The only meetings between cartooning and jazz that I used to see were the jokes in Jazz at Ronnie Scott’s, so the French strips by Blutch reprinted this year by Fantagraphics in Total Jazz are a transmission from the other side of the cultural moon entirely. Some of them are gentle self-mockery that Ronnie Scott would have approved of—the stylings of John Coltrane drive all the residents of a household crazy including the cat—but a lot of them venture where gags from Frith Street would not have cared to go.
Several times Blutch draws the jazz itself, the actual form of the music, rendered as artistic effect. Successful or not, the attempt and its careful ambiguities are a lot like the ones Guido Crepax unpicked while drawing Valentina’s sexual pleasure as ink on paper; both projects feel European to the core. But more often Blutch’s lyricism comes before violence, and then follows it too. If Charles Mingus’s punch-ups are par for the biographical course, then the domestic assault inflicted on The Scene’s anonymous wife or girlfriend is far more unsettling—made worse by Blutch’s scratchy ink lines, as though the tenor sax player pummelling his woman in the face was fizzing with incoherent rage, violence enveloping him like a fog. The panel where she’s on the ground is dire stuff.
Blutch’s figures are cartoons not caricatures, and those harsh inks become tender enough on the faces of the young and the dying to cast any doubts about the artist’s sincerity into the bin; but the early pages throw in a representational monkey wrench through three stories depicting Native Americans, two of them drawn in a lush charcoal wash unlike anything else in the book. The other, an official preface, has a tribal chief and a warrior brave chatting incongruously about the nature of archival publishing and the dredging up of old jazz cartoons long after the cartoonist has moved on. The overlapping heritage of hardship and displacement shared by African and Native American cultures has left its fingerprints on the music that’s under Blutch’s microscope in the first place, and even if it hadn’t it would still be legitimate material for an artist to process; but put this kind of irony and theatricality close to each other in the current cultural test tube and questions of appropriation will occur. The best answer remains resisting the urge to detect an artist’s hidden wickedness when looking at their art, and not insisting that art deal only in lessons delivered by proxy about living a prosaically good life. As if sincere art need be well-tempered and well-behaved in the first place.
In any case, the cumulative tone of Blutch’s cartooning is complicated enough to suggest all the cultural contradictions lurking under the turf, with seams of sex and surrealism everywhere. Dealing with jazz without dealing with sex might amount to missing the point—it was the topic of the original French edition’s cover, a half-naked white woman being caressed by a group of jazzmen as if they were playing a keyboard, which Fantagraphics has opted to do without. One story ends with four white male long-haired a capella singers communing with the black female singer whose song they have covered by worshipping her extremities in some pagan ritual of consumption and sex; or possibly just of jazz criticism.
The surrealism is a bit less predictable, jolts of occult static bubbling up from the agony and ecstasy of the music. A saxophone duo are linked together by an indistinct mutant musical instrument with multiple mouthpieces; and an even more abstract cubist mechanism supplants the human players in a historical sequence, a sight which now makes me think of FBI Special Agent Phillip Jeffries evolved into a big steam kettle in Twin Peaks. One full-page image has multiple males regarding Josephine Baker with a tense combination of disdain and self-destruction; another page of portraiture includes near its centre an impossible visage, a male face so folded-in and melting that it could have arrived up from one of Clive Barker’s hells. Blutch puts the physical pleasure and physical pain of jazz for both sexes so close together in his strips that the erotic and the despairing are welded at the root. This gentleman and his warp spasm could be one of the severe and unknowable house deities of the book.