Jacques Tardi ushered in the age of “literary comics” in France in the late 1970s through the work he did for the magazine (A Suivre), both solo and in collaboration.
He achieved this both thematically and stylistically. His books focus on decisive French historical moments: especially the Belle Époque and its end with World War I as well as the immediate post-World War II period. The first is present in many of his earlier feuilleton-inspired stories, the Adéle Blanc-Sec series, and his many books on WWI, in which his grandfather fought (his 1974 La véritable histoire du soldat inconnu is one of his earlier celebrated titles). The second is seen especially in his adaptations of Léo Malet’s Nestor Burma novels, reminiscent of neo-noir films by J.-P. Mélville and the like. 120, Rue de la Gare (1988) is the most celebrated volume of the series. He has also worked on the 1871 Commune of Paris with his magnificent adaptation of Jean Vautrin’s Le Cri du Peuple.
Mixing historical facts with fiction, and even fantastic elements, the result is a cynical, but definitely critical reassessment of French identity, in itself a rather different positioning from the “classical” children-oriented bande dessinée of his time. Tardi does not hide his left-leaning proclivities, but his attacks are directed on both those in power and the gullible masses who follow them.
Tardi is also known for his unique style, combining anatomical proportion and wavy lines of great plasticity that are perfect to depict nervous characters, against realistic, quite identifiable backgrounds of Paris or other French cities. Most of his work is in black-and-white, which he sometimes explores in stark yet legible contrasts, but occasionally he also uses judiciously chosen screen tones, hatching or a limited palette of colours. Moreover, he is also known for his layered composition work, where street posters, newspapers, letters and photos convey a rich environment. Critics B. Lecigne and J. P. Tamine considered Tardi one of the main precursors of that which they dubbed the “Nouveau Realisme” in bande dessinée.
His oeuvre centres on either naïve or very cynical characters. Unsurprisingly, all of them come to terrible ends, although sometimes these ends can also be seen as the ultimate act of heroism. The use of genre fiction tropes or spectacular scenes is nothing but a momentary illusion, for all in all Tardi reveals a bleak, almost nihilist view on human existence. His readers finish the books with a critical look upon society, so even if the heroes suffered and paid the ultimate price, the reader him- or herself will feel better prepared for the injustices in the world.
— Pedro Moura
See also: Adèle Blanc-Sec