When Words Collide

Mon, September 21st, 2009 at 2:28pm PDT

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

THE DEVIL OUTSIDE

"West Coast Blues"

I've always been surprised that, during the course of the manga explosion of North America in the past decade, we haven't seen a similar barrage of books from across the Atlantic. European comics, so seemingly primed for the bookstore market with their hardcover graphic album-ness, don't get the prime shelf space given to a "Naruto" or a "Fullmetal Alchemist." Sure, we get an occasional First Second book, and the as-yet underwhelming Marvel/Soleil deal, but many of us still live in a country where even Moebius is completely out of print.

It's easy to say that, for many readers, manga represents the future while European comics represent the past. It's not a genre thing, so much as it is a tone. A sci-fi series like Urasawa's "Pluto" might tread in the plots of the past, but it feels like something of the now, or something of the soon-to-be. While Leo's "Aldebaran," as inventive and dream-like as it can be, recalls the humanistic, but trippy, sci-fi films of the 1960s.

Yes, this is a ridiculous oversimplification, but there's no doubt that placing the American version of "Shonen Jump" next to a recent issue of "Heavy Metal" would show some distinctive tonal differences. It goes beyond style and subject matter, and it perhaps speaks to the sluggish acceptance of European comics on bookstore shelves in this part of the world. Many European comics -- or maybe just the ones that end up translated over here -- can feel like throwbacks to an earlier era. An era when men sported unironic moustaches and women didn't seem to mind.

In this widespread rejection or ignorance of the mass of European graphic albums -- for whatever reason -- we end up with some ridiculous situations. At a time when you can get hardcover Absolute editions of terrible "Batman" stories, hardcover reprints of middle-of-the-road comic strips from bygone days, and hardcover editions of the newest wrinkle in Wolverine's tangled origin, we can't get any books by Jacques Tardi, one of the greatest French comic book artists ever.

Or at least we couldn't, until Fantagraphics joined the party.

"West Coast Blues," Jacques Tardi's graphic album adaptation of Jean-Patrick Manchette's novel, hit the direct market a week or two back, and it's scheduled to hit bookstores in October. It's just the first salvo in Fantagraphics' Tardi-fueled attack, with another Tardi graphic novel hitting a month later, and more to follow in 2010.

It's nice to see some Tardi, and it's especially nice to see the kind of Tardi present in "West Coast Blues": nasty but just, chaotically controlled, hopeful yet hopeless. This graphic novel is a turbo-charged pace car for the likes of Vertigo Noir (which I like, as you'll recall), telling the boys to keep up if they can.

No help at the beach...

I don't know how many varieties of crime stories you can find in the world. I'm sure someone has done a Morphology of the Crime Narrative and charted the versions of the heist story, and the tough-as-nails Private Investigator epics. The whodunit tales, and the thug seeking redemption. "West Coast Blues" is none of those. It's a wrong man story, filtered through a Marxist lens. It's a character caught up in events beyond his control, but his "status within the means of production" would place him nowhere else. His fate is already written, but it comes less from divine intervention than it does from human nature. He is who he is and he does what he does, and that's the way it is.

But it doesn't go smoothly for our "hero," Mr. George Gerfaut. Not at all.

Gerfaut, a husband and father, a sales executive, does a single good Samaritan deed early on in the book, and he spends the rest of the story paying for it. His life becomes threatened, he goes on the run, he turns the tables on his tormenters. It's the typical structure of the "wrong man" story, but without the hysteria.

This isn't even Cary Grant in "North By Northwest." Gerfaut is cooler than that. Or maybe more real. He's not an action hero, just a man in untenable circumstances, going through the motions.

Though, when his journey brings him to the fringes of society -- after he gets rolled by a hobo (seriously) and ends up shacking up in the middle of nowhere -- Gerfaut pushes against the boundaries of decorum, stepping outside the means of production just long enough to taste freedom. It's telling that he adopts the name "George Sorel" while taking the role of a rural house custodian, recalling both Julien Sorel from Stendhal's "The Red and the Black" -- the quintessential self-made man who is crushed by the caprice of social forces -- and Georges Sorel, the Marxist philosopher who promoted social violence as a means of social change.

Gerfaut, in the Sorel identity, removes himself from the gears of society, and from the gears of the crime plot, and finds momentary happiness. But his semi-idyllic lifestyle is shattered when his pursuers arrive in the forest. You can never escape the forces of society, "West Coast Blues" seems to say. And when Sorel/Gerfaut emerges from that forest, has hands bloodied from violence, he continues to fulfill the wrong man plot until he sets everything right. His time in the woods has taught him action instead of merely reaction. He is a man again, not merely part of the social machine.

Rolled by a hobo.

And yet, Tardi's ending contains no small amount of irony. Here Gerfaut is, back in society, and everything about him has changed. And nothing has. He is literally back where he started.

Tardi presents this entire story without the bombast usually associated with crime stories. There's no tough-guy posing here -- or if there is, it's not effective. These are humans doing cruel things, and even when the things they do disturb the social order, the are largely ignored. Everything in "West Coast Blues" is no big deal, even when it should be. And that makes it all the more frightening.

There's one telling scene, the first time the two thugs confront Gerfaut, thinking he knows something he doesn't. They assault him at the beach -- a seemingly unintentional mockery of the "Insult that Made a Man out of Mac" Charles Atlas ads -- and though he fends off the thugs before they drown him, and though he cries out for help (in one of few almost-hysterical moments of the entire graphic novel), the rest of the swimmers don't even look his way. The interruption in the social machine is ignored. It's just a bunch of people going about their business.

And it isn't until Gerfaut leaves society behind that he realizes the implication of that.

Does that make "West Coast Blues" an existential crime graphic novel? Maybe, but it's a very good one.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" (which explores "Zenith" in great detail) and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen every day at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

Follow Tim on Twitter: gbfiremelon

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TAGS:  when words collide, west coast blues, fantagraphics, jacques tardi

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