Drawn & Quarterly
Now and again you stumble on a comic that restores your faith in the medium. It doesn’t matter how old it is, or how glossy or even professional, you know you have happened on a work by a head, hand and heart that is fully engaged with the unique possibilities of the art form. So it is with this flawed masterpiece by the French cartoonist Badu, aka Hervé Baruléa.
The story, written with Jean-Marc Thévenet, is a rags to riches boxing drama, except this is the 1950’s, our hero is Algerian and he is embroiled in the FLN’s struggle for independence from the country’s French colonialists. While his brother joins the armed resistance and rises to Chief of Information on the National Revolutionary Council, Saïd Boudiaf fights his way to national (as in French) champion. He refuses to pay the Patriotic Tax levied on Algerians resident in France to finance the struggle, but equally refuses to be the conquering hero used as a PR tool by the French in Algiers. To add complication, Saïd falls for a French woman who genuinely loves him but isn’t quite the impartial innocent he believes her to be.
All this is played out against a background of real events that I can remember. I was a kid living in Paris at the time. Recalling the bloody demonstrations, the police charges, car bombs, assassinations and subterfuge, Badu has woven the two story lines into an imaginative yet accurately twisted tapestry that beautifully captures the tensions and xenophobia of the period.
But this is a novella that cries out for more space than afforded by its original serialisation in four issues of Drawn & Quarterly. It deserved expanding for the compilation. We learn little about Saïd the boxer and the sport he is devoted to more than the liberation of his homeland. Baru provides tantalising clips from his fights alongside journo précis of each round that take the blood, sweat and tears out of Saïd’s dedication. We never see him training and are given few clues as to why he is so adamant that his personal battle is in the ring, screw Paris and Algiers.
I have failed to establish if this is a true story, but either way the ending is a train suddenly derailed. Where it ends up – the enigma of what became of Saïd after the October 1961 Paris street battle – is fine, but how Baru and Thévenet get there is a shrugged shoulder and ugly fix. And quite why the title…?
But don’t let narrative weaknesses slow you from scouring high and low for this gem, particularly if you are new to European comics. Baru’s lines and Daniel Ledran’s washes are exquisite in their movement and atmosphere, and sequences of visual narrative are advanced lessons in the essence of comic art. Stylised characters swagger through a realistic mis-en-scene in a marriage as decidedly French as Eisner’s is American.
Baru is a master but little of his work has been translated. I now regret wasting my time on ‘Sad Sack’ rather than paying attention in French lessons.
9 – Find it and be impressed.