Although the past few years have seen new editions of many long unavailable comics and great foreign cartoonists finally translated to English, tremendous holes in the canon remain.
One such gap is the work of the legendary French cartoonist Jacques Tardi, one of the most influential cartoonists of the last 30 years. Although revered wherever great graphic literature is read, getting his work in the US has been next to impossible.
All that is changing this summer as Fantagraphics is launching an ongoing hardcover series of Tardi's graphic novels. The first two releases this August will be West Coast Blues (Le petit bleu de la Côte Ouest), a hard-boiled crime thriller adapted by Tardi from the novel by Jean-Patrick Manchette, and You Are Here (Ici même), a satirical, surreal story about a man who lives on a wall, written for Tardi by Barbarella creator Jean-Claude Forest. The line continues in Spring 2010 with the release of It Was the War of the Trenches, a grueling story set in World War I.
Tardi is one of the biggest literary stars of French comics, having won the Grand Prix at Angouleme and just about every other award in European comics. Taking the "clear line" style into a moody, expressionist direction, he's famed for both his original works and his many collaborations and adaptations. He's especially known for his painstaking historical research and his hard-hitting books set during World War I.
“Tardi has always been one of my top favorite European cartoonists,” said editor Kim Thompson, who is also translating the books. “I’ve wanted to do this for many years—pretty much as long as we’ve been publishing—and I think the time is ripe. In today’s graphic-novel world, the audience is finally ready for Tardi.”
The two books show Tardi's extraordinary range as an artist. "You are Here is a defining graphic novel for the European comics world," said Thompson. "It was one of the earliest stand alone graphic novels and one of the best that fell outside the 'adventure series' setting. West Coast Blues is a tough-ass thriller which in tone is at the opposite end of the spectrum."
Despite his acclaim, Tardi's work has been available in the US only sporadically for the past 20 years. His best known creation is a series of album about a saturnine early 20th century journalist, Adèle Blanc-Sec—two of which were released by Dark Horse and NBM in the early 1980s. Other series and stories have been serialized over the years from publishers ranging from the original RAW anthologies—Art Spiegelman is a fan—to various books by Fantagraphics, NBM, Drawn & Quarterly, and iBooks. All of the work is out of print and next to impossible to find.
Tardi's genre-spanning career is one that few American cartoonists could replicate, because of the differences between the French and US comics markets. Although his impact to a generation of French cartoonists is on the level of that of Chris Ware or Dan Clowes in the US, Thompson suggests Gilbert Hernandez as one of the few notable American cartoonists with a similarly eclectic output.
"In some ways, I'd compare him to Stanley Kubrick," said Thompson. "He also often worked from adaptations or collaborations, but it was extremely wide-ranging."
While the success of manga has shown that foreign comics can be a big hit in America, European comics have been a more hit or miss affair. However, after championing Tardi in the US for more than 20 years, Thompson feels the market has gotten to a point where it can support hard-to-classify cartoonists like Tardi. He points to Random House's edition of The Epileptic by David B. and Fantagraphics own success with the Norwegian Jason as recent examples.
One thing that is helping bring more foreign material comics to the US is that it's much cheaper than it was 20 years ago, he points out. "Lettering can be done digitally, and digital production is much more economical."
Tardi, who lives in Paris, is currently working on two new projects, including another World War I volume and his third adaptation of a Manchette-written crime thriller. An Adèle Blanc-Sec film series is currently in development by director Luc Besson.