Square–and last issue–she also discovers a girl in love with her best friend and quietly identifies. Loud, then subtle, loud, then subtle. Great stuff from Jaime. The scenes are all well-paced, the talking deads stuff is amazing. There’s a funny Peanuts reference at the beginning. It’s great.

And a little weird in being Tia Vicki’s return to Love and Rockets. She’s been gone maybe eight or ten issues.

Then Beto’s got two more stories, both Palomar adjacent. The first, the secret history of underworld enforcer Gorgo, ends up in Palomar. And reveals some Palomar secrets. Or hints at additional secrets. It’s a good three pages. Funny and weird and affecting. All in about equal portion.

Speaking of affecting, Beto goes for the jugular with the finale. Seven pages of terror with Luba’s half-sisters as kids in the United States. Turns out Luba probably didn’t miss much with Maria for a mom. Her half-sisters–Petra and Fritzi–showed up in Beto’s Love and Rockets story, very, very discreetly at the start–stay at home all day while mom Maria is out doing whatever. Seducing men it sounds like from the obscene phone calls from angry wives and lustful husbands. The grade schoolers answering the phone, disturbed without understanding why. Beto’s exploring intense trauma. There’s two and a half excruciating pages where you’re just wondering how much worse things are about to get for the kids. You’re trying to imagine it; Beto’s set up all the danger.

But of course you’re also supposed to remember they’re safe and well in the present. At least one of them, anyway. Beto might write big epics but he paces them to be read as published–even after he’s finished Poison River and Rockets, he’s still using their connections to explore new material. The last story is intricate. And terrifying. And great.

With an Errata cameo of sorts.

So nothing super weird, but everything a little weird. It’s one of those great, not particularly ambitious but achieving without apparently trying issues of Love and Rockets. It’s the Love and Rockets version of comfort reading.

Love and Rockets #40 (January 1993)

Love and Rockets #40

Love and Rockets #40 is a surprising issue. Beto’s Poison River finale is a surprise, lost Los Bros brother Mario contributes his first material in at least seven years, and Jaime gives Maggie her own story for the first time in a while. Not seven years but almost seven issues?

Jaime opens the issue. Maggie’s in a desolate micro-town–motel, restaurant slash bar, Laundromat–alongside the highway. She maybe got there on bus. She’s leaving on the bus. The story’s about her waiting for the bus to arrive and what happens. There’s a supporting cast–the shop owners, the sole local hooker (who thinks Maggie’s competition), the literally junior security guard, a bunch of migrant workers (one of whom knows Maggie). It’s their day in this place. It’s Maggie’s story about being in that place for the day–there’s no exposition about where she’s been or how long since she’s left Hopey, instead Jaime just relies on her behavior and expressions. It’s a rough day for Maggie. It’s a very different Maggie story–there aren’t any laughs–and she’s not on a Hopey quest. It’s the first time Jaime’s had Maggie alone in ages. And the first time ever after the two year time jump forward. It’s intense and excellent; Jaime does wonders with the emptiness of the “town,” both in bright day and dark night.

Then it’s Mario’s story, fourteen exceptionally dense pages about an election in a South American country. There are U.S. college students helping with the election for the U.N., there are rebels, there are local election officials, there’s the corrupt soft drink company officials, there are bandits, there’s a lot. And Mario fits it all in. The story, Somewhere in the Tropics, races and jumps all around. Characters intersect, separate, intersect again, separate again. It’s an extremely complex read. And a very successful one. Mario’s art is extremely detailed but with a wide brush. It’s very impressionistic.

There are a lot of narrative techniques to pass between stories, lots of composition techniques to emphasis characters, it’s great comics. And makes one wonder what Mario’s been doing away from Love and Rockets.

Beto’s Poison River finale finishes the issue. It’s like sixteen pages. It has enough content for three times as many. Beto does exactly what I didn’t think he could do–he brings Luba to Palomar and ends the story just before the first Palomar story, thirty-seven or so issues ago, starts. He relies entirely on summary–after resolving Luba and Ofelia both getting seduced by hippie dudes, which takes about ten pages. The last six pages are all summary to rush to Palomar. It’s expertly done, but also not the best thing for the story.

It’s particularly interesting because of how River now reads without the (not initially obviously) connected Love and Rockets entry in the same issue. Beto’s still got references to the Rockets stuff here, but the echoing is different. It doesn’t feel forced so much as… rushed. Beto’s rushing the finish of the story. Albeit by making it a successful Luba origin. River didn’t start as the Luba origin; well, it sort of did, but then it expanded. Now Beto’s contracting it just so he can finish it up.

It’s too bad. Some great stuff throughout, of course. It’s a perfectly solid finish. It’s just not exceptional and it’s rushed. It’s also a little weird because not only doesn’t Beto overshadow Jaime this issue, he doesn’t overshadow Mario either. His big Poison River finale is the least exciting part of the comic.

Realistic Flintstones: Anthro

DC Showcase #74

DC Showcase #74
Anthro issues #1-6
DC Comics
1968-69 12-15 cents ea.

Deep within the recesses of DC’s late sixties explosion of titles, a unique direction for mainstream comics occurs. I’m referring to Anthro, Howie Post’s take on prehistoric living.

Post, a gag cartoonist, who first started drawing comic books in the golden age, was an animation director, did a stint working on scary stuff for pre-Marvel Atlas comics in the fifties, and is best known for his long running syndicated strip, The Dropouts (1968-81). Just before that he ended up proposing to DC his version of what caveman life was like. Within this framework, he eschews a natural interpretation of history, bringing along dinosaurs, some modern slang, and our protagonist, Anthro, who with his immediate family, venture forth and survive the tests of daily living.

This family unit includes his parents, his grandmother, and younger brother Lark, to complete the set. Post creates an exciting, semi realistic set of challenges for them, along with modern takes on their relationships, including Anthro’s father losing arguments regularly with his mother in law, the dangerous and regular hunt for sustenance, and his continuing distraction with those curved cavemen, known as women, whom his father claims are the most dangerous of beasts to be wary of in this challenging world.

Anthro #1

Each issue tells a chapter of his tale, from his early encounter with thwarted love, helping his father protect his miniature clan from starvation as well as attacks from wild beasts, surviving contact with superior races, culminating in a trek across many lands to avoid the “ice age”, and ultimately, his reunion with Embra, his first contact with someone of the female species of his own age. Anthro is strong enough for the challenges, yet always uncertain of their outcome, and rarely confident in his ability to win the day.

Post provides a galloping ride to the proceedings, never sitting still long before the next menace comes, keeping the plot fresh and fun to follow. His cartooning, a scratchy, yet easy on the eye type of line work, creates caricatures that while type cast, have a certain grubby charm of their own. Post keeps a light feel to the proceedings, despite the ever lurking dangers, as well as a wonderful contrast between the somewhat handsomeness of Anthro, and the primitive, Cro-Magnon look of his father and others. The girls here, are depicted with a similar grace, cute when needed, and realistically homely when the humor demands it. None of the men or women however, are sparred the indignity of at least mild unattractiveness.

Anthro #2

What sets this series apart from your “typical” adventure series is the overall warmth generated by Anthro and his family. Whether they argue about the indignities of “nuclear family” life, or teaming up to protect one another from harm, there is a genuine camaraderie about them that is fully convincing.

Here within is Post’s strong suite, taking the average and mundane, and giving it life to make us care about it. Sure, death is around every corner, but they will face it with the limited skills available, along with the earnestness of a group that really cares for one another. Post manages to tell a legitimate tale of an early family, along with an atmosphere of lightheartedness that keeps you vested in their survival.

Not too airy and not too deep, Anthro is an honest read in its aims to entertain, yet not hit us over the head with it’s wild premises and bends of reality. There is a bit of Post’s personal involvement with all the characters here, and it pays off in a mild mannered, breezy read, that brings you completely into it’s world and keeps you warm and fuzzy. The series only flaw here being it’s premature ending, with solid yet contrasting inks this issue by Wally Wood, most likely brought about from the intrusion of Post’s new gig as a syndicated cartoonist, a step up for artists, with a much better paycheck.

Anthro #6

And that’s plenty for me.

If you’re lucky enough to sample Anthro (not sure its EVER been reprinted), and enjoy it as I have, click on the link here for an interview with Post to find out how exactly alike he and his creations are.

http://twomorrows.com/comicbookartist/articles/05post.html

Anthro. A real charmer of a sixties comic, for those of us that revel in such things, as well as a taste of a comics era that will most likely never be seen again. Sadly, it’s all the poorer for it, I think.

Love and Rockets #39 (August 1992)

Love and Rockets #39

Two stories end in this issue, with Poison River having one more to go. But the issue opens with the finale Wigwam Bam, which Jaime didn’t announce last issue, and the last Love and Rockets, which Beto did. Wigwam Bam opens the issue, Love and Rockets finishes it.

Jaime gets a lot done in Wigwam Bam. It helps he’s finished the Hoppers stories. He’s got time to spend a lot of panels on Hopey. Her East coast adventure comes to a very grim conclusion, albeit a grim conclusion arrived at via lots of humor. Meanwhile Izzy is off visiting Maggie’s dad and he gives her an old journal. So the story is Izzy reading Maggie’s journal and Hopey’s awful day.

While Jaime doesn’t get into Hopey’s interiority much–he more lets her expression or even eyebrow her way through it–it’s an excellent Hopey story. Maybe the best Hopey story in Wigwam Bam. Because it’s all about her. Jaime sticks with her, doesn’t jump away. Instead it feels like he’s jumping to her, instead of avoiding her. Very nice.

And the Maggie journal stuff is fantastic. Because it answers open questions, like what happened a dozen plus issues ago when Speedy died, before Jaime did a jump ahead. The journal is mostly about Maggie’s first best friend, who appeared a long time ago (also in flashback) before dying suddenly and tragically.

There’s also plot, not just everyone in Hoppers having stuff going on so here’s ten to sixteen pages. Hopey’s awful adventure this issue is fantastic. The best plotting–with the most layers–Jaime’s done in a while. He doesn’t “save” the story, because Wigwam Bam isn’t so much a story as a period in Jaime’s Love and Rockets stories.

Otherwise, he probably would’ve saved the story.

Beto’s second-to-last Poison River is outstanding. There’s some postscript on the gangsters, then Luba returning home. The grown Luba. Lots of character development for Luba and Ofelia, not much clue as to how Beto’s going to finish it. He brings back elements from earlier chapters but everyone’s outgrown them in one way or another. Beto’s getting the story settled before it ends while reintroducing Luba and Ofelia, with a relationship dynamic much more familiar than Poison had been covering before.

Of course, given how Beto’s plotted the story, it could go on another ten chapters without coming to a conclusion. It all depends on where he’s going to finish Luba’s origin story. Based on the timeline, I don’t think it can end with them showing up in Palomar. They’re still too early.

Anyway.

Then comes Love and Rockets, which is Beto’s simple but not, obvious but not, stone-cold masterpiece. It’s way more impressive than it originally appeared–it also echoes things from Poison. The two stories don’t exactly complement one another, but Rockets has always felt like Beto doing things he couldn’t do in Poison. And then when he started doing more in Poison, he started doing more in Rockets too.

Beto perfects the panel jumping from subplot-to-subplot in Rockets’s finale. Along with the characters addressing the reader directly. He goes all over the place, does so much, including a lot with fourth tier supporting cast members. Turns out it was all important.

And it ends on one of Beto’s montages, which he hasn’t done in a while because he hasn’t been ending a story. And the montage perfectly grounds the finish. So much amazing storytelling done so concisely. It’s awesome.

Love and Rockets might actually be Beto’s most complex narrative. There are just so many characters–so many entirely new characters–so much random interaction… it’s really impressive stuff. Particularly because Beto’s ambitions on Rockets have been rather muted.

So good. It’s the best overall issue in a while.

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