BD Is My Beat: A Long Hard Squint at Manchette and Tardi

If there’s one thing I’ve always loved about Tardi, it’s the way that his characters are constantly squinting. It must be that wobbly impressionistic line of his; if buildings looked the way he draws them all the time in the real world I’d have a constant migraine. Jacques Tardi’s characters are intensely determined, but also very sleepy, and it’s all in those eyes (or lack thereof), scribbly straight lines over sloping loops that make his cast look like they are about to nod off whilst trying very hard to concentrate.[1] The contrast of Tardi’s springy Shel Silverstein-ish style with his often hard-boiled stories are what give his comics their unique appeal, but if you ask me it's this consistent bleary-but-pissed-off eyes-shut glare throughout his oeuvre in particular that lends them their bizarre charm.

I swear the only time someone in these comics doesn't look like this is when they are VERY surprised and/or about to die, and especially in the latter case this really depends on their personality.


That bleary-eyed look is put to effective work in Tardi’s noir stories. There’s a look of concentration to everyone but at the same time you can see how easily distracted they could become at any given moment. Every bit of energy is going into the situation and nobody has time to clean their room. You can tell exactly how furious Tardi’s hard-bitten heroes would get if the women in their lives -- currently pouting directly at the reader with a cigarette in hand, squinting so hard at you that you may get Scannersed if you maintain eye contact  -- reminded them about the dishes in the sink or the scattered newspapers on the floor if they were interrupted from their quality time chomping on a cigar and pondering the clues with a furrowed brow.

The comics by Tardi collected in Streets of Paris, Streets of Murder adapt French Noir specialist Jean-Patrick Manchette’s prose into comics that are just intense enough to justify this endless sequential rogues gallery of beleaguered squints. The first story in this collection, Griffu, is an original collaboration between Manchette and Tardi from the ‘70s, while the second, West Coast Blues, a late career work, adapts one of Manchette’s more popular novels from around the same time as Griffu after the author’s passing. Both stories in this collection are on one hand “straightforward” noir pieces that trade in the conventions of pulp while also functioning as skewed variations, satire or commentary slightly to the left of generic convention.

Griffu is a comic book noir of improvisation and brutality, marrying ripped-from-the-headlines, glib realism to intense collage-like genre surrealism in a story that is at once punishing and invigorating. There’s a thrill of discovery to the work, Tardi and Manchette rocketting forward in their collaboration with no rules other than that the characters would “only be rotten, nasty in every way,” per Tardi’s preface. Griffu transmits the intense vitality of the grizzly, ridiculous moments of film noir’s spectacular impressions to the dreamy constancy that comics offer when they are most like the fog of memory.

Griffu is a comic about bastards and gentrification. Its Paris is one swollen with information and crumbling with derelict buildings neglected to pave the way for crooked real estate speculation and revitalization. The titular Griffu, a debt collector for hire caught in the middle of one such project, is hired by a woman to acquire files on contracts on the development of condemned neighborhoods. His attempt to steal the files is interrupted by a roomful of armed goons. He staggers away from a beating and into a hellworld of intrigue and dereliction, the job a failure, the woman vanished, the contents of the files unknown. The comic unfolds as a haze series of encounters with brutal gangsters, naive leftists and strange tenants all somehow tied to a criminal conspiracy that hinges on real estate developments and broken plots of land. What Griffu uncovers, however, is less of a conspiracy than a network of schemes by cruel idiots and dueling syndicates. By the work’s close, we have a complete picture of a plot composed by confused egotists working off of partial sketches, stumbling in the dark with petty dreams of personal gain.

Griffu has a strong political bent, albeit one directed into the sarcastic nihilism its genre demands. Tardi’s Paris is eerily present, the trashy ambiance of streets and cramped apartment rooms consuming his cast like enraged phantoms. It’s a contemplative work that captures the ghosts and corrupt dreams that pervade the death of a city, the opening salvo of late-capitalist condo hell. But with the momentum the genre (and Manchette’s writing) provides, Tardi’s impressionist imagery is pitched neither to the meditative dark whimsy of the contemporary You are There (with Jean-Claude Forest) nor the fatal memoriam of It was the War of the Trenches, but a constantly advancing drive into weirdness and ruin, urban phantoms and genre thrills.

West Coast Blues could likewise be considered neo-noir, but unlike the dour fever dream of Griffu, Blues is pitched to the fast tempo of the paperback thriller. Blues is at once more straightforward and more overtly satirical - its protagonist, a very different man with a very different last name George Gerfault, is a miserable, repressed accountant festering in the precariously affluent middle class male demographic that crime novels are generally geared to. The book opens with a cool montage of Gerfault speeding down the freeway in a sparkly Mercedes Benz that is immediately, ruthlessly undercut by the narrator with clinical precision:


During one of these aimless benders of long drives at night to blow off the ennui, Gerfault witnesses a car accident and takes an injured man to the hospital. A few days after this presumably rare act of altruism, Gerfault is attacked by two hit men in broad daylight while at the beach with his not-so-beloved family (distracted and indifferent, the wife asks the haggard Gerfault as he escapes his attackers if he had a nice swim), rupturing Gerfault’s humdrum life of middle age and middle class and dragging him into a world of the exact sort of danger, violence, intrigue and travel a man like Gerfault might read about to get his mind off the archetypical lousy job and nagging wife.

The two hitmen are themselves bumbling whitecollar workers, one seemingly a bit more competent and hard-boiled than the other, who always has his nose buried in Spider-Man comics. The hitman’s straight-faced enthusiasm for escapist entertainment is mined for some incisive gags about genre -- both crime fiction and superhero comics are ultimately power fantasies about cool guys in dangerous situations, and yet how much less cool can you get than being super invested in genre fiction? Picture Batman in the passenger seat of the Batmobile, too transfixed by Jack Reacher's latest page-turning adventure to deal with the Joker and his twisted antics. Tardi gets at a similarly demystifying juxtaposition quite effectively in his introduction to Griffu, where he imagines the author Manchette answering a demand by Griffu to explain the reasons for his suffering:

“Hello, Mr. Manchette? Griffu here — Mr. Manchette, why must I always encounter violence everywhere I go? What did I ever do to you?”

“Well, Griffu, first I’ll point out that that’s a facetious question, because it comes from American comics — Silver Surfer and The Fantastic Four. Your words are basically the same as in the Silver Surfer and The Fantastic Four.”

The absurdity of a noir hero being identical to the Silver Surfer plays out in the bumbling frenzy and overactive imaginations of West Coast Blues. The story is an absurd chase between two cars: one car blares the rough-and-tumble feel-cool stim of the titular genre, the other carries a passenger sweating with eyes glued to magazine pages wondering what the dastardly Electro will do next. Both men are using pop culture to simulate excitement to get away from the frustration of their boring lives. Now, as they rip across glorious and varied environments in a high-stakes car chase, the most exciting event that could happen in a thriller, they are too bogged down to feel the special thrill of the moment as they irritate themselves by juggling escapism and noise with their exciting reality.

Both Griffu and Blues are both comics about stressful situations thrust upon people a little bit too tired to deal with them but way too grumpy to let a single detail slide. In West Coast Blues that intensity is diagetic, with its distraction-driven, jazz-blaring protagonist and constantly fumbling conflicts, but in Griffu the devil is in the details, or rather the abundance of them. Streets are crowded, rooms are cramped, and there’s something about the flat grey-scale shading that Tardi uses in that book that flattens every image into one jumbled plane even as it denotes depths. There’s a great panel early on (pg. 14) where Griffu walks by a wall plastered with film posters and fliers and he almost appears pasted onto the wall with them. Blues, in contrast, has no spot shading at all and accomplishes vivid depth of space through line art alone, albeit with a blunter rougher line that fittingly gives one the feeling of aging hands and many shots of espresso behind the pen.

West Coast Blues often undercuts the gravitas of its characters and situations through the contrast of illustration and captions - a description of a stone cold killer joined to a drawing of a balding man in a bathrobe fapping to the evening news here, a chase scene described to the effect of “get a load of these greying yuppies” there. Griffu does the same thing, but Manchette, perhaps a little excited to be writing a comic book, throws in some asides using one of the medium’s lately more neglected tools, the thought balloon. Every once in a while there’s a beat during an intense action scene where someone muses to themselves something along the lines of “Oh hell! What now!” driving home the haggard and occasionally hilarious human confusion and small-scale mortality amid the high-operatic drama of this genre setting.

My favorite of these digressions in "Griffu": While the men talk business, Evangeline, a college feminist Griffu has been sleeping with, ruminates frantically for two panels on the questionable progressive optics of throwing a blunt object at a Middle Eastern informant who she had assumed to be an assailant. Every once in a while American comics writers talk about bringing back the thought balloon and they never have this much fun with it.

What’s impressive is that all of this undercutting and deflation never subtracts from the momentum of the narrative or the serious ambiance expected from the genre. These are not aloof intellectual parodies but exciting stories about cool men making glib observations, uppity women with secrets, gunshots and shady dealings. I won’t dare be one of those people who says that stuff like this is what makes comics so special - pop in a crusty VHS tape of Basic Instinct or Body Double and tell me a movie can’t do the same thing with different techniques - but these comics use the form of their medium to create a heightened tone where people are fumbling and psychologically pathetic but the tension is urgent and immediate and consequences are grave.

The collection is rounded out with some pages from the unfinished Fatale, an adaptation Manchette and Tardi began together prior to Griffu and abandoned unfinished some 20 pages of completed art later. For the first five of those twenty pages it’s the greatest comic ever, a nearly wordless sequence of a woman in a big hat and trenchcoat who looks almost exactly like Meiko Kaji in the Female Prisoner Scorpion movies ruthlessly gunning down some schlubby loser on a hunting expedition (the little dialog there is in this section is uttered by this guy, mostly limited to “Oh shit! Fuck!” Fantastic.) The rest honestly drags. I don’t know whether Manchette and Tardi are bad at writing women protagonists (I’d believe it with Manchette; Tardi has obviously done just fine at women in the past but I reckon manic-tough fussbudgets are more his speed than female Golgo 13) or if it’s just a symptom of the tentative stage of their collaboration and the unfinished nature of the work -- there are some panels left completely blank -- but once the dialogue and captions start chiming in to explain everything I mostly checked out. If the comic were finished it would certainly be an interesting one and what there is left me curious about what the rest of the comic might have been, but it didn’t leave me rushing to the bookstore for a copy of the novel, which Tardi cops to having never read in his preface.

OK, forget whatever I just said. She's SO COOL.

Ultimately I came away from the two main works in this collection with a similar impression of their merits -- Manchette and Tardi explore their genre of choice with intensity and considered psychological humor that expands on the genre’s focus while remaining within the pleasures and constraints that make works within those genres so vivid as to warrant deconstruction in the first place. Griffu is less concerned than Blues with its destination, ambling down alleyways into new environments with a cool curiosity tempering the panicked urgency of its protagonist. Blues, on the other hand, feels like it is hurtling towards an inevitable climax from page one, even if that climax is simply the same place where it begins, an endlessly weaving loop down the freeway blowing off stress. But from beginning to end, story to story, the citizens of Tardi and Manchette’s murderous streets of Paris rarely cease to squint. Someday, these tortured souls may fully open their eyes for more than a moment or two,[2] but for now their brows are furrowed, their eyes pursed into narrow creases, as they hunch over, poised, trying their damn best to concentrate.

[1] The elderly are allowed to open their eyes, as is anyone terrified, but those great shocked orbs and their accompanying rays of wobbly, sleepless rings are simply the other side of the same squinting coin.

[2] One character in Griffu actually does have her eyes fully open for entire pages and it looks incredibly strange.