Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Arctic Marauder

by Jacques Tardi

I've been enjoying Fantagraphics translations of older Jacques Tardi comics, and so was happy to be able to pick up The Arctic Marauder, a very strange graphic novel by the French comics master.

This book is set in 1889, and stars Jérôme Plumier, a medical student who has, for some reason, booked passage on a ship, L'Anjou, which is sailing through the North Atlantic, in a region filled with towering icebergs.  The crew of the ship spot another vessel wedged on the top of a gigantic iceberg, and a small group of sailors, and Plumier, are sent over to investigate.  What they find is the Iceland Loafer, with both ship and crew frozen solid.  They aren't able to spend too long exploring the mystery before L'Anjou suddenly explodes, with all hands lost.

Eventually, Plumier is rescued, and returns to Paris, where he finds out that his uncle has died, leaving behind even more mystery.  In his lab, Plumier finds evidence of some strange experiments involving animals, and a machine that's only function appears to be freezing itself.  Later, Plumier receives word that his uncle may not be dead, and he heads north to try to find out what is going on.

Plumier ends up on a ship being sent to the North Atlantic to discover why so many vessels are sinking in a particular area, although that ship also explodes.  It's not easy to discuss where things go from here, except to say that the titular Arctic Marauder is a very unique vessel, worthy of a James Bond villain, and that Plumier, upon finding his uncle, is not a good person.

Tardi has a great time with this story and its design elements.  The story was originally published in 1974, which makes me wonder if Tardi may be the inventor of the steampunk genre.  He delights in surprising the reader by having Plumier joyfully join his uncle in his evil plans, and in setting up the ultimate hero of the book as a villain.

The art in this book is incredible.  Tardi captures the dread of a dark ocean, with a ship surrounded by menacing icebergs that loom over it.  His design for the Marauder, and the strange assortment of submarines, flying vessels, and manned torpedoes that its crew uses, are amazing.  He makes great use of the larger pages of a French comic to construct page layouts that remind me of stained glass windows.

The book is a much quicker read than I would have expected from its size, mostly because after each chapter (some lasting only five pages), there is a full title page for the subsequent chapter.  I also found it odd that this volume doesn't share a trade dress style with the other books in Fantagraphic's Tardi series.  Still, this is well worth getting your hands on.

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