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Review time! with The Arctic Marauder

Jacques Tardi is pretty awesome, y’all. But then, you already knew that.

It's too big to fit on my scanner!

The Arctic Marauder is the latest olde-tyme comic by Jacques Tardi that Fantagraphics seems committed to releasing. I have no problem with that, by the way. This sucker is from 1974. Sadly, it looks more avant-garde and progressive than a lot of comics that are released today. It’s a nice hardcover that costs $16.99 … although it is only 63 pages long, so that might play into your decision to purchase it. Who can say?

I’d like to recommend The Arctic Marauder more emphatically, but I can’t, even though I enjoyed and think you should give it a look. The big problem with the book is the writing, which I’ll get to soon enough. As for the art, some of you may know that as I get older, I have started to appreciate artwork much more even though my vocabulary to describe is still poor (I’m working on it, I swear!), and for me, this book is all about the artwork. Tardi’s line is as cartoony and even delicate as it is usually, but as this book is set in 1889 (unlike his other work that I’ve read, which are set in modern times or at least in the messiness of World War I), he changes the look of the art to reflect a more Victorian/fin de siècle sensibility, and I honestly don’t know how he does it. The figures are drawn in a fairly standard way, but the surroundings look like woodcuts – I imagine he etched on a surface to get the effect, possibly something like Duo-Tone. This is why my vocabulary about artwork is poor, people! Some of the drawings look almost photo-referenced, but Tardi filtered them through Photoshop to get the effect, which I know was impossible in 1974, but that’s how they look!

In addition to the nifty way the backgrounds are created, Tardi gives us magnificent details in the art. The first brief part of the book takes place in the northern Atlantic, and Tardi’s evocation of a ship at the mercy of the freezing cold is wonderful, as is the detail when his main character, Jérôme Plumier, joins part of the crew on an iceberg on which is frozen a ship. Tardi does a wonderful job building the suspense of what happened with the ship, showing the men climbing the iceberg (the ship is perched on top of a tall berg, a mystery easily explained) and climbing aboard a ghost vessel, where the crew has been strangely frozen. Later, when Jérôme discovers what is going on, Tardi turns into Jules Verne, showing the depths of the ocean with wonderful detail as Jérôme, his uncle, and his uncle’s colleague zip around on a torpedo (that one can ride). Tardi also does a very nice job with the design of the pages – he doesn’t stick with squares or rectangles, but uses many curved panels throughout the book – ovals and arches (some inverted) – to give each page a more unified look; it’s not just panel-by-panel storytelling (although Tardi’s storytelling is clear) but a single piece of art on many pages. The entire book is an absolutely gorgeous piece of artwork.

As I promised, though, the story doesn’t quite hold up. The premise is perfectly fine, and indeed, the only real problem with the book is with the ending (well, there are some problems as Tardi goes along, but nothing too egregious). Jérôme Plumier, a passenger on a steamship sailing from Murmansk to Le Havre in November 1889, joins a few crew members to investigate a ship trapped at the top of a tall iceberg. While the men are searching the ship, which is peopled by a crew that appears to have been flash-frozen, their own ship explodes and sinks. Jérôme and the others are rescued, and once back in Paris, Jérôme visits his uncle, Louis-Ferdinand Chapoutier, only to learn the old man passed away recently. His uncle was an odd sort of inventor, and he created a weird machine that somehow freezes everything around it. When he sees that an expedition is heading out to investigate the icebergs, he decides to join it (because that’s what a young man of leisure did in 1889 Paris, apparently). He meets a strange old woman on the train, visits with one of the sailors who survived the initial journey, and gets to go on the expedition through some subterfuge. Of course, this ship explodes too. Jérôme is rescued from the sea by … his uncle! Oh dear, something weird is going on.

Story continues below

After Jérôme wakes up in a comfortable bedroom, he learns that his uncle and an old scientist friend of his are planning on killing a whole bunch of people. Well, that’s no fun. This is where the book becomes a bit off – the two men’s scheme seems amorphous, Jérôme joins them without a second thought, and the plot speeds along from there. The ending is wildly unsatisfactory, providing absolutely no closure whatsoever – I don’t know if there was a sequel to this, but it feels like Tardi was setting one up even if he had no interest in doing one. It’s not even that Jérôme joins his uncle’s insidious plot – villains are pretty fun to read about, after all, and his uncle’s friend is a perfectly fiendish one – but that Tardi doesn’t really do much in the way of characterization, so Jérôme’s abrupt decision to join the “dark side” seems to come out of left field. The book is almost pure plot, so when plot points aren’t explained very well, the deficiencies in the book are highlighted. I have no issue with Jérôme joining the two older men in their scheme, partly because Jérôme is so much of a blank slate. But plot-wise, it’s unexplained. The ending, as well, breaks down a bit because the plot speeds up so much. Tardi could have easily done ten extra pages and wrapped things up a bit better. Despite the feeling that this needs a sequel, it also feels as if Tardi stopped being interested in it and zipped through to the ending. It’s a weird experience.

I can still recommend this because the plot is entertaining as far as it goes, and Tardi’s art is so good. I do wish it had resolved a bit better, but you might not agree. Tardi isn’t the greatest writer; he had different problems with It Was the War in the Trenches but they were still problems on the writing side. I don’t know if he ever got any better. I suppose I’ll have to wait for Fantagraphics to bring out more of his work!


I read this twice. It’s absolutely beautiful to look at. Probably one of the nicer hardcovers to look at.

I wholeheartedly agree that this deserves a sequel. The story just kind of ends. I thought there were some interesting twists to the story. definitely worth getting. I don’t think it is as good as It Was the War of the Trenches, but still worth checking out.

The “unfinished” feeling of the story is certainly intended, since the book is a parody of the Jules Verne-inspired dime novels/pulps of the past, so the (perpetual) “to be continued” nature of those efforts (that continues to this day on mainstream comics) is part of the parody.

If you want closure so much, keep reading the Fantagraphics Adèle Blanc-Sec stories, you’ll (sort of) get it. Doesn’t compare to the brilliance of this particular book, however.

Let’s hope Fanta publishes the Brindavoine book also. It’s another essential component of the “Tardi-verse”.

I think that this book could have spawned an awesome series about the three men creatively discovering ways to destroy humanity, and getting foiled by that damn Simone. I agree that the ending wasn’t exactly what I wanted, but I would have accepted it if there were multiple volumes.

Yo Greg, I was googling about this translation… Though I liked the review overall (“it looks more avant-garde and progressive than a lot of comics that are released today”, hah!), I need to advocate one main difference of opinion.

I don’t know if there was a sequel to this, but it feels like Tardi was setting one up

Well, it’s a common misconception (despite the last page having a big “FIN”) and Tardi used to have to dispel it at signings, but the book is exactly as he wanted it, and there was no sequel because he never intended or needed one.

Jérôme’s abrupt decision to join the “dark side” seems to come out of left field

Sorry, but in the Verne-esque context, from what preceded and Jérôme’s body language in these two panels (as well as the ironical captions under them), it seems most probable that Jérôme just decided to fake it and bide his time until he can foil the two madmen, which is a classic trope in that sort of narrative (as well as in comics: even Tintin or Blake & Mortimer used it once).

Despite the feeling that this needs a sequel, it also feels as if Tardi stopped being interested in it and zipped through to the ending.

There are at least three points to ending this way:

(1) These old narratives (Verne, Dickens, Twain, etc.) were originally serialized in installments, people would follow them for months or years and get regular cliffhangers: it’s what Tardi pastiched, recreating that same feeling of “this month’s episode”.

(2) The open ending turns the book into a morality play of sorts: its last satirical caption, full of Tardi’s saddened irony against the upcoming machinery of WW1, is an occasion for the reader to stop reading an escapist, juvenile adventure serial, and to reflect upon heavier topics. Tardi is pointing at the moon, let’s not look at his finger.

(3) We’ve read or seen enough of such classic narratives that we all know what could happen next, anyway: Jérôme pretending to go along with the madmen, finding a way to foil them at the last minute and save the world, happy ending if that’s all one wanted. Tardi doesn’t need to tell that because we could do it ourselves: it’s a story we know already, and only children want to be told again stories they already know. Tardi just gave us the interesting part that only he could summon.

This sort of open or meta ending, deceptively abrupt, may be rare in comics (though WATCHMEN ends in such a way and no, it doesn’t need no sequel) but is nothing new in world literature: for instance and not coincidentally, Poe’s ARTHUR GORDON PYM just stops; Kafka’s CASTLE is often considered to have been intended unending; the Poe-and-Kafka-loving Borges used open endings in several short stories (such as “The South” or “There Are More Things”); the Borges-loving Calvino did a whole novel around it, IF ON A WINTER’S NIGHT A TRAVELLER (where each part gives you only the first chapter of one different novel and you never get the rest, though they’re subtly linked and there’s also a framing, meta-story); and the Kafka-loving Murakami has some novels with similar stop-endings…

I’ve not checked the English book, but I compared your scans to the original and at least on these short captions it was scrupulously translated. Maybe it faltered later? For the record: the original sports intentionally wordy captions, tongue-in-cheek pastiches or parodies of the moralizing or melodramatic tone of such serials, often with a deadpan irony not unlike Georges Pichard (who inspired or taught generations of authors from Tardi to David B.).

Also, the main characters have funny surnames evocative of their nature: Jérôme Plumier means “Pencilbox”, Simone Pouffiot refers to Simone de Beauvoir with a name that means “Bitchy”, Louis-Ferdinand Chapoutier refers to revered-and-reviled Louis-Ferdinand Céline (still considered a great novelist, but who waxed antisemitic during WW2), and Carlo Gelati is Italian for “ice-creams”.

Last but not least, the original title is a play on Verne’s answer to Pym, “Le Sphinx des glaces” (The Sphinx of the Ice Fields), being “Le Démon des glaces” which can mean both “The Devil of the Ice Fields” and “The Devil of the Ice Creams” (that suits the evil Gelati!) — Verne’s novel is aka “An Antarctic Mystery”, hence maybe its English retitling. Tardi is consciously toying with a pastiche of Verne doing a pastiche of Poe doing a pastiche of Coleridge doing a pastiche of mariner tall-tales, heh.

So, the story may seem incomplete but the book isn’t, being an elaborate mix of lovely homage and deadpan joke — like an EXCALIBUR salted with MONTY PYTHON HOLY GRAIL. Keep that in mind if you reread THE ARCTIC MARAUDER, and I think you’d get a wholly different experience!

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