“Such lovely epidemics…” Such horrific words, spoken by the basest of villains, gushing over his little test tube babies, cultivated with intent to decimate the human population. Scary stuff, evil is. And there’s plenty of it in in The Arctic Marauder, Fantagraphics‘ re-release (translated to English by co-founder Kim Thompson) of Jacques Tardi’s Le Demon des glaces. Originally published in 1974, this piece, early in Tardi’s oeuvre, has withstood the test of time, proven prescience, and only gained plausibility.
It is winter 1889 and the crew of the mail ship, L’Anjou, destination Le Havre, must contend with the Arctic Ocean and its monstrous icebergs when they encounter a bizarre wreck, the Iceland Loafer, trapped atop an ice floe. As Jerome Plumier, a medical student, and L’Anjou’s crew explore the wreckage, they discover the Loafer’s captain and crew, petrified, as in Pompeii. From aboard the Ice Loafer, Plumier and crew watch L’Anjou mysteriously explode. And so begins Plumier’s descent into the depths of evil.
The story itself is told simply, Hemingway’s famous iceberg theory, that much of the story rests on that which is never explicitly stated, never so apropos. Narration forfeits omniscience in terms of character development, giving a surface-y, distant feel. But it works. The distance keeps the bad guys scary, competent, and seemingly infallible.
And anyway, The Arctic Marauder is story driven. As the evil geniuses reveal their vision and the meticulous planning and patience undertaken in its execution, the inevitability of their success sets in. There might be a hero, but certainly no superhero. In reality, there is no ultimate triumph of good over evil, and Tardi acknowledges this truth with a subtle, sarcastic, but no less sad message.
The real genius of The Arctic Marauder lies in Tardi’s execution. Purple prose and scratchboard, which so effectively recalls the woodcut printing of the Edwardian era in which the story is set, make for a holistic experience, somewhere between camp and authenticity, fun and artful, and certainly worth a read.