Writer: Jean-Patrick Manchette
Translator: Doug Headline
Artist: Jacques Tardi
Release Date: February 8, 2015
Based on the 1972 novel Ô dingos, ô châteaux !, Run Like Crazy Run Like Hell is cartoonist Jacques Tardi’s third adaptation of a Jean-Patrick Manchette book, and the graphic novel’s origins are apparent on the page. Tardi leaves the original work’s prosaic narration intact and allows it to carry much of the storytelling. Even with this approach, however, scenes soon fly past with startling rapidity, as the plot proves exceptionally lean and propulsive.
The book concerns Julie — a new nanny to a young boy — and Thompson — a hitman pursuing her to satiate his physical and psychological dependency on murder. Tardi opens with a languid, timid pace, obfuscating the book’s eventual plot and tone. The beginning creates a space that is almost comically, stereotypically French: gliding along at its own pace, more concerned with intonation than story. But, looking back on the entire book, that halcyon prelude resembles the seconds it takes for the sizzling fuse of a bottle rocket to wind down: 20 pages in, the story coalesces and takes off at a concussive, thumping pace. The closest point of reference is Paul Thomas Anderson’s Scientology study, The Master: inconsequential scenes parallel the listless, meandering nature of their subject’s life and then reorganize accordingly the moment that subject begins to find purpose. That said, Tardi’s work directs its anarchic impulse more forcefully than Anderson’s.
But that controlled chaos makes Run Like Crazy Run Like Hell such an engaging and compelling read. The characters aren’t priority here, and they’re given little interiority besides motivations. Primacy of plot can get boring quick, but Tardi’s skillful application of technique and style elevates the book from the morass of pulp homogeny.
The aforementioned narration isn’t as stripped-down as the kind that Richard Stark made famous in works like The Hunter (“When a fresh-faced guy in a Chevy offered him a lift, Parker told him to go to hell”), but there’s a precision and meter to it that makes it a useful tool in the hands of Tardi. He uses it to shore up gaps in the visual storytelling, keeping the book svelte and manageable at 100-ish pages. Run Like Crazy Run Like Hell is noticeably text-heavy, but unlike some other less-accomplished writers, Tardi’s reliance on text doesn’t feel like a crutch, or an attempt to bridge the gap between comics and prose. It’s very purposeful — a far cry from the overwrought, purple prose of Scott Snyder, early Alan Moore or Mike Carey on a bad day.
Tardi employs an interesting technical trick to incorporate the text into the art — one which I haven’t seen anywhere else — blending narrative captions with thought balloons. He bleeds them into one another, and the exposition drifts in and out, jumping from omniscience to first-person and back. Organized masterfully, the boxes and balloons collide, combine, separate, repeat. This technique focuses the eyes and draws attention, pushing the readers where they need to go. The tool helps guide the eye, and keys it into the inherent sequential and imagistic elements specific to comics. It’s an interesting tic, and it does a fantastic job of approximating the stream-of-consciousness effect of when a prose author sandwiches a “’…,’ he thought” between narration.
But Tardi’s art fuels the engine of Run Like Crazy Run Like Hell. The French cartoonist’s depiction of violence is part and parcel of his appeal, and he has a penchant for depicting these fictive (and frictive) spurts of action in abstract, artful iconography. The man renders everything with an emotive impressionistic line (a descriptor I first heard applied to him in 2005’s Eisner/Miller and still the most accurate); he’s drawn many comparisons to Tintin creator Herge, and you can see a ligne claire influence in his work — the diegetic, heavily-cartooned figures and more mimetic, realistically-rendered environs — but his aesthetic is much dirtier and harshly inked. The interplay of light and shadow carries more of the aesthetic load.
The way he abstracts violence, though, is incomparable. Tardi emulates blood and brains as spot-black splashes and haphazard bits of noodling; lush brushstrokes and precise pen work fill the negative space with inky gore and viscera, transforming the page, reifying the ugliness of destructive conflict. It’s almost shocking to see. These serious flits and flutters of action explode on the page, sending a jolt through Tardi’s loose, visually-playful aesthetic: marrying the most serious of subject matter to a discontinuous visualization, Tardi creates a dissonance and employs it to great effect. The way he draws a head as it sizzles and pops, flambéed by the searing heat of a gun misfiring/blowing up in his face, or the way he sketches a shotgun blast separating a foot from its leg. These little details comprise some of the most satisfying moments in the entire work.
Tardi constructs Run Like Crazy Run Like Hell almost entirely of brief, but impactful, moments of brutality. It would’ve been interesting to see the cartoonist engage with that concept more substantively, like he does in Goddamn This War! and It Was the War of the Trenches, but he was, of course, constrained by a faithfulness to source material, a fidelity that might have sunk a lesser cartoonist. With its inattention to atmosphere, Run Like Crazy Run Like Hell could have been a rote, plot-oriented thriller. But through sheer strength of craftsmanship, Tardi constructed something original, something singularly compelling — aesthetically and narratively.