Though Jacques Tardi has been a big name in the Francophone comic world for some time now, West Coast Blues marks one of his first real exposures to an American comics audience. Fantagraphics has recently released this work of Tardi’s, along with another one of his works titled You are There. An adaptation by Jean-Patrick Manchette’s novel of the same name, West Coast Blues is actually one of a number of Tardi’s projects that involve the writing of Manchette. Tardi’s work, too, will soon be adapted to other mediums; his Le Labyrinthe Infernal series is in the process of being turned into a trilogy of films to be directed by Luc Besson. West Coast Blues, however, stands as a good introduction to Tardi’s work as it adds a new visual component to the original crime thriller that is largely successful, and gives an example of what a good graphic novel adaption of both a novel and the noir aesthetic might look like.
Perhaps what makes West Coast Blues so captivating is how well it highlights the similarities between film and comics, while simultaneously showcasing its own unique ability as a graphic novel to capture the noir aesthetic through word and image. The opening page could easily be mistaken for still shots of a film’s opening. The first frame gives us a long shot that functions as the establishing shot of the scene where we see a lone car from a distance coming down a dimmed highway at night. This frame is accompanied by captions that inform us ‘that which has happened before is happening again: George Gerfaut is cruising the outer lanes of the beltway that encircles Paris’. The next frame takes us a touch closer (medium shot) to get a better look at a luxury car coming around the bend with the added information that following five glasses of bourbon, Gerfaut has taken a strong barbiturate as a chaser. The final frame of the page is, of course, the close-up of protagonist George Gerfaut’s face behind the windshield of his car with some musings on his mood, as well as the final caption informing the reader that in his altered state he is driving 90 miles per hour.
Much of the rest of West Coast Blues has a similar tone to it. Not unlike many noir films, West Coast Blues is replete with car chases, hit-men, drinking, guns, and the occasional salacious scene. All of this is set in Tardi’s straightforward drawing style which is a good fit for the almost matter-of-fact, unsentimental manner in which violence, sex, and life in general are met with during the course of the book. Only once or twice does this straightforward style seem to make the violence seem a little blunted or silly. In fact, West Coast Blues’s underlying message seems to be against the thesis that extraordinary experiences change people. The book sees an unsuspecting, complacent, and decidedly bored upper-middle class man thrown into circumstances that resemble the very sort of escapist films he would watch on the television while getting drunk after a long day at work. However, instead of being re-born into a new life of adventures and living on the lam, George Gerfaut walks away from the series of bizarre and intense experiences (which I won’t ruin for you here) with the same ease of a patron leaving a movie theater.
This lack of sentimentality, although right at home with noir films and detective novels, is interesting in light of the surfeit of memoir comics that have more or less dominated graphic novel subject matter for the last couple of years or so. In this way, it will be interesting to see if Tardi’s North American release via Fantagraphics functions as a sort of harbinger for a different tone for comics to take in the upcoming years. Either way, West Coast Blues unique filmic qualities, as well as it’s interesting status as a graphic novel adaption of a novel, makes it an interesting read in terms of showcasing some of the directions that graphic novels are able to take as a form. It also doesn’t hurt that it’s a pretty good story that is both literary, but without pretension, and is drawn in a manner that is complementary to the story it is trying to tell.