Total Jazz :: Blutch

In the preface of Total Jazz, Fantagraphics’ new collection of jazz comic strips by Christian “Blutch” Hincker, the author is tasked with providing an introduction to the book. Imagining himself as a young Native American brave, Blutch confesses to a stoic tribal leader: “Jazz makes me sick…It turns my stomach.”

It’s a hinky way to start a book dedicated to illustrating the culture of jazz, and not only because of the stereotypical racial tones. Total Jazz collects comics Blutch began wrote and drew for the French magazine Jazzman, stark black-and-white panels that pulse with feverish energy, melancholy and haunting beauty. They aim to “translate the untranslatable” about jazz, and often they actually achieve this seemingly unattainable goal. So why the sudden case of jazzy nausea? “At first, I felt invincible” the author explains in character in the intro. “But after many moons and almost 1,000 stories, I’m down on my knees on the path.” Illustrating the music that moved him made him obsessive – a dreaded “nerd” – and even worse, all those records and CDs began to function as a mirror. If you stare at anything long enough, you begin to see yourself. No one should have to see themselves so much. Blutch suggests.

But that reflection is what makes Total Jazz such an exceptional read. Sometimes, Blutch’s strips are about jazz, the ephemeral concept and deep blue spirit of the art form itself, but most often they are about jazz musicians, meaning they are really about people. Sex, violence, confusion, fear of obsolescence – these familiar human concerns show up just as often in these comics as rough, squiggly lines from the bells of saxophones and trumpets. Like the music that engages him, Blutch quickly shifts in mood and style. His strip about a grouchy couple unimpressed by just about every element of a jazz festival is jotted out in loose, impressionistic lines, while stories like “The Sound,” about tenor saxophonist Stan Getz forcefully willing his signature sound into existence, employ heavy shadows and intricate line work.

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