Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Review time! with ‘The True Story of the Unknown Soldier’

“There are no fields or trees, no blades of grass – just unhurried ghosts are there”

Jacques Tardi has always been fascinated by the World Wars (given that he’s French and his family members fought in them, that’s not surprising), and so a lot of his work, whether it’s specifically about the wars or not (and he’s done plenty of work specifically about the wars), feels like it’s informed by them, and that’s the case with The True Story of the Unknown Soldier, which contains two early Tardi stories (they’re from the mid-1970s). Fantagraphics has been very diligent about getting Tardi’s work translated into English (translated, it should be noted, by Jenna Allen), and this is just another volume of those, and I’m going to take a look at it!

The draw of Tardi’s books is his art, naturally – he’s not a bad writer by any means, and some of his collaborations with other writers feature very strong stories, it’s just that when he draws his own stories, he himself seems much more interested in the artwork than the stories. So it is with these two stories, the title one and “The National Razor,” both of which feature somewhat hapless protagonists caught up in circumstances that make no sense and would fit well in a Kafka story. Both stories are somewhat surreal, feature a kind of brutalizing bureaucracy that crushes the human spirit, and neither protagonist can put up much of a fight against it. Tardi drenches the stories in ugly and dehumanizing sex, both for the protagonists and the women with whom they copulate, as Tardi equates anonymous sex with the horrible ennui of “modern” life. It’s a depressing comic, but Tardi’s art is so beautiful that it makes his points more powerful, and while it doesn’t make the stories any less tragic, it does a nice job of putting a veneer of gentility on the rot, which is partly the point.

In the first story, an unnamed man wanders a bizarre landscape of decaying mansions, exquisitely beautiful but sterile rooms, and crumbling monuments, encountering dissolute, aging dandies and fading whores. We learn that he’s an author, and he’s coming across characters from his fiction, who accuse him of torturing them in his novels. He wrote books of sex and violence, and they’re taking their revenge on him. The story ties into World War I, with its horrific violence, and Tardi isn’t terribly subtle about the link between the violence of the war and the way the writer treats his characters, especially his female ones. The brutality of the real world is mirrored in his fiction, and he can’t distinguish between the two any longer. Tardi does a marvelous job contrasting the trappings of a high civilization – the architecture in the story is sumptuous – with the baser instincts of men. He also makes a comment about the idealization of women and what happens when the ideal doesn’t match the reality. It’s not a terribly complex story, and it’s not terribly fun, but it is captivating.

“The National Razor” is even more Kafka-esque. A Mr. Schumacher returns to Paris after some years, and is drawn to a prostitute’s house, where he loses consciousness and wakes up with the woman dead, as well as a strange, handicapped man who lives in the house as well. But are they really dead? It’s unclear, but that doesn’t matter to Schumacher, who’s arrested, tried, convicted, and taken to the guillotine (the “national razor” of the title). Schumacher seems like a simple patsy, crushed under the weight of a faceless government concerned more with order than justice, and Tardi doesn’t let us know the true story. His art isn’t quite as rich in this story as in the first one, but Schumacher’s greasy, guilty-looking mien is a highlight of the story, as Tardi makes sure that we don’t sympathize with him, as that would be too easy. He’s fairly despicable, but that doesn’t mean he’s a killer or that he deserves any punishment. As with a lot of Tardi’s work, there’s a savage sense of humor running through the book, up to and including when Schumacher is placed on the guillotine. Again, not a terribly happy story, but a fascinating one.

I’m a fan of Tardi’s work, so even if the stories aren’t great (and they’re not bad in this comic, just not great), I love looking at the artwork. You might feel differently, and that’s fine. These two stories are tragedies of the modern age, as these two characters live in worlds where the individual simply doesn’t matter that much. It’s a depressing comment on the way the world works, but Tardi’s sharp wit and gorgeous art make it work pretty well. If you’re a fan of Tardi, this is a cool book to own, and if you’re not, you probably should be!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆ ☆


  1. Darthratzinger

    Tardi`s work is a really mixed bag for me: his war stories are masterpieces, especially the three-part-story of his father as a P.O.W. in a German Stalag.
    His crime stories are mostly awesome as well, except when he mixes in his political leanings and social commentary which I don´t mind usually (I actually like that he refused to accept one of highest medals the french government awards to people) but it makes the stories way to bleak even for noir thrillers.
    Where he loses me is his surreal stuff like the unknown soldier stories You´re reviewing here. I know I read them about five or six years ago but I don´t remember a single bit of them. I had a similar experience when I read his Adele-series. I don´t remember what it was about (but I liked the movie).

    1. Greg Burgas

      I don’t disagree, as I don’t think Tardi is the greatest writer, so his experimental stuff doesn’t work quite as well. I think I like it more than you do, mainly because it’s just interesting watching him try to do it, and his art on the experimental stuff is usually a bit more interesting than on his more straightforward works. But I do like his more “mainstream” stuff more, I must admit!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.