In The Arctic Marauder, a so-called "vintage icepunk" graphic novel (originally published in 1974) from the French graphic novelist extraordinaire Jacques Tardi, one encounters all manner of curious contraptions, heartfelt Zounds!, devilishly bearded fiends, sinister and overly complicated plots, earnest young heroes, briefly glimpsed sea monsters, and one suspiciously veiled woman dressed all in black who hangs about in cemeteries. What one does not encounter, though, is anything like coherent character development or a sensible narrative. But, one suspects, that was never the point.
In his forty-odd years of cartooning, Tardi has worked within a variety of genres and modes. He has adapted the novels of the savage anti-war satirist Louis-Ferdinand Celine (Voyage au Bout de la Nuit (1988)), collaborated with the creator of Barbarella (Ici Meme (1979)), and created one of France's most famous heroines in Adèle Blanc-Sec, an investigative journalist who regularly faces the evil machinations of mad scientists, dinosaurs, demons, and corrupt government officials. Throughout his work, Tardi has bounced between and weaved together the worlds of high and low art in a manner particular, perhaps, to the French, who generally (at least compared to Americans) seem more open to having a bit of pterodactyl with their social commentary. In most of his books, too, there runs a fierce thread of farce and satire: a critique—sometimes joyful, sometimes tragic—of the ridiculousness of us humans and our silly schemes which so often seem to result in more silliness such as civilizations and trench warfare.
Farce, in the general way of thinking, exists as a vehicle of entertainment in which a series of increasingly bizarre scenarios hurtle along to a deus ex machina ending wherein the heroes win the day and barbers named Figaro manage, at last, to get married. With this in mind, rather than thinking of The Arctic Marauder as some sort of icepunkian precursor to other, steamier, punks, it might be helpful to think of it as following in the seriously silly, and often nonsensical, footsteps of Molière's plays, Voltaire's novels, or certain of Jean-Luc Godard's films. As in those previously and particularly French works, Tardi is not terribly interested in The Arctic Marauder in constructing coherent characters or a sensible narrative. He is driven, instead, by the sheer joy of rendering—in a breathtakingly precise and lovely faux-woodcut style—ever more elaborate and nonsensical tableaus of Victorian villainy and scientific hubris.
The story, such as there is, follows a young man named Jérôme Plumier and his search for clues to his uncle's death and the (could it be!) possible connection to the oddly large number of ships presently being sunk by icebergs in the Arctic. In his journey, Plumier will wander the streets of Paris, read a newspaper, ride a train upon which occurs a murder, discover a note from a secret ally, and receive a thorough tour of a villain's curiously inconvenient choice of hideouts. At a brief sixty-three pages, Tardi does a neat job of incorporating such a variety of tropes, drawn mostly from his generic predecessor—and one presumes chief target of playful satire—Jules Verne. At one point, a vessel named the Jules Vernez receives a sinking barrage of cannon fire from the titular, icy vessel known as the Arctic Marauder.
If you are the sort of reader turned off by such silliness, you might want to steer away from this instance of Tardi. Wait for Adèle Blanc-Sec (a whole other kind of silliness), perhaps, or sample one of Fantagraphics's earlier Tardi releases, such as the noir thriller West Coast Blues (2005, in English 2009), or the World War I-centered It Was the War of the Trenches (1993, in English 2010). A possible caveat being, though—as regards The Arctic Marauder—that even if one does not enjoy this manner of nonsense, there is much to be enjoyed in Tardi's command of cartooning: in the layout of panels (circles buried within triptychs resting upon rectangles of exposition), or in the cartoonishness of characters' faces contrasted with the detailed renderings of electric turbines and ship masts, or in the lovely inclusion, late in the book, of a number-coded blueprint of the previously mentioned inconvenient villain's hideout.
One's enjoyment of this tale will mostly, though, rest on one's predilection not only for farce, but of a certain type of farce. Whereas in such British absurdities as Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, or even Monty Python's Quest for the Holy Grail, there is, at least, a basic sort of narrative arc and resolution—along with an array of somewhat sympathetic characters—The Arctic Marauder delights in denying its readers of any such satisfaction. In terms of characters, Jérôme Plumier, our hero, is driven more by plot than heart. The villains are nefarious and expository—"Thus we shall initiate the final part of our plan!" (p. 56). Also, late in the story, a character—apparently on a whim—decides to turn evil and attempts to grow a beard in order to solidify their fiendish turn. And, as far as endings go, let's just say that this one involves a getaway on a leather-winged flying tube which is neither happy (in the moral sense) nor satisfying (in the "well that about wraps that up" sense). As much as those earlier farcical tales of Molière or Voltaire tended towards some sort of social comeuppance—as much as Verne's voyages extraordinaire tended toward scientific, if open-ended, resolutions—Tardi in The Arctic Marauder is aiming for precisely the opposite: for narrative dissatisfaction; for monstrous and illogical reversal of character; for, in other words, the god in the machine to be working on the side of the villains, as so often seems—in our real and sadly pterodactyl-less world—to be his preference.
Chris Kammerud is a writer and teacher living in Seoul, South Korea. He enjoys believing in things. Previous work has appeared in The Interstitial Arts Online Annex, Fiction Weekly, and Strange Horizons (see our archive). For more, visit his blog, The Magnelephant Review, or follow him on Twitter.