In 1967 Paris revised its building code, producing a master plan which threw out the old requirements that building height be limited by street width and that buildings be aligned with each other. Meant to encourage fashionable contemporary ideas on city planning, it resulted in massive, impersonal modern skyscrapers shattering and fragmenting old neighborhoods and the accompanying rise of automotive traffic. Although the code was revised in 1974, a great deal of damage had already been done.
I think that background has to be considered in the 1976 publication of the first of Jacques Tardi's comics of the Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec. Murky, confusing, and frustrating, these illustrated adventures are a lovingly detailed tribute to the Paris that used to be.
From the first panoramic view of the dramatically night-lit Jardin des Plantes (and then its marvelous museum interior), "The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec" is a beautifully-drawn evocation of 1911 Paris, a jaw-dropping marvel of visual historical research. Tardi has a good intricate pen technique that demonstrates a real affection for the past.
The colors are dark and murky. All the reds are brownish-reds, all the blues grayish, all the yellows mustardy, the greens olive. The only bright color is the red of blood when someone is wounded.
But ... I hate the story. The main character, Adèle Blanc-Sec, is an enigma. Is she a hero? A villain? She is introduced as kidnapping someone, but we don't know who or why. There is a bizarrely convoluted plot involving a hatched pterodactyl, and ... well, I'm not exactly sure what. I can't make it out.
The men are extremely difficult to tell apart from one another. All the people are drawn in a cartoony fashion, and all the men seem to have the same craggy faces, huge noses, and ridiculous black moustaches. It does not help that the plot involves hidden identities, double-crossing, disguise, and betrayal. Important explanations are done in massive word balloons of text filled with names, almost impossible to follow. I suspect it of being nothing more than an absurdist excuse for drawing all those lovely vistas and interiors of old Paris.
Mlle. Blanc-Sec scowls all the time, her expression almost never changing (it was quite astonishing to see publicity photos of a new film based on the books, in which Blanc-Sec never stops smiling). In fact, nobody's expression changes much. The men tend to look either blank or befuddled, but the women all seem furious about something. So far there are three women in the entire series: the ever-scowling Adèle, the ever-frowning Edith Rabatjoie of the pointy nose and little glasses, and the ever-glaring Clara Benhardt, a nefarious actress.
Characters betray each other, steal things, are killed, but it's hard to care. We know almost nothing about any of them.
As an artist, I can't help but admire Tardi's beautiful linework and sensitive, detailed, plausible renderings of Paris of a century ago. As a reader, I am bewildered and annoyed.
EDIT: I found the second volume of this series (comprising the third and fourth story of the original series) to be funnier and less frustrating than this one. I'm glad I kept going.