In 2006, Tom McCarthy claimed that the pages of Tintin contained the secret of literature; in 2010, Abel Lanzac and Christophe Blain declared that Tintin held the secret of making a good political speech.
Invoking as it did that evergreen classic of Francophone comics, or bande dessinée, the scene (featured in this month’s Words Without Borders excerpt) was a favorite of French readers in what soon became a runaway bestseller, the first volume alone selling 170,000 copies. The book? The first volume of Lanzac and Blain’s graphic novel Quai d’Orsay, based on Lanzac’s tenure as a speechwriter for former French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin. Blain had been a star cartoonist in indie circles, but Quai broke his name wide. As for Lanzac—this was the first comic he had ever written. When the second volume took top prize in Angoulême, at the world’s largest international comics festival, in January 2013, he revealed himself as Antonin Baudry, current Cultural Counselor of the French Embassy in New York. Both volumes of Quai d’Orsay will be released in English, as a single book, by SelfMadeHero this May.
The French graphic novel takes its name from the left bank, 7th arrondissement location that is a metonym for the Foreign Ministry, much as “L’Élysée” is the French equivalent of our saying “The White House.” Retitled Weapons of Mass Diplomacy in its English incarnation, it covers a fraught period just before the 2003 Iraq invasion. The story is something of a sentimental education for Lanzac’s stand-in, the innocent Arthur Vlaminck. Writing in Le Nouvel Observateur, Philippe Boulet-Gercourt dubbed it “Tintin in the Land of Foreign Affairs.”
As it happens, I had my own eye-opening experience, having moved to France not long after 9/11. I was welcomed with sympathy and the sentiment, “We are all Americans.” In less than two years, though, I was getting lectures about Dubya’s cowboy unilateralism wherever I went. The streets were rife with demonstrations.
We are all too familiar with what happened in America: war hawks, “freedom fries,” and “cheese-eating surrender monkeys.” Weapons of Mass Diplomacy is the other side of that story, from the French perspective. The imposing Alexandre Taillard de Worms is Villepin not in appearance, but in spirit. He has made world peace his personal mission—his consuming passion. His very name rings with aristocracy and faint ridicule, grandeur and delusions thereof. In the book, he is variously pictured as Dark Vador (his French name from that George Lucas classic, La guerre des étoiles):
and Space Sheriff Gavan:
There is no mistaking Darth Vader, but Space Sheriff Gavan, the first of the Metal Heroes, rechristened X-OR in France, never aired in the U.S. (though his influence survives in the design of the original Robocop).
David Bellos famously turned Georges Perec’s French in Life: A User’s Manual from “Adolf Hitler/Fourreur” (fourreur = furrier, sounds like Führer) into “Adolf Hitler/German Lieder”; but what if, instead of appearing on “humorous visiting cards in a joke-shop window” in Perec’s novel, these words had appeared below the picture of a fur coat in a French comic? Comics translators must contend with unalterable images, but like any constraint, these can force invention. While X-OR was plucked from Lanzac’s boyhood (we are almost the same age), I recalled something from my own—a comic, not a TV show, but similarly cult and cherished, also embroiled in battles with aliens, and best of all, similar in appearance:
In her suggestions for “How Not to Write Comics Criticism,” Dylan Meconis bemoans the “Biff! Pow! Zap!” approach (scroll down to #2) that inevitably infantilizes the medium. There are surely papers to be written on the evolution of comics onomatopoeia beyond the classic “Wham! Bam!” lexicon, toward bespoke, fanciful spellings (FRAAKKAAKKARRAAK!); named actions instead of mimicked sounds (sigh, rub, shuffle); and nigh-catchphrases like the snikt of Wolverine’s claws coming out, or the thwip of Spider-Man’s web-shooters. Blain and Lanzac similarly push characterization into onomatopoeia, inventing several sound effects individual to Taillard. For his thunderous entrances and exits, which send papers a-whirling in his wake, there is VLON, a variation on the standard door slam, VLAN!
Lanzac happily reported that German fans had taken up VLON as a nickname for Taillard’s character. In our phone conferences—the closest and most rewarding collaboration I have yet had with an author—we hashed out ways of making it more exciting and innovative than a bland old WHAM. This expression of force, even aggressiveness, was crucial to a paradox at the core of Taillard’s character: a man willing to stand up to superpowered America for what he believed in, a man willing to wage figurative war for literal peace. And, like his name, it had to be just a tad ridiculous.
Perhaps something hard, almost Germanic with consonants, that invoked Ragnarok? “We should keep the N/M sound,” Lanzac said. There was the BRAAAMPF, from Inception, that was quickly saturating movie trailers, but it was so recent it lacked a standardized, instantly recognizable spelling. Besides, on the page it looked more like a bleat. I hit upon the umlaut, a cultural signifier of mock-menace ever since Spın̈al Tap, and we ended up de-familiarizing an English word:
Besides being an element of character, many of the DÖÖMs were so pictorially integrated into the art that they had to be re-lettered by hand.
In the end, the references that pepper the book—Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Metallica lyrics—speak less to geek chic than a certain self-consciousness of the comics medium, and Lanzac’s own age. It is a book about the clash of generations even as its characters struggle to prevent the clash of civilizations. Télérama has compared Lanzac’s mockery of bureaucratic doublespeak to Molière, but it is his inclusion of pop culture that ushers political satire into new territory. In reviewing Tintin and the Secret of Literature at the Quarterly Conversation, Matt Bowman credits Tom McCarthy’s book with undermining “the distinction between high and low art, suggesting that such categorizations are arbitrary at best.” Weapons of Mass Diplomacy is as much a modern workplace comedy as it is a chronicle of world affairs, and in Taillard de Vorms, Blain and Lanzac have created an enduringly convincing portrait of both a political visionary and a boss from hell.
Published Feb 21, 2014 Copyright 2014 Edward Gauvin