Sunday, December 4, 2011

Adieu Brindavoine

Before establishing himself as a versatile author either by the pulp adventures of "Adela Blanc-Sec", or the more serious efforts dealing with the war and human condition, Jacques ("It was the War of the Trenches") Tardi tried out his hand with "Adieu Brindavoine", a complete narrative in the style of Herge. Published in 1974 by Casterman, the pre WW1 adventure story was later fitted with an epilogue and linked to the "Adele" series of books, with Brindavoine joining the cast after the fourth album. Clearly, by then Tardi was feeling assured by the success of his new series, which explains the presence of several of the antagonists of "Arctic Marauder" in the climax of Adele's fourth adventure.

The eventual reprint of "Adieu Brindavoine" must have brought Tardi a belated sense of satisfaction, but despite the addition of the somber epilogue, the book still reads differently then the "Adele" cycle. Sure enough, the very beginning, with the mysterious caller coming to a detailed early 20th century mansion, filled to the brim with period objects, feels exactly like his most famous work, but what follows the exposition is markedly different. The elderly Basile Zarkhov encountering Brindavoine's model in full theatrical gear feels delightfully strange and oft-kilter, while his proposition to young Lucien seems as unlikely as the "Flash Gordon" inspired caller's immediate demise. Yet, the abruptness of the introduction imbues enough energy and directness into the plot that the reader feels engaged to stick with Brindavoine as he tries his luck in the Middle East.

Even at this stage in his career, Tardi's boards were meticulously detailed, albeit with a looser inking line, and fewer panels on the page, leading to a more natural and faster paced read then his later comics. Getting to the streets of Istanbul, Tardi uses most of the two pages to slowly zoom in on his arriving protagonist. Starting out with the establishing shots, the writer/artist follows Lucien's walk through the city streets, managing to incorporate some of the landmarks of the Turkey's largest city while never crowding out the page or slowing the plot down to a crawl.

The designated color scheme of reds and browns feels perfectly suited to the subject matter, and Tardi's style feels completely wholesale and integrated, whether depicting down on their luck journeyman, the detailed architecture that surrounds them, or the complicated machinery that they use to travel. Despite 44 pages probably being more than enough to tell a pretty straight forward adventure story, the writer/artists opts for a leisurely pace, deliberately leaving the elements of the plot in a strange balance.

On one hand, this means that even Oswald Carpleasure, the co-protagonist ends up being a delightfully hammy caricature of a bored colonialist Englishman, where there was clearly more then enough space to develop the character into a slightly better realized figure. Interestingly, Tardi is content to leave the moral ambiguity to Brindavoine, who emerges as the only realistic character, to the detriment of the rest of the cast, particularly the bizarre criminals seated in the Iron city.

On the other hand, it's very easy to explain away these kind of details given Tardi's artistic background and training in fine arts. Simply put, he approaches each of the panels as a completely realized sketch for a more expansive illustration, all the while never losing the continuity of the page. The Herge influence is perhaps most apparent in scene transitions, as he employs the device of the characters proclaiming surprise right before the reader turns the page to identify the reason of their sudden nervousness.

Other than this most direct of the story techniques that "Adieu Brindavoine" shares with "Tintin", the rest are present at an instinctive level, as any kind of Franco-Belgian comics narrative that stars a young man going to a different country on the chase of adventure operates from Herge's elaboration of Golden age storytelling. Yet, Tardi's characters speak in a much more natural way and their Middle Eastern adventure is much less meandering then those of Tintin and Haddock.

To show such a mastery of the form at such an early age, and not to receive the audience's attention justifies the talented creator's efforts to get Casterman to move the volume back into print, otherwise it's doubtful that it would still be debated, forty years after it's initial publication.

With the remote desert setting of "Adieu Brindavoine", the writer/artist actually always has a choice of blanking out backgrounds to concentrate on the figures. Again, that he uses it solely during the skirmishes in the desert, and later on, in the fights taking place behind closed doors in Iron city, goes to show the thinking that went behind each of the choices made during the production of the album. The action sequences are perennial fast reads, and additional background details are typically justified only when they are specifically needed for the fight, otherwise they slow down pacing in much the same way as the advent of unnecessary and unnatural sounding dialogue during the proceedings.

For such a commercial offering, with a couple of very long action pieces along several shorter ones, the overall tone is very strange. Tardi details all the equipment, with particularly vibrant vehicles always clearly posed on the page, likewise the weapons being appropriately threatening despite their antique make, yet a note of pervasive cruelty, and the protagonist's ambiguous approach hinting some of the themes the writer/artist will elaborate elsewhere, starting with the epilogue.

Starting with the opening set in France, Lucien is depicted as someone who is a victim of violence, an adventure seeker that doesn't want to hurt anybody and is actually mostly searching for himself, albeit in dangerous terraine, as a part of what eventually reveals itself as another's horrible plan. Given his defensiveness, the cruelty of his enemies seems that much more stubborn and pervasive, and one can hardly think of a more mischievous gallery of characters then ones offered by Tardi here.

After the initial terror fostered by a black assassin, who gleefully and demonically metes out nightmarish punishment, Tardi chooses Olga Vogelgesang as the direct antagonist, leading Brindavoine and Oswald to Iron city. The choice of a crazed German seems deliberate given the proximity of Great War, revealing the intelligence behind the employment of pulp tropes, but this still doesn't prepare the reader for the helter skelter feel of the last act. Simply put, following Lucien's expertly rendered nightmare and the sequence leading to his awakening in the Iron City, Tardi introduces the master plotter behind Zarkhov's mission, and it turns out a very puzzling choice.

It takes an expert stylist to creatively justify the use of intelligent apes and horribly disfigured villains in an otherwise relatively realistic scenario, and it's hard to say that Tardi accomplishes what he sets out to do. In this aspect, "Adele Blanc-Sec" works much better, as the whole work is stylized in such a way that the cast of mad scientists and assorted esotheria lends itself to a variety of strange phenomena, whereas "Adieu Brindavoine" climaxes in a very rushed ending that introduces character after character, each over the top and plotting demise of the other. The cumulative effect is still very problematic, as it breaks from the previously established tone and goes for the high camp, only to emerge back to the somewhat more internal narrative at the very end.

Unfortunately, despite the powerful ending sequence introducing the misguided Brindavoine to World War I, it's hard to imagine the series succeeding as Tardi envisioned it. Utilizing Herge's approach of featuring expressive characters in the dynamic adventures filled with well realized backgrounds, Jacques Tardi simply hasn't brought enough of his own identity and ideas when it came to developing "Adieu Brindavoine". In itself, the album is above average, in fact fairly entertaining and endearing, but despite the considerable technical prowess behind it, it treats the reader to a familiar story.

Thankfully, the epilogue, "La Fleur au Fusil" ("The Flower in the Rifle") hints in a different direction, as it puts the writer/artist's thoughts on Great War center stage. Considering the strength of an offering like Tardi's "It was the War of the Trenches", it becomes clear that the album is all the better for its inclusion. Starting out with an acquaintance of Lucien recounting his last days and the tragic conditions he ended his life in, it's clear that the reader won't be treated to another adventure story, and that the ten following pages aim for a completely different effect.

In many ways, Brindavoine's service shows him the war as seen by Celine and Remarque, as well as Tardi's own grandfather. The reader reconnects with Lucien just several months after the events of "Adieu", but Tardi offers a completely different character. Brindavoine's short hair and previously gaunt stature seems downright sickly and poised for short and messy death, the fate that his companion shares in the opening of the flashback. As the grenade bursts towards Lucien carrying his wounded friend, Tardi illustrates it as a typical comic book special effect, represented chiefly by bright colors and bold type face. What separates the writer/artist's work is the expressionism that the senseless death carries, as Brindavoine emerges from the smoke painted in water colors before coming to grips with the situation.

This short sequence of only four panels makes all the difference even from the rich, if somewhat minimalist  longer story that preceded it. Brindavoine suffers a nervous breakdown right after, which turns the story to another flashback, followed by a long dream sequence depicted with a powerful surrealistic streak. Tardi feels so confident in his abilities that he goes to show his protagonist remembering a brief idyll at the start of the war in Russia (exhibiting the last of his "Adieu Brindavoine" self), followed by scenes of his recruitment before the disillusionment fully set in. These somewhat typical flashbacks are quickly set aside, as the writer/artist links them to his protagonist's earliest happy memory of playing a soldier for his parents' sake, before confronting his last patriotic feelings in a scene that borders on operatic.

To see Brindavoine find solace in a church with other deserters, making friends with the German that the French company proceeds to murder from behind upon entering the premises, exhibits a much more complex worldview then that shown by having Olga Vogelgesang as the antagonist beforehand. Thus, like millions of young men sharing his fate in the Great War, Tardi has his protagonist come of age in a way that damages him for life. Lucien is too smart to accept the reasons given for war and the behavior proposed by military as a way of coping with it, but at the same time powerless to stop the conflict, which in many ways rounds him out as the man cynical enough to confront Adele Blanc-Sec on even ground.

With the addition of "The Flower in the Rifle" epilogue, Tardi felt he could use Brindavoine to help revive Adele from the cryogenic sleep she was put to at the conclusion of "Mummies on Parade". The writer/artist felt that the Great War was no place for a female lead, deciding to preserve her adventures for its aftermath, where she could be joined by his other adventurer, whose colorful youth was cut short by the conflict. Simply put, Tardi's strong feelings on the matter benefited bringing together both of his serials, and contributed to the form by producing some of the most passionate comics art on the subject.

"Adieu Brindavoine", a very interesting piece of genre fiction that ended up serving as a prequel to "Adele Blanc-Sec" was serialized in America in the pages of "Cheval Noir" anthology #24-28, with the English translation of "The Flower in the Rifle" epilogue appearing in the 29th issue of Dark Horse's anthology.

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