I, Rene Tardi, Prisoner of War
By Jacques Tardi
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.