Comic books, we like to convince ourselves, are about the delicate balance between words and pictures. In reality, words are completely superfluous and most comics can be told without them. Imagine how much easier a Hulk comic would be without all those pesky word balloons:
PAGE ONEFor four bucks you would get a thrill even faster than a roller coaster. However, most comics have words in them so I have to write about that.
Panel 1: Hulk play with cute animals in field.
Panel 2: Birds land on Hulk.
Panel 3: Squirrel climbs on top of Hulk's head.
Panel 4: Hulk look up, sees helicopters.
PAGES TWO to TWENTY-TWO: Hulk smash stupid helicopters.
Often this delicate balance between words and pictures is thrown off by bad writers who script with no concern for the art, novelists who overwrite because they love their prose so very much and little understanding of how to write comics, or artists who have no understanding of storytelling. Thankfully, some creators are talented enough to avoid these pitfalls.
Jacques Tardi understands the script/art dichotomy of the comic book. In adapting Jean-Patrick Manchetteís novel West Coast Blues (published by City Lights in the US as 3 to Kill), Tardi uses words to convey things that his art simply cannot.
Itís not just dialogue, mind you--Tardi makes extensive use of narrative captions (possibly from Manchetteís original text, I donít know) to present the capabilities of a car, the contents of an assassin's trunks, or a quick summary of a characterís backstory. With this artful device, Tardi not only keeps the story at a brisk 74 pages, he also shows a certain fidelity to the storyís prose origins.
Like any good crime comic, West Coast Blues is fast and mean--a great, quick fix of pulp. George Genaut is a bored family man who suddenly finds a pair of assassins are after him after he saves a complete stranger from an auto accident. This situation forces him to embark on a violent odyssey in which he does things heís only seen in noir films. Dissatisfied with simple potboiler thrills and grit, West Coast Blues shows surprising pathos at times and, a surprising lack of them at other times. A particularly touching moment has a character give a eulogy by reading from the only thing he has at hand: a comic book.
It's a shame that Tardi has little exposure in the United States, as heís considered one of the greats in France--as evidenced by his art in West Coast Blues. His backgrounds and objects are meticulous and clearly photo-referenced while his figures are rendered in a pseudo-cartoonish manner with small, squinty eyes.
As writer-artist on the book, Tardi knows when to let the narrator quiet down and commence with the punching and shooting. West Coast Blues isnít a constant bloodbath, but Tardi makes the violence count when it happens. His violence shocks in its brutal renditions--as violence should.
Just as shocking is the book's protagonist, who Tardi never attempts to make likable for the reader. We understand and identify with Genaut's boredom with the mundane and his later plight, but he never is redeemed as a character. That would feel artificial and Hollywood. No, this is a real crime story: Ugly acts by ugly people who donít care about being liked.
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