I’ve been reading Fog Over Tolbiac Bridge, a classic French comic by the great Jacques Tardi, recently reprinted by Fantagraphics. It’s an adaption of a detective novel, and it is good. Tardi has a way of telling hard-boiled detective stories with this loose, springy style that brings another level of joy to the work — picture Shel Silverstein let loose on film noir. What makes Tolbiac tick is the attention to setting woven into the graphic novel’s structure. The rain-slicked streets of Paris’ Left Bank preside over our hero Nestor Burma, looming indifferent to his pursuit of justice. A single pen stroke by Tardi can create a window, and his freehand buildings seem to breathe. Tolbiac is not Tardi’s masterpiece (for me, this will always be the absurdist and labyrinthine You Are There), but it is excellent.
Six pages into Tolbiac, there’s a panel that really caught my attention. It’s a good drawing that, though far from a showstopper, happens to do something I really like about comics. The panel depicts Detective Burma walking with Inspector Fabre toward the morgue, where he’s going to see something a bit surprising. Burma mockingly refers to the inspector as a communist, ironic considering Burma’s past in the anarchist movement. Speech balloons delivering this information swallow up about a quarter of the frame, but our protagonists are barely visible, buried deep in the background of the image. In the foreground, a nurse wheels an elderly woman across the road amid a downpour of rain. Their destination is unclear, but hopefully it’s somewhere warm. The old woman clutches at her shawl, a slight smile on her face suggests a mix of contentment and mild discomfort, as her tired, wrinkled eyes speak volumes to the wear of aging. The nurse, young but perhaps not youthful, furrows her brow. She appears concerned, maybe a little stressed, but otherwise seems quite calm, stoic even. She is clearly in no hurry. Perhaps the rain has caught her a bit off guard, but she takes these walks regularly, so she is used to the occasional inconvenience.
Tardi conveys all this nuanced visual information in the quick strokes of cartooning, creating a vivid tableaux for the reader. But this information is not “important” — the nurse and the old woman will never appear again, not even in a second panel. No context of their lives is provided beyond what we can see; they appear and then they are gone. In a sense, they are like film extras, filling out the background space of narrative scenery. But they are not in the background, rather the foreground, the focal point of the scene’s composition.
This is an amazing thing that comics can do. A panel can present us with interesting, captivating characters and situations, and then abandon them in the following panel without so much as a comment. In a film, you could not place a group of people in the foreground without them appearing to be of some narrative importance, nor in the background without making them virtually invisible. In literature, the time spent describing behaviors of others will again create a level of focus not present in this one-panel aside. The only good parallel I can think of outside of comics is Bruegel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, where the captivating and timeless myth of human hubris before the heavens occurs literally in the background of a seaside village. Yet, in Bruegel’s work, we are directed toward that myth by the title of the work, an intersection of words and text to create a narrative moment, arguably a core mechanic in comics. I couldn’t care less whether this somehow makes Bruegel some sort of proto-cartoonist, yet there is a similar formal game at play. The Bruegel painting and the Tardi panel both achieve a fine sensation of something else out there, just within the range of our perception, a second voice within the frame.
Tardi’s panel is no singular achievement, though I do love it — this mode of storytelling is as common to comics as the montage to movies. If you’ve ever read so much as a Mad Magazine parody, you’ve seen and likely enjoyed this narrative trick, the “packing” of panels to maximize the jokes per frame. I believe it was either Will Elder or Harvey Kurtzman who called this “chicken fat.” Artists like José Muñoz (with the poet Carlos Sampayo) have elevated chicken fat to a discourse of its own, creating paranoid tableaux of mysterious happenings and beguiling glances for the narrative to move through, as but one citizen in a crowded mythic city. Be your purposes humor or poetics, the thing about chicken fat is it often has as much staying power as the main action of the comic’s “main” narrative. I’m still thinking about the old woman and her nurse, not so much about Nestor Burma’s ambivalent interactions with the law.
It’s always a danger to declare there is something that only comics can do. There will always be an exception. Moreover, there’s an easy fallacy of declaring that just because something can be done by a medium, then that thing is therefore extraordinary or fantastic, a mark of excellence any time it is noticed. All I have described is a thing that comics do. Like any element of style, it can be bungled. It can even just be there, a mechanic, plain as punctuation. But there is something about this thing that can be done in comics that I believe is often great, and looking for things like this is how we begin to view comics as an art form, more than entertainment yet also more pleasurable.
Nathan Chazan is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. The Next Panel will appear Mondays this semester. He can be reached at email@example.com.