I, René Tardi, Prisoner of War in Stalag IIB Vol. 2: My Return Home

Phew! After the finish of volume one, I wasn’t sure what to expect other than his survival. That it would take five long years in captivity with the Germans and his need to be reunited with his wife comes through painfully here in this stories final year. It had been a long tough slog so far, but the last months journey with the Germans using pows as bargaining chips, as the war was begrudgingly winding down.

Continuing his three horizontal panels per page layout, Tardi relentlessly shows us mile after mile of the endless marching his father and his fellow prisoners were forced to take to keep them in the German’s hands. The panoramic panels with their endless dreary landscapes, depicting repeated multiple views of marching prisoners, keeps our eyes moving, an amazing balance of artistic choices and historical respect.

Tardi nails the effort, demonstrating its hardships, not to mention the grit needed for those captured, enduring continuous attacks on their health, mental condition, and their dignity as human beings. It is unforgiving in its repetition and continuous fight to live till the next day. The sheer zig zagging of their journey at the end an exclamation point to their struggles, and the madness of their march.

But survive some of them did. The long, resisted finish of the German army and its eventual disintegration is portrayed brilliantly as witnessed by the POWs and their reactions. Germany owed a terrible price after the war, and those left alive did whatever they could to see them pay for it.

Around this time, Tardi introduces slight, tight, spots of color to illustrate the slow, begrudging emergence of hope from our tale. Just bites of color here and there, not enough to spoil us, but just enough to demonstrate that color still exists, just not as much is around as before.

A completely somber and non romantic story, I was reminded of a time in my youth when I asked my father if World War Two was anything like the spirited romantic ideas put into my head by the movies and media here of what life was like stateside during World War II.

He responded. “Yeah, in some ways it was, unless you lost someone that didn’t make it home”.

After reading Rene Tardi’s survival tale in comparison, the opposites of the wars experiences stand still from the shock of their contrasts. While Prisoner of War isn’t a gross, graphic depiction of the brutal effects of war, but it succeeds greatly in relating to us what mans inhumanity to man can look like. The marching was torturous enough, that they did it scrounging for clothes, food, and sleep throughout it all feels hopeless and devastating.

Comic books can make the mundane spectacular and the fantastic banal. Tardi’s work here runs the distance of Rene’s life while a prisoner of war, using all his tools in service of the truth, showing what human beings are capable of. The quietness of the narrative is amplified with a sad gracefulness, and benefits being transferred to the language of comics in Tardi’s hands.

Prisoner is essential reading for anyone interested in exploring the infinite capabilities of the human spirit, both good and bad. Also included at the books finish are a journal of Jacques Tardi’s trek through northern Europe retracing his fathers steps, a much “enjoyed” demonstration in “real” time.

Tardi depicts his fathers journey keeping a narrative distance, yet lets through a sliver of passion on his fathers behalf. Four years in a concentration camp, followed by nearly a year of relentless, painful marching. That anyone survived this is a miracle, and Tardi shows us how it was done.

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.

Goddamn This War! (2013)

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Goddamn This War! is not a traditional graphic novel. Instead, Jacques Tardi uses it as an illustrated novella, recounting a French World War I veteran’s experiences chronologically. Sometimes there are little stories–most of the pages have three wide panels top to bottom (with occasional exceptions)–and sometimes there’s carryover between them, but more often not. Sometimes the carryover is how Tardi juxtaposes panels on facing pages. This book is really well thought out.

Most of War is relentless. From the first page, since the narrator is speaking from after the war, there’s no humor. Tardi doesn’t even allow for sarcastic wit, though there are occasional jabs at the generals and the church. Tardi makes sure to recount how the church encouraged the war, which horrifies in special ways.

The protagonist does have a German counterpart, or at least imagines one. A soldier he keeps running across in peaceful situations. They don’t have a confrontation until the end, just before the protagonist returns home. It’s actually not as much a running subplot as some other things (Tardi always reminds about the soldier).

But he doesn’t stop with the end of the war. First are two pages of images of “survivors” of the war and all the damage done to them. Those pages are the book’s roughest.

Then, in epilogue, he uses second person to go through all sorts of people involved in World War I–soldiers from all sides, doctors and so on.

It’s devastating and always hard to read.

CREDITS

Writer, artist, colorist and letterer, Jacques Tardi; publisher, Casterman.

New York Mon Amour (2008)

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New York Mon Amour is an interesting love letter to eighties New York City. It’s both realistic and fanciful. Jacques Tardi–who only actually writes one of the four stories in Mon Amour–varies his style depending on the story’s tone.

The first story, “Cockroach Killer,” written by Benjamin Legrand, is hyper-realistic. The story features a lot of hallucinations and incredible imagery, but Tardi’s New York is better than a photograph. There’s a fumetti postscript and one has to wonder if the photographs were some of Tardi’s reference materials.

It’s a great story, full of modern urban intrigue, but also a lot of examination on that state of immigrants. It’s just outstanding.

The next story is sort of a side sequel. “It’s So Hard…,” written by Dominique Grange, follows a guy who’s unlucky enough to look (almost) just like a famous New Yorker of the era. While the settings are real, Tardi doesn’t spend as much time on them. It’s about the protagonist and his discontent.

The third story, “Manhattan,” is the only one Tardi pens. It’s not a real New York, it’s a New York out of Taxi Driver and other Scorsese pictures. There’s even commentary on the connection, as the protagonist unhappily moves about the city. The art deserves a thoughtful analysis when compared to “Cockroach.”

Grange writes the finale, “Hung’s Murderer,” which again examines the immigrant situation. Interestingly, the immigrants are never French. It’s a nice little story.

New York Mon Amour is amazing disaffected fiction.

Like a Sniper Lining Up His Shot (2010)

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What a downer.

Well, wait, I guess Like a Sniper Lining Up His Shot is more of a measured downer. Tardi, adapting a novel, is decidedly distant from his characters. The finish might be tragic, but if the reader remembers he or she isn’t supposed to have cared particularly much for the characters in the first place… the tragedy is measured.

There’s also a big style shift in Sniper, which gets overshadowed by the far more active second half. In the first half, Tardi seems to be including either large sections of narration from the novel or using long narration in the same style. That approach lets Tardi jump around in time–showing the protagonist’s past–but it leads to a lot of tense confusion. And Tardi also uses it to transition scenes, which fails.

The second half of the book is relatively straightforward, with a lot of unexpected turns. Sniper is about an assassin who wants to retire but, every time he thinks he gets out, they keep pulling him back in. In other words, it’s hard to be inventive in such a familiar genre. But Tardi (and the source novel by Jean-Patrick Manchette, manage to come up with some nice twists.

Unfortunately, the dispassionate first half and the melodramatic ending bring Sniper down. While Tardi has some great art, he doesn’t relish in anything. The story takes place in the seventies, but there’s no enthusiasm for the period.

It’s masterful comic storytelling… but not a good story.

The Eiffel Tower Demon (1976)

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When Tardi opens The Eiffel Tower Demon with a recap of the first Adèle Blanc-Sec episode, I should have known he was going to be incredibly complicated again. It was just so nice to understand exactly what had happened, without all the MacGuffin.

But Eiffel Tower eventually reveals that previous story was basically all just MacGuffin for this story. I don’t know if Tardi will be able to keep up the continual unravelling in subsequent episodes; Eiffel Tower has a relatively final ending… with epilogues for some of the supporting cast Tardi would have to revise.

This story does reveal a little more about Adèle. While still a person of questionable morals, Tardi establishes she’s writing a true crime book and got involved with the criminal class–well, the gentleman burglar class–in her research. She’s simply pursuing a friend’s murder, the genre standard, and finds herself in further peculiar trouble this time.

This Paris of 1911 (and 1912) Tardi has created is, while dark and dangerous, quite wondrous. Ancient cults, dinosaurs and bumbling policemen. It’s a lot of fun. And Tardi’s having fun too. He gets caught up with characters and follows them around, so much so I wondered if Adèle would even appear in the epilogue.

But the exuberance isn’t just in the plotting or the art; Tardi makes some great dialogue decisions as well. Particularly nice is the running gag about a popular play–it’s popular because it’s so lame.

Eiffel Tower is gourmet French popcorn.

Pterror Over Paris (1976)

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Tardi’s approach, in terms of narrative and plotting, to Pterror Over Paris is surprising. For the entire first act, the reader is left without the expected protagonist. Adèle Blanc-Sec doesn’t initially figure into the story of a newly born pterodactyl terrorizing Paris.

The majority of the first act is newspaper reports and small scenes of the dinosaur’s adventures. When it first appears, on the second page, it’s kind of cute (Tardi doesn’t do cute often here and it’s subtle), but it soon turns into a vicious killing machine.

A young museum employee basically becomes the protagonist for the first half, until Adèle shows up and there’s a handoff scene where Tardi shifts the focus to her.

But Pterror isn’t some adventure comic, it’s a crime comic and a very confusing one. Tardi is being purposefully confusing, at one point having a chase scene between five people in bowler hats and fake beards. Even though there’s not much in the way of excitement, Tardi’s gleeful in the confusion he creates.

Strangely, the pterodactyl is a MacGuffin, which I was not expecting. But it’s almost impossible to talk about Pterror‘s actual plot–not because of spoilers, but because it’s so complicated. A couple integral cast members don’t even make any appearance and another only shows up near the end, without any immediate explanation.

As for Adèle herself, Tardi dissuades the reader’s judgment. Adèle’s likable, but obviously shady.

I like Pterror more than I expected; Tardi’s determination to confound is highly entertaining.

The Arctic Marauder (1974)

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It’s hard to know what to expect from The Arctic Marauder. It opens in the late nineteenth century. Tardi gradually establishes the protagonist–one Jérôme Plumier–who is conveniently on a ship traveling through the Arctic Ocean. The ship discovers a startling shipwreck (on an iceberg) and Plumier is part of the investigating boarding party.

Now, it did not occur to me Plumier’s presence was contrived until now, sitting after reading Marauder and trying to explain it. Tardi is wholly convincing in ignoring the contrivance of it. Plumier was the only passenger who the story might involve, making his survival essential for there to be a story at all.

But, like I said, Tardi sells it.

Maybe I just wasn’t paying attention because the artwork is so amazing. Marauder is very, very dark. But then there are these icebergs or there’s nineteenth century France and Tardi works in all this detail. The people are not the point in Marauder–at one point, Tardi doesn’t even bother giving the supporting cast faces–but the landscapes and technology.

The layout is also important. Tardi’s panel composition and his placement of the panels on the page are amazing. In some ways, it’s my favorite art from him and in others not. He sacrifices personality and emotion for a great look.

Yet he still manages to tell an excellent story. Once the mystery perturbs far enough, he switches gears, turning it into a great riff on 20,000 Leagues.

Marauder is excellent, but not profound.

120, rue de la Gare (1988)

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120, rue de la Gare has enough story for three full narratives. Jacques Tardi is adapting a novel–Leo Malet’s 1943 debut–and it’s unclear how much came from the source material and how much Tardi included because of the setting.

As a comic, 120 is historical detective fiction. But when Malet published it… the novel was just a detective novel. One assumes Tardi added a lot of historical details, but also a decidedly negative look at his protagonist. 120‘s hero, private detective Nestor Burma, is rude with his friends and frequently gives expository monologues in public. The people around him watch in silence. These are hilarious little touches, which occasionally imply Burma’s delusional.

I had read 120 before (it was my introduction to Tardi) and I still wasn’t positive Burma was a real detective with a real mystery to solve.

Tardi opens the comic in a POW camp, then moves to Lyons, then moves to Paris. Each setting is distinct from the other, especially in how Tardi moves Burma through the landscape. There is a lot of walking in Lyons, with Burma recently freed, and it discreetly fits the character–finally able to move about, he does.

The art is excellent, particularly when it comes to the supporting cast. Tardi doesn’t change characters’ looks much (Burma’s momentary five o’clock shadow is a shock), but they’re all fantastically distinctive. Even the silent scenes are full of personality.

120 is great historical fiction. As a mystery though, it’s too short.

It Was the War of the Trenches (1982-93)

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Tardi jumps around quite a bit in It Was the War of the Trenches, but does follow a general sort of narrative progression. Though the stories–it was originally serialized, with some delay, in anthologies–all feature their own characters and situations, they move forward in time. Even when Tardi resets at one point, the subsequent vignettes resume that progression. The book ends with armistice.

To say the book is anti-war is something of an absurd understatement. It’s impossible to imagine a pro-war approach to the first World War, but here Tardi does find some–inspiring poetry and songs from 1915, juxtaposed against the book’s only trench warfare scene. Though most of the book takes place in the trenches, as the title suggests, he only does one sequence with the soldiers running out and getting gunned down. He does it against a white sky, so just the soldiers and the battlefield are visible. It reminds of Goya, maybe the only time in the book the visuals are truly horrific, as Tardi lets the reader imagine most of the violence. When he’s upfront about it, a soldier holding his intestines in with his helmet, the soldier’s monologue is more terrifying.

Tardi’s vignettes eventually leave the trenches, with a particularly jarring entry starting in a lush forest. He goes through a lot of narrative devices to get the feeling across; it’s never a history lesson, instead an imperative look at the nature of humanity.

It’s an outstanding piece of work.

CREDITS

Writer and artist, Jacques Tardi; letterer, Ian Burns; publisher, Casterman.

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