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The Comics Journal #302: The Jacques Tardi Interview Excerpt

Provided by Jacques Tardi.

KIM THOMPSON: [Regarding Tardi’s current project about his father’s World War II experiences]: Why did you wait so long before proceeding with it?

JACQUES TARDI: I don’t know … I don’t know. [Pause.]

THOMPSON: That’s a reasonable answer. And are you doing it in black and white or in color?

TARDI: There will be three gray screens, three different percentages. My daughter Rachel is doing that, on the computer.

THOMPSON: You haven’t worked with gray screens for a long time. You did a lot of it in the 1970s and ’80s, but in the last 15, 20 years much less so. You’ve either used simple black line-work, or color.

TARDI: Mmmm. Well, it’s necessary in this case, because I need to set the moods. Black-and-white drawings … I was going to say that after a certain point they end up being tedious, but that’s true of gray tones as well — I mean, it’s not exactly resplendent colors

There is a lot of text, so I worry that … Because it really is one guy’s impressions, day-to-day life, the showers, the food, the reveille, the work. He ended up working on a farm for a while, because he was hungry. At the time he was a junior officer, so in principle he wasn’t supposed to work, but he let them take him anyway because he thought he’d be able to find something to eat at the farm where he’d be sent to work, he figured he’d kill a chicken or find an egg somewhere. Which turned out not to be the case at all. So that’s what it’s about: Hunger, these guys’ daily problems, dreadful things that were done within the camp, even among people who are in the same straits … and then, afterwards, as the war wound on, the arrival of the Russians after the end of the German/Soviet [Non-Aggression] Treaty, because they were right next door, and then this departure at 30 below zero, in the snow. We were talking about movies earlier — imagine the cinematic possibilities inherent in that kind of situation!

And, of course, they’re the losers. They are not given a particularly warm welcome by the American soldiers. Things would get better later on, but initially they aren’t welcomed very well at all, and as he put it, that makes perfect sense! That makes sense: we were the losers, we were nothing, we hadn’t put up much of a fight.

THOMPSON: And Americans do have a fixation on winners and losers.

TARDI: Right. So my father was convinced they had far more respect for the Germans than for the camp’s prisoners. Also, during that return trip, led by the German soldiers, they kept a list of the towns they’d crossed through, along with the distances traveled, in a little notebook — along with the food problems, what they’d eaten, how long they’d stayed, etc. And tracing it on the map, you realize that the itinerary they pursued was totally disjointed, they went in circles, etc. At that time the Germans had gotten into their heads, or someone had put into their heads, that they would now be charging the Russians alongside the Americans. That idea didn’t last very long, but that explains why they didn’t turn themselves over as prisoners right away. And during that journey there were still guards, who were vicious. The war was over for them, but right up to the end they were beating the prisoners with rifle butts, and one day my father said, “OK, enough of that, we can’t take it any more,” and the prisoners took five German soldiers, disarmed them, and hanged them on the side of the road. [Pause.] That was probably just days before the end of the war. And again, why did they hang them? They’d disarmed them, why didn’t they just shoot them in the head, why hang them? It seems complicated. Maybe they wanted them to be seen, because he said that when they saw them, the other guards took off and were never heard from again.

When they linked up with the American soldiers, it happened in a town in Germany, and there was a field in which the weapons that had been seized from the Germans were stockpiled. Specifically cannons — small-caliber ones, of course — with matching ammunition, and right away, I don’t know whether it was the French, the Belgians, or who — maybe the Americans — they used those cannons to bombard, to raze part of the village and shoot at the column of Germans who were fleeing the combat zones. It was the end of the war, these were the horrors of war, there was nothing glorious about it, but you have to understand their state of mind. They weren’t exactly living a passionate love story with Germany right at that moment.

So there you go. I think all of these stories need to be told, because these people have not been talked about much. And when French cinema took on those subjects, it was always with a slightly comedic edge, portraying the Germans as big dopes, gluttons, sauerkraut- and potato-eaters, and the French of course were clever, etc.

THOMPSON: Oh, Americans have plenty of movies and television shows like that.

TARDI: Yes. But I don’t know of any movies, American or French for that matter, that really tell the story of the day-to-day misery of these guys who brewed infusions with bark stripped from the poles the barbed wire was hung on, who spoke of nothing but hunger, hunger, hunger, hunger, hunger — you would’ve eaten anything. Who pulled potato peels out of the garbage … Now, they did receive packages from home, of course. They had the right to two packages a month. The Germans respected all that stuff, they’d signed the Geneva Convention. And anyway, if you don’t want me to mistreat your prisoners, don’t mistreat mine. (Which in 1943 applied to the American prisoners, but not to the French, since there hadn’t been a single German prisoner in France since 1940.) But anyway, when the packages arrived, they would be systematically opened, of course, to make sure they didn’t contain any weapons or anything along those lines, and the tin cans were opened with a bayonet, there was a soldier who, hunh! would jab in his bayonet, use it as a can-opener, and empty all of it, the jam onto the sausages or whatever, everything would be all mixed together, and the guy would leave with a sort of mush of all the food he’d been sent. His only option was to eat it all right away.

From “Moi, Rene Tardi …” ©Jacques Tardi

For his escape attempt, my father needed a compass, maps and money as well, which my mother sent him over a period of months — inside those jars of jam, in fact. How did he manage to communicate with my mother? The letters were read, censored … That’s another question that remains unanswered. And he managed to take receipt of all of this because there was a prisoner in the camp who worked in the mail department, who slipped him his packages, so they didn’t undergo the search and systematic destruction. Of course, there were some soldiers who took malicious delight in doing that, but there were also decent guys, and you should also bear in mind that most of the guards were older and some of them had fought in World War I, so they were less vicious.

So there is all of this human potential that needs to be evoked, needs to be told, because people do, as with World War I, with the poilus [slang for French infantrymen, especially during World War I] in their trenches, have a very stereotypical view. And so I’m going to try to deal with these different aspects, of course, especially the bitterness and the humiliation, the shame that my father felt and that he lived with, obviously very badly, to the end of his life.

Shortly before his death, there were times when he lapsed into a delirium, into a semi … not a coma, but an extended sleep. I was there, in the room, in the hospital, by his side, and he explained to me that at one point an anti-tank cannon had been getting ready to shoot at him but he’d shot first, there was already a shell engaged in the barrel of his cannon, he pulled it out in order to insert the appropriate shell, and he fired very, very quickly at this anti-tank battery, and then he crushed the two soldiers who were manning this battery; they rolled right over them. He stopped the tank to see what was going on behind him and there was this magma of meat, of crushed bodies that had passed under the tank’s treads, and he said fortunately they’d been given booze, very, very strong alcohol — they had it in their canteens — and that was what gave them the strength to continue on and go hide in the woods. He was 25 years old at the time, and those are very powerful experiences. He was visibly haunted by them for the rest of his life.

THOMPSON: Remind me what the title of the book is again?

TARDI: I think it’s a little long, but I wanted to call it Moi, René Tardi, Prisonnier de Guerre au Stalag IIB, Mon Retour et la Suite [I, René Tardi, Prisoner of War at Stalag II-B, My Return and What Followed]14 — in much smaller type, of course — because if you want to understand the story, it doesn’t end with the stalag.

THOMPSON: That’s an important point to highlight, otherwise you might mistake it for a Steve McQueen kind of deal.

TARDI: The Great Escape? You know, that took place in a camp that wasn’t far away from there: Sagan. That huge escape did take place, but it didn’t involve a single American [laughs] even though the star of the movie was Steve McQueen. It was basically Englishmen. If my information is correct.

In my father’s stalag, digging tunnels was out of the question. It couldn’t be done. On top of which, it was a gigantic camp, there were 15,000, 20,000 guys. There were several smaller camps. You can find the location of the camp on the Internet, you can see that it was very, very big, near a lake; you hit underground water pretty fast, so digging tunnels wouldn’t have worked.

My father didn’t talk about this, but the Belgian soldier I mentioned earlier, who was a prisoner in the same camp, told the story of the escape of two French soldiers who spoke perfect German. They made civilian clothes for themselves, they put on swastika armbands, and they walked around the camp, speaking German, one of them measuring things, the other one writing the measurements down in a little notebook. When German officers would come by and ask them what they were doing, they would explain they were there to do some work, and so they measured, they measured, they moved toward the exit, and they quietly walked out measuring for future work that of course did not exist. Now that story, which was described by this Belgian soldier, shows up in a movie, Jean Renoir’s last movie, which is called The Elusive Corporal [1962], which is adapted from a novel by Jacques Perret, who tells exactly the same story. So what’s up here? We almost come back to the issue of witnesses we spoke of earlier. Is it a myth? Is it a fictional story — which of course worked beautifully in a movie? Did it really take place? My father never mentioned it. It allegedly took place in the same camp. I may mention it, adding a caveat — although I have no reason to doubt that Belgian prisoner.

So, that’s where I’m at.

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33 Responses to The Comics Journal #302: The Jacques Tardi Interview Excerpt

  1. Anthony Thorne says:

    The Tardi reprints are one of the major pleasures of the recent ongoing quality comics boom. I am already looking forward to this book, and I’d like to think it will get some mainstream attention when it comes out considering the subject matter.

    Looking forward to grabbing the new TCJ volume over the next month too.

  2. olly hill says:

    Looking forward to this interview. Are there any plans for a release of Le cri du peuple? I hope its not too ‘French’?, the themes are universal.

  3. Kim Thompson says:

    LE CRI DU PEUPLE is on my shortlist. But it’s a real whopper of a book size-wise, and a huge challenge to translate due to the heavy usage 0f period slang. Next few Tardis are GODDAMN THIS WAR! (aka the sort-of sequel to WAR OF THE TRENCHES — going to printer this week), RUN LIKE CRAZY RUN LIKE HELL (the third and final Manchette adaptation), BRINDAVOINE (an early book that feeds into the ADELE continuity), and the first NESTOR BURMA…

  4. Peter says:

    I’m seconding a release of Le cri du peuple. Graphic literature dealing with its themes are very scant in the American market.

  5. JT says:

    Fantastic lineup, and glad to hear Nestor Burma is coming up. I’m still amazed that you published YOU ARE THERE, which remains my favorite of the Tardi publications…. Fingers crossed you guys can pull off the same with Franquin that you have with Tardi.

  6. Tony says:

    “it’s a real whopper of a book size-wise”

    And that’s a problem?!? How pathetic the American comic market is…

    A 9.6” x 12” book is a problem!

  7. Kim Thompson says:

    Calm down, Tony. I didn’t say it was a problem, I said it was a challenge. Yes, a book that is so large and thick that it will require a price point that may be outside many potential buyers’ comfort zone is a challenge. (The French edition costs SEVENTY DOLLARS in France, and they had to release it as a series of four books first to recoup their investment, which I’d like to avoid. Maybe a compromise of two books.) A thick, large landscape format book isn’t the most desired format for bookstores, and that’s a challenge. A 300-plus-page book of dense, period-accurate, slangy dialogue is a challenge to me or to any translator who sets out to tackle it.

  8. Kim Thompson says:

    In retrospect, starting off with the prickly, idiosyncratic YOU ARE THERE was probably a foolhardy move, but to me it is such a cornerstone of Tardi’s work (and of the French roman graphique) that I wanted it to be among the first three or four books we did. And hey, we sold out the first printing and are putting out a nice little softcover this year, so it all worked out.

  9. Jose Medina says:

    I’m reading the Spanish translation of “Le cri du peuple” (El Grito del Pueblo) and it’s complicated to read through it but worth the experience. I love historical\fictional type of cartoons/books/films especially if it deals with politics of the era. This book is making me a fan of Tardi and I’m going to read his other works after I finish this classic.

  10. Aaltomuoto says:

    I love BRINDAVOINE, art-wise that’s probably one of my favourite Tardi books.
    Any chance of MOUH MOUH, POLONIUS or SOLDAT INCONNU getting translated?

  11. Rob Clough says:

    YOU ARE THERE is easily my favorite of the Tardi books and really helped to establish him as more than just an excellent genre artist in my mind.

  12. Kim Thompson says:

    Ah, veteran cartoonists always love hearing that the second graphic novel they did is someone’s favorite!

    POLONIUS is one of my least favorite Tardis, to be honest, so it’s pretty far back in the queue. Also, it was done with Zip-a-Tone screens and the originals must have been lost, because recent editions I’ve seen have got some nasty moirés going on that I think would need to be addressed first.

    SOLDAT INCONNU is a graphic novelette. Recent French editions have paired it off with LA BASCULE À CHARLOT (which was run in the second of the small RAWs, which are still not too hard to find, as “Basket Case”), a nice combination that I’m sure we’d hit one day. MOUH MOUH is a compilation of really old work (except for LA BASCULE, which would be subsumed into SOLDAT) and would come dead last as a result, like Jason’s POCKETFUL OF RAIN or Lewis Trondheim’s LAPINOT ET LES CAROTTES DE PATAGONIE. Well, maybe ahead of RUMEURS SUR LE ROUERGUE.

    This is getting ridiculously incestuous. I translated LA BASCULE for RAW back when, in fact, and when I forgot the issue number and English title it ran under and Googled it prior to writing this response, this is what came up: http://blancsecadele.free.fr/article_a_02.htm ; to see Tardi badmouth ROUERGUE (and also the art on YOU ARE THERE), see the current COMICS JOURNAL interview… by me.

  13. Tony says:

    Check out the display of Tardi’s publisher at Angouleme last weekend:

    http://sphotos-a.ak.fbcdn.net/hphotos-ak-frc1/820872_348711481910566_1490089942_o.jpg

  14. Anthony Thorne says:

    So Tardi has finished the book? Amazing stuff. That whole wall of Euro volumes is equally great (dig the Corto Maltese on display) and I hope Fantagraphics keep that snazzy red cover of the Tardi when they do their eventual US version.

  15. Tony says:

    I hope Fantagraphics keep that snazzy red cover and the 9.5 x 12.5 original dimensions when they do their eventual US version.

  16. Jeremy Holstein says:

    And when is the next Adele scheduled for? I’m anxiously awaiting an episode not yet translated into English.

  17. Kim Thompson says:

    Tardi has finished the first part of the RENE TARDI book. He would’ve preferred to finish it all and release it as one book, but publisher exigencies (a need/desire for a new book from him in 2012) led to the two-volume serialization. I think it would work best as a single volume too so we’re probably holding off and releasing it as one volume (as we did with PUTAIN DE GUERRE / GODDAMN THIS WAR!). I think we’ll do it in our “normal” Tardi size, which is slightly smaller than the French version. I honestly don’t see much of a need graphically speaking for the extra-large size (the work looks great at the more standard size too) and it would just inflate the cost and thus price of our book, which will be substantial (especially if we release it as one volume).

    ADELE returns in 2014. (2013’s “Adele-verse” entry is BRINDAVOINE, which has to be published first because Brindavoine then shows up in the next Adele story.) If I recall correctly, Dark Horse made it up to Volume 5 (SECRET OF THE SALAMANDER) so since our Volume 3 will collect Volumes 5 and 6 of the French series that means we’re finally forging into as-yet-untranslated territory.

    I can’t deny that after GODDAMN THIS WAR! and the third and final Manchette book this spring and summer we’re gonna have a run of Tardi material that U.S. supercollectors will already have in English — BRINDAVOINE, TOLBIAC BRIDGE, then the first half of ADELE 3 — but they’ll all be nicer than the earlier versions, to one degree or another (I think our TOLBIAC serialized version was eminently respectable but the reduced reproduction of graytones from existing negatives left a lot to be desired — compare the NBM and Fanta editions of (COCK)ROACH KILLER to see how technological advances will help here.)

  18. Jeremy Holstein says:

    Thanks for the update, Kim. Yes, the Secret of the Salamander was the last Dark Horse release, and it left the Adele story in a precarious place. Looking forward to seeing what happens next.

  19. Kim Thompson says:

    All of the Adèle episodes published so far leave the Adele story in a precarious place, including the to-date last one, #9. Tardi told me (this is in the interview) that he actually got a number of pages into the final tenth volume of Adele years ago, before setting it aside. I hinted broadly that our readers might really really dig seeing a sample of these pages but he didn’t bite; he did on the other hand send me the completed pages for the abandoned adaptation of Manchette’s NADA, which was awesome.

  20. Tony says:

    I suppose that I will not accomplish anything if I try to argue in favor of the necessity of respecting the original sizes of publication.

    You seem adamant about not considering it a priority, and of course you have to take the economic costs and the alleged preferences of the US market into consideration.

    I’ll just say that I hope that eventual Holy Grail that is GASTON LAGAFFE will appear at least in the same format than GIL JORDAN and SYBIL-ANNE, and not significantly reduced like LAST LAUGH.

  21. Jeremy Holstein says:

    Bummer about the unseen Adele pages, that would have been grand. Can’t wait to read the interview.

    Will the Fantagraphics version of BRINDAVOINE include La Fleur au Fusil?

  22. Kim Thompson says:

    Yes.

  23. Bryon says:

    I think the size of these books are fine. It really depends on the material. Tardi’s work looks great at this size.

    I thought the Joost Swarte book was a little bit too small, the Carl Barks books perfect for the material. Prince Valiant, Buz Sawyer, Peanuts, etc…

    There are way too many fifty dollar hardcovers coming out right now, I feel like I am drownig in great reprint material after years of drought, it is all I can do to keep up on just the most wanted material with my limited budget and keeping the costs down really helps.

    That being said I would buy Tardi books if you started publishing them once a month. My all time favorite european artist.

    Kim, are there any plans to republish GRIFFU in 2013, 14 or 15?

  24. R. Fiore says:

    Learn to read French, mon ami . . .

  25. Kim Thompson says:

    My plan is to release LAST LAUGH in the same format as the French version, not reduced. The “official” size in our catalog or on Amazon may be off by an inch or so due to a simple typo on my end when preparing the catalog.

  26. Kim Thompson says:

    GRIFFU is one of my least favorite Tardis, it’s one of Tardi’s own least favorites as well (he’s unhappy with the art he was doing at the time, his schedule was so insane he felt he was rushing/hacking), it’s so short it makes for an awkwardly thin American album, and it’s already available to collectors in PICTOPIA — so it’s pretty far toward the end of the queue, I’m afraid. I’d certainly rather plow through all the NESTOR BURMAs first, at the very least. And the guy keeps on doing new work to boot! When in 2016 or 2017 I have to choose between GRIFFU and the latest masterwork that rolled off his drawing board, it’s not going to be too tough of a choice…

    (“Least favorite” meaning I just think it’s very good, as opposed to excellent, great, or mind-blowingly awesome.)
    Almost everyone ultimately thought the Swarte book was too small. I understand Joost’s desire to have a format that would accommodate magazine-size and digest pages in the same package without the former being too small or the latter too big, but I think he erred slightly on the size of small. We adjusted it a bit in the softcover reprint, with his OK, so the 2nd American edition is actually an inch or so bigger than all the European editions. American exceptionalism at its finest!

  27. Tony says:

    A typo?

    http://www.fantagraphics.com/browse-shop/franquin-s-last-laugh-3.html

    Fantagraphics’ Last Laugh: 7.25″ x 10.5″

    http://www.franquin.com/in/album3_in.php

    Original French edition: 21.8 x 30 cm (8.6″ x 11.8″)

  28. Kim Thompson says:

    Two typos, then. Dude, relax!

  29. Tony says:

    You’ll never silence me. I’m the last angry man, Patterson-I mean, Thompson. A crusader for the little guy!

  30. Bryon says:

    According to Amazon, the next three Tardi books all arrive within a 5 week period in June/July. Is this really going to be the case?

  31. R. Fiore says:

    Is an Amazon publication date from an independent comics publisher ever really the case? It’s more of a fond hope than a commitment.

  32. Tony says:

    You can’t even rely on the SIZE data floating around, Bob. Info about a radically shrunk down edition of a European masterpiece could circulate for months and you could’nt find out it’s a typo unless you pest the editor on his website until you pry an answer out of him…

    Note: all of the above is intended as a little good-natured ribbing between customer and supplier. Water cooler chatter.

  33. Bryon says:

    yeah, I know, I know…

    Very unlikely, but since my birthday is in July it would be great to get three Tardi books as gifts, plus I want the Unfinished Fatale mini, but I haven’t been able to wait to buy one book until a second books to come out to get the mini.

    oh well…

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