Friday, February 03, 2017

The Arctic Marauder by Jacques Tardi

I am no expert on the career of the great French comics master Jacques Tardi -- rather the opposite, actually. I've read most of his work that's been translated into English, but in a sideways, random way, and I'm entirely ignorant of whatever hasn't been translated. (And that's probably quite a lot, since he's been working at this full-time since around the time I was born.)

But two things about his 1974 book Le Demon des glaces (as translated by Kim Thompson and published as The Arctic Marauder in 2011) struck me. First was how much it prefigures steampunk, from the 19th century alternative "high-tech" accouterments and somewhat ahistorically tough, active women to the anti-heroes and their casual attitude towards mass murder. And second was how it felt like a rough sketch of ideas that came together more strongly in Tardi's graphic novels about Adele Blanc-Sec, starting just a few years later (I reviewed an omnibus of the first two Blanc-Sec books a couple of years ago, for reference.)

The Arctic Marauder is the story of a horrible shipwreck in the foggy, icebound North Atlantic, about a young man who survived that ship's explosion through unlikely means, and about the hidden super-science behind that shipwreck -- and, eventually, many more similar wrecks. That young man seems to be our hero, but he does not act as we would expect a stalwart young man to do, when faced with fiends using super-science to achieve their horrible ends. And Arctic Marauder ends on an open question, as if it would lead to other stories, though I don't think it ever did so. (Tardi is still alive and actively creating, so perhaps it still could, but I don't think he's planning to come back to a forty-year-old book at this point.)

So: proto-steampunk, told in an arch narration that always knows more than both we readers and the characters in the story. Inky black art with plenty of super-science details -- not quite as precise as Tardi at his best,but still strong work. A definite lack of a hero. Murderous doings far out at sea, aided by steam-powered scientific marvels (and including a diagram of the mysterious ship, of course!) Such is The Arctic Marauder, and it's pretty darn keen.

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