Written and Drawn by Jacques Tardi
Based on the Novel by Jean-Patrick Manchette
Edited and Translated by Kim Thompson
Lettered by Brittany Kusa and Gavin Lees
$18.99 / 80 Pages / Black and White / Hardcover
George Gerfaut is an asshole.
An electronics salesman unhappy with most every facet of his life, Gerfaut only seems at peace on his late night drives around the Parisian beltway. He cruises at 90 mph listening to West Coast jazz, a handful of barbiturates and five glasses of Four Roses bourbon sloshing around in his belly. He is indifferent towards his wife and children as well as the TV movies they obsess over even on holiday. Gerfaut hates the beach, the countryside, and the home of his deranged mother-in-law. But when two hitmen make an attempt on Gerfaut's wretched life, he goes on the run, acquiring a handgun from a friend who is likewise obsessed with movies. Gerfaut doesn't enjoy his life, but it's the only one he's got. If he has to kill in order to keep getting high and going on those drives with the night and the moon and his tape deck, that's what the asshole George Gerfaut is going to do.
Based on a crime novel by Jean-Patrick Manchette, West Coast Blues is an existential comic by master cartoonist Jacques Tardi. It's colorless crime as only the French can do it, with despicable characters waxing philosophical on film and high-risk sex even while on the run from clumsy assassins. Like some of the best capers, it's all hinged on a misunderstanding, another case of an ordinary man who ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Here, Gerfaut comes to the aid of a another driver who's careened off the side of the road. The man later dies at the hospital where Gerfaut dropped him off, but not due to the crash. He'd already been mortally wounded by a pair of sinister, if bumbling, hitmen. Assuming that Gerfault had worked out the details of their victim's death, the killers track Gerfault to his seaside holiday and attempt to murder him in the shallow waters of a very crowded beach. It's a brutal scene of human violence even without gunplay. Forced underwater to drown in broad daylight, surrounded by tourists, Gerfault is only able to escape after tugging on one attacker's genitals. In fact, full frontal fury is a constant.
A recurring element of nudity pervades the story, with characters lounging about bare-assed, doing one-handed push ups, thinking about how they're going to kill one another. It's not out of place though, especially coupled with Tardi's storytelling style. The pages are littered with narration, presumably excerpts of character description from the original novel. Throughout, we're treated to telling and salacious details of characters' private lives. Captions speak of Gerfault's drug use, the killers' past dalliances, and musical preference. One of the hitmen spends much of his time waiting in the getaway car, often flipping through Marvel comic books. What first appears to be a hobby is gradually revealed to be a strange obsession, with costumed superheroes appearing outside of their books, reading over the man's shoulders, even consoling him in a time of grief.
Plenty of crime stories revolve around the bizarre preoccupations of its characters and just as many are centered around the plight of the common man thrust into extraordinary circumstances. But Tardi really brings it home, offering a messed up story about messed up people who do some truly messed up things. While only 80 pages, it's a robust read. At times, the extensive narration can be a little much–as in a scene where Gerfault is trudging through the wilderness, injured by header he takes on the cover–but without the wry tone of the all-knowing narrator, we wouldn't get a laugh out of the city-slicker's fluctuating attitude, from wicked excitement at the prospect of hunting for wild animals to boredom and frustration at the wilderness and total desperation from all the walking. He even considers following honey bees back to their hive to score some a honey, but ultimately opts to drop it when he realizes just how lazy he really is. If the constant deluge of text is at first a little off-putting, it all eventually comes together for a very satisfying series of character studies, even if they are just a bunch of ornery, self-obsessed pricks.
As compelling as this short yarn is in terms of the writing, the real draw here is Tardi. This is one of three Tardi translations currently available from Fantagraphics. These snazzy hardcover volumes are collected and branded not for the writer, but the artist. Tardi is a huge name in his native France, where his strips and albums are enjoyed by a wide range of readers, especially adults. His style is comparable to Herge's, if not quite as clean. His characters are expressive and his architecture's pretty damn impressive. He's meticulous with his automobiles too, in a way that you just don't see a lot these days. He's also capable of the grizzliest hobos you'll ever see on the printed page. Big ups to Fantagraphics and editor/translator Kim Thompson for assembling a really lovely English language edition of this book. You can also find their printings of You Are Here and It Was the War of the Trenches. Definitely a series to look out for, especially for fans of crime fiction, war comics, and top notch visual storytelling.