“You left when I told you I was curious, I never said that I was brave”
Jacques Tardi is one of the more interesting comics creators out there, as his books – either solo or with writers – are always a bit odd, a bit offbeat, and a bit surreal. Even when he’s doing books about the World Wars (which his family was intimately involved in, hence his interest), they’re a bit askew from what we think of as war comics. Fantagraphics has done a marvelous job over the past decade of bringing his stuff out in English, and Farewell, Brindavoine, one of his earliest works (from 1972-73), is the latest. Let’s get into it!
This book has a few stories about Lucien Brindavoine, Tardi’s creation – the main one is long, then there’s a two-page vignette about the character, and then a shorter story than the first about Brindavoine’s experience in World War I. The main story takes place right before the outbreak of war in 1914, and it’s a very deliberate evocation of an earlier, adventurous age by Tardi, as the post-Napoleon century is generally thought of by white Europeans as the best of all times, and it’s passing right before Brindavoine’s eyes. (I don’t know how Tardi feels about the 1815-1914 century, but he’s clearly tapping into that feeling in the first story.) Brindavoine himself isn’t much of a character – he’s mainly a passive observer to the craziness happening all around him, which adds a bit of a surreal veneer to the adventure. A man visits him in his very nice house in Paris (Brindavoine inherited his wealth, and he doesn’t do much with it) and tells him he has a proposition for him, but he’s shot before he can explain it. As he dies, he tells Brindavoine to go to Istanbul and meet a man who will explain everything. Brindavoine, who doesn’t seem terribly motivated to get out of bed in the morning, nevertheless goes to Turkey and meets the man, who introduces him to an Englishman who drives them across the Mesopotamian desert looking for … something. They are attacked more than once, captured by an old Russian woman, and taken to a fabulous city built in the middle of the desert, where lives a very wealthy and extremely eccentric industrialist. Things get even weirder from there.
It’s a strange story, as I noted, because Brindavoine is such a passive participant in it. I suppose he’s meant to be an ironic comment on the quality of men back in the day when being a white male was all you needed in life, and inheriting a fortune to squander wasn’t bad, either. He does nothing to alter the story in any way, as he goes along with it due to sheer boredom with his life, it seems, and survives everything – including the final apocalypse, as things go very badly for all involved – by sheer luck. That’s not to say the story is bad, as its sheer absurdity carries it through, but it’s not a traditional adventure as its protagonist is far from a traditional adventurer. Tardi does show a decadent age that’s ripe for plucking – the main characters, after all, are caricatures of French, British, Russian, and German people, pure stereotypes that ruled the world at the time, not necessarily because of their worthiness to do so. There are even “barbarians at the gate,” as the industrialist’s city is attacked by the locals, who eventually overwhelm the city despite the technological superiority of the Europeans. In the second story, Tardi is even more cruelly ironic, as Brindovoine, pressed into service for France in World War I, finds himself recuperating from an injury inside a church with a group of deserters – a white Frenchman, a Senegalese fighting for France, and a German deserter who’s perfectly friendly. You can probably guess how that ends. In the first story, Tardi shows the degradation of European civilization, and in the second (much shorter) story, he shows the consequences of that degradation. Tardi’s sense of humor has always been dark, and that’s evident in these two stories.
This is a few years into Tardi’s career (which began, as far as I can tell, in 1969), but his art style is very much like it would be for the rest of his career, which is not a bad thing as his art is excellent. It’s a bit rougher here than it will be in later works, but I have a theory that younger artists overhatch a bit because they feel like “more lines = better,” but that’s just a theory. His style here reminds me a bit of R.M. Guéra’s, to be honest – it’s not quite as rough as Guéra’s, but there’s that thick line, rough inks, and slight cartoonishness that Guéra employs with such skill (of course, if there’s a connection, Tardi influenced Guéra, as the Frenchman is older, but in America Guéra is probably more famous, so there’s that). Tardi’s details are amazing as ever, as he manages to comment on his themes through his art as much as his words. Brindovoine’s mansion is an ancient pile full of stolen ephemera – when the man tells him about the adventure he could have, there’s a terrific panel of his head as part of a row of (probably African) masks, placing the man in an odd but relevant context – and our “hero” is a jocular wastrel inside it. When Brindovoine goes on the road, Tardi gives us a beautiful, aging Istanbul; a stark desert; and a magnificently sterile iron city, full of ornate, tomb-like opulence. His characters are, as I noted, caricatures, but Tardi gives both Brindovoine and the Englishman he meets a louche appeal, while turning the industrialist into a creepy, mechanical presence that it feels like Kenneth Branagh tried and failed to capture in Wild Wild West. This is some years before steampunk became a thing, but Tardi anticipates it nicely without going too far into it, keeping it within a realm of possibility even as his uses occasional anachronistic technology. He uses a slightly thinner line in the second story, and he shrinks the panels to fit more on a page and make the story, which is a different sort than the first one, a bit more claustrophobic. It’s a clever trick, as it’s a much more realistic story than the first one, so Tardi wants to keep the focus on the characters and how the act rather than the grandness of the setting. It’s not surprising that this is a beautiful Tardi book, because Tardi is an excellent artist, but so far in English, we haven’t really gotten the playful side of Tardi, so the first story, despite its savage satire, shows off a less dour side of the artist, and it’s nice to see.
This is a fascinating look at an artist early in his career, and while the plots of the stories aren’t the best, Tardi does a nice job commenting on a society that thought itself too enlightened to die but died hard in a cataclysm of horror. Brindavoine is a perfect example of the kind of men who led Europe to the slaughter, even as he’s fed into the machine himself in the second story. It’s a beautiful book, obviously, and very interesting to check out. The link below is for the digital version, but the hardcover is still not a bad price!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆