Powerful Panels: West Coast Blues by Jacques Tardi
There is something very curious that happens when the theoretical French get their hands on a bit of American low culture. Whether it is the transformation of the early hard-boiled detective novels of James M. Cain and Dashiell Hammett into what we know as the existential novel or Jean-Luc Godard's sometimes brilliant, always maddening reimaginings of gangster films, musicals, road movies et cetera, the French look into our pulp and see . . . possibility. There are few better examples of this phenomenon than Jacques Tardi's adaptation of Jean-Patrick Manchette's novel West Coast Blues, which mashes together elements of American noir literature and films with a bit of jazz and blues and even superhero comics into something that is self-consciously formalistic and inventive, yet always great fun to read.
Briefly, West Coast Blues tells the story of George Gerfaut, a middle-aged salesman with a wife and two daughters who is going through something of a mid-life crisis. Gerfaut is being hunted by two hitmen--Carlo and Bastien--as a result of his unwittingly saving the life of a man the two had been contracted to kill. The panel we're looking at here is one of several circular inset panels that Tardi employs throughout the book with varying strategies. In this case what we have is a close-up detail of the ice cream cone ditched by Bastien as they spot Gerfaut swimming in the sea and head in after him.
At a basic level, this panel highlights the particular cinematic quality of Tardi's visual narrative strategy. By cutting in for a close detail on an incidental object, a technique used frequently by filmmakers such as Luis Bunuel, Tardi is identifying himself with a more avant-garde sort of visual storytelling. In highlighting this detail within an oddly shaped panel, Tardi demonstrates his comfort with leaving the storytelling apparatus on the surface, keeping the fact that we are reading a comic book in the front of readers' minds. There is also a rather weighty significance in that peculiar double-scoop cone. In the first place, it is almost comically phallic, as though Tardi were worried that if Bastien had tossed a traditional single-scoop cone aside, some readers just might miss the significance. Of course he probably had little reason for concern and yet this sense of self-conscious intentionality is felt throughout the book and lends in the reader a sense of detachment that oddly resonates with Gerfaut's own internal crisis.
Looking at the panel in the context of those that precede it, the representation of Carlo and Bastien imbues a sense of homoeroticism that meshes nicely with that phallic cone. These dudes clearly work out and are not afraid to show up at the beach in Speedos, even if they are here to murder some schmuck. As Carlo dutifully scopes the beach for their mark, Bastien leans coolly back on their vehicle, leisurely licking his double-scoop cone. This erotic linking of Carlo and Bastien, the sense of a partnership that extends beyond the professional takes on greater significance as the story progresses, culminating in Carlo's death at Gerfaut's hand, an event which leaves Bastien suddenly terribly alone.
In what is perhaps the most comical and yet emotionally real moments in the entire book, Bastien is shown preparing to bury Carlo's locker in the absence of his charred body. As he rummages through his dead partner's possessions, the sight of his spare pair of khaki briefs moves him to tears. Then he comes across Carlo's copy of the French Spiderman, which the narrator helpfully explains is unrelated to the Marvel superhero whose stories are published in Strange magazine. As he reads from his partner's comic book--the figure of the French Spiderman watching approvingly over his shoulder--he emotionally vows to track down Gerfaut and avenge his buddy's death, setting up the sequence of events that will carry the story to its end.
Returning to the sequence initiated by that drop of the cone, we see that the series of panels depicting Gerfaut's defensive strategy against his would-be killers enhances the foreshadowing function of the cone/phallus in a more direct, tactile sense. Finding himself pushed underwater by Carlo, Gerfaut reaches out for whatever is in front of him, which happens to be Bastien's crotch. So, using the universal defense of victims of male attackers everywhere, Gerfaut first exposes and then ruthlessly squeezes Bastien's balls, resulting in a confusion that ultimately allows him to escape. The carelessness with which Bastien treats his edible cone/phallus is almost karmically linked to the vulnerability of his testes.
This sequence again highlights the peculiar tension between the slapstick comic and the emotionally real that propels the story as a whole. At the same time we see the cruelty and ridiculousness of Carlo and Bastien, we also feel the latter's pain when his partner is killed. On the same token, while the rules of narrative dictate our identification with Gerfaut as the hero, we are just as often baffled or even disgusted by his actions as we are sympathetic to his plight.