I’m not sure how much more you get out of West Coast Blues if you know all the music references—I know all the movie references and it doesn’t really add anything except being able to contextualize the story as a noir piece, which isn’t particularly necessary. Like, it comes across real easy, even if you don’t think about Blues being some kind of Sam Fuller or Anthony Mann movie. But maybe the music would provide a different kind of accompaniment, especially since the script’s constantly referencing not just the music the protagonist is playing but also the importance of it.
Tardi adapted a Jean-Patrick Manchette novel for the story and I feel comfortable assuming most of the exposition boxes came from the novel (Kim Thompson then translated from French to English so there’s a whole other layer); Blues is very talking in the exposition. There’s also this implication of narrator as character at one point and it never comes through again, which is a little disappointing because otherwise it’s just… a lot of exposition. Lists of things, lots of contextualizing but not really—the big questions involving the protagonist just get shrugged off. He’s just a man doing man things, like abandoning his family and so on.
The comic opens with a bookend—which is a little more implied than clear because of the tenses in the narration–protagonist George is driving home late one night after getting boozed up because he hates his job as a middle manager so what else is he going to do. A car crashes in front of him and he takes the driver to the hospital, thinking nothing of it. When he gets home to his wife, she thinks he should’ve stayed and at least given his name but why bother. The wife puts up with a lot of shit from George, who’s deserving of various sympathies throughout Blues but is such a dick extending said sympathies comes with some guilt over it. He’s a dick, but at least he’s not a murderous dick.
Though, the narration tells us, he’s going to kill two men. But first they’re going to try to kill him, giving the narration a countdown—and Blues a very easily delineated Freytag.
While on vacation with his family—wife, two kids, no pets—two bad guys try to kill George and he runs back to Paris (without telling his wife) and gets a gun from a pal to defend himself. Now, we never find out his plan because the action mostly centers on the pursuing hitmen. They’re a couple, though one of them still likes to rape women, which is going to be important in the just as easily delineated third act. Before then, however, George is going to end up lost in the wilderness and finding the almost blind woodsman. It’s a long term Frankenstein for the woodsman, but it eventually goes that route, albeit unpredictably, before George finally has to confront the main villain.
Tardi’s got a great pace, especially for seventy-some pages, though it often feels like he’s rushing through potentially better moments. George doesn’t much in the way of personality, especially when he’s alone, so the scenes with other people are a lot more interesting but there aren’t many of them. He’s always driving by himself—whether existentially moping or lambing it from the hitmen—or walking by himself or hanging around the blind woodsman who doesn’t want to talk and so on. Tardi is able to find some good comedic moments, but—again—it’s because George has someone to play off.
Why’s George such a limp protagonist—is it Manchette’s fault or Tardi’s—you’d probably have to read the source novel and… eh. West Coast Blues doesn’t inspire that interest. Particularly not since Tardi’s art, even realizing a mediocre story, is the obvious draw. Maybe if you’re going to try to unpack the toxic masculinity you’d want to be familiar with the source but there’s not really any sign it’d be worth going through those boxes. Despite its attempts to haunt, Blues most definitely does not. The denouement is particularly pat.
But, still, far from bad. Though not where you’d want to start with Tardi.