[In this installment of our series of Editors Notes, Kim Thompson interviews himself (in a format he's dubbed "AutoChat") about Gil Jordan, Private Detective: Murder by High Tide by M. Tillieux, with a special contribution by the book's translator, Jenna Allen. Thanks to Janice for assistance with images in this post. – Ed.]
Tell me about Gil Jordan.
He and I were born at the same time. Literally. The week I was born, the first issue of Spirou magazine to run Gil Jourdan was the issue on the stands. I only realized this after decades of being a huge fan of the strip, I should add.
In terms of the history of the strip, I would refer readers back to my quick history of 1940s-1960s Franco-Belgian comics magazines. Remember how I referred to Spirou as the Marvel and Tintin as the DC? Well, for most of his formative years and a bit beyond (1947-1955), Tillieux basically worked for one of the Charltons of the day, an outfit called Héroïc-Albums, where he cranked out a detective series called Félix.
Why was he stuck there? Was his work bad?
For whatever reason he'd originally failed to sell to Spirou, his first choice, and had to fall back on Héroïc-Albums. I guess it's a judgment call as to whether Spirou was right in rejecting his work back in the '40s, but he quickly developed and certainly midway through his run on Félix he certainly would have been good enough to move to one of the majors.
Why didn't he?
From what I understand he remained ticked off at Spirou's rejection and stuck with Héroïc-Albums and Félix far beyond what was necessary. He may also have been concerned about losing his ongoing characters (which were owned by Héroïc-Albums), a Gordian knot he eventually sliced in two by making his new Spirou characters very slightly re-designed and re-named carbon copies of his Félix characters. (He was the Howard Chaykin of his day.) This was a decision that would later be very helpful because when he had some health problems and wasn't able to draw for a while, he was able to take old Félix stories and have helpers draw in the Jordan characters and re-letter them, and call it good. (He also recycled some of the Félix stories into his writing assignments for other characters, but let's not get bogged down.)
Okay. Why Gil Jourdan... Or Jordan?
It's basically one of the few ultraclassic Franco-Belgian series that has never been translated into English.
Why did you start with the third and fourth books?
I don't think the first and second (which comprise a single story) are as good. The character design isn't quite there yet, and he hasn't found the right balance of humor and drama — they're more a straight detective story. The fact is, given the market, it's quite possible that the first book we did was going to be the last, so I'd rather start with one of the stronger ones. This is a rationale you'll find with any of these European series I do, unless there is an underlying continuity that needs to be respected — which is pretty rare, I can only think of one or two instances of that. So I'll be cherry-picking! Sibyl-Anne, which we'll discuss tomorrow, I'm starting with Book 2.
What do you like about his work?
First, Tillieux's art is fantastic — it exists at some perfect midpoint between the Hergé clear-line abstraction and the Franquin cartooniness. He had a spectacular sense for mood, for old dilapidated houses and seedy bars and foggy docks and such, and his sense of narrative breakdown was unimpeachable. He specialized in snappy, casual, screwball dialogue, and his Félix years had honed the three central characters to perfection. Also, he reminds me of the great French crime directors of the time like Melville and Clouzot (and of course Dassin, for Rififi) in his attention to process. Almost half of the first story is devoted to the sequence of the search at the Tower of the Merrie Knight and near-disastrous exploration of the abandoned car, because it's built so meticulously. And remember, in the original magazine serialization this took over two months; you never get bored because of the funny interplay among the characters, and his slipping in a crucial plot point in a way that makes you think it's a gag instead of a crucial plot point — the exploding well — is very deft! The nine-page chase sequence in the second story is also surprisingly long. I mentioned Clouzot, and the closest thing that comes to mind are the dangerous-crossing sequences of Wages of Fear. (Tillieux had a very Wages of Fear-style sequence in a later book, involving a truck and a bridge; he denied having seen Wages of Fear in a later interview, but allowed he might have read the book it was based on.)
This does make the actual solution of the mystery seem like almost an afterthought.
Yeah, but isn't that almost always true? In any of the Thin Man movies, isn't the final deduction/reveal the least interesting part of the plot?
Gil Jordan is very close to "Gil Jourdan" and you kept Crouton's name, but you renamed Libelulle. Why?
It's hard to pronounce and loses its French meaning. And the English language direct translation, "Dragonfly," sounds idiotic. I sweated bullets over this, not least because I don't really understand the reason for the original name. I theorized that it was a reference to his burglar/safecracker days and maybe meant to suggest the slight buzzing sound and hovering of a dragonfly like an expertly-wielded drill, and Jenna, who translated the book, sent me a photo of a drill that sort of looked like a dragonfly, but when I floated this past the European fans and publisher I got a lot of Gallic "he's just called that" shrugs. Who knows? His Félix counterpart was called "Allume-Gaz," or "gas lighter," which is even more bizarre, although... Jesus, I just realized this minute, that could be a welding reference. Be that all as it may, I was bouncing around "safecracker" in my head and "Crackerjack" just popped in, as if his original name was John or Jack and he got nicknamed "Safecracker Jack" and it got shortened. It also has the meaning of extreme skill, and the food reference isn't bad since he's tubby. It fits him. Even has the same rhythm, TUM-ta-TUM, as the original.
How did Jenna end up translating the book?
Jenna was a super smart and knowledgeable intern we had last summer whose skills included a knowledge of French and who was interested in, if not a career, then at least some jobs in translating comics. So I struck a deal with her that she could translate a book, I'd consult with her and re-write and act basically as a mentor, she'd get the credit and I'd get someone who at worst would do a lot of the heavy lifting for me to rewrite, and at best would turn in finished copy.
How did that work out?
Better than I expected. The first few pages were a bit rough as I don't think she realized quite how free she could be to diverge from the letter of the original to maintain its spirit, particularly in the snappy dialogue, and let's face it, I have a quarter century's experience on her, but toward the end I was doing mostly tweaking, much of it the kind of tweaking I do on my own translations around draft five or six. Not too much more than I do with Helge Dascher on King of the Flies. She was a huge, huge help and if we do another Gil Jordan book I'll ask her to translate it, and pay her, like a pro, and I expect her copy will be much cleaner by then with this first one under her belt.
And how did Jenna feel about the whole experience?
You should ask her. Jenna?
JA: Okay, but if you get to be quizzed by your own avatar, can I have mine?
Sure. Take it away, Jenna's Avatar!
So how did you feel about getting the job?
I was over the moon when Kim brought up the idea of letting me try my hand at translating Jourdan. While I was intern, I was really interested in finding out how to become a translator, so when I found out what a wealth of information Kim's brain was on the subject, I began secretly plotting to find a way to pick his brain. Happily, he came to me before I was forced to hatch any elaborate plans. The actual exchange was pretty funny to me. Kim walked up to me and asked, "Hey, how well do you know French?" I replied, "Pretty well, I like to think." "Great, here's some books for you to read. Tell me what you think and we'll talk about you translating them."
What were the difficulties you had?
Like Kim said earlier in the interview, I really struggled with writing dialogue that was natural in English, yet true to the spirit of the quick, slangy, clever tone of the original. I was lucky Kim was there to come on like gangbusters to save the day with his endless idioms and slang. What really made me pull my hair out, though, was Crackerjack's endless puns. Puns are pretty much impossible to translate literally, so I had to try to re-write some entirely. It was a bit nerve-wracking, because humor is so hard to write! As a writer, you may think you're being pretty funny, but if the reader disagrees with you, or doesn't get it, the joke falls flat. Luckily, Crackerjack's jokes are all terrible in the first place, so I didn't have to worry about being actually clever.
Anything else that was difficult?
Since this was my first translation, I also had some difficulty finding a rhythm and a method for the actual work. Kim gave me some good pointers in the beginning, but I was mainly left to my own devices to produce the drafts. I finally started feeling like I was getting into the swing of things by the second book, and then I was disappointed that it was over!
Any last words on the experience?
The experience was often painful and awkward, but I enjoyed it because it taught me so, so much. I was very fortunate to be able to work with a mentor like Kim who has as many years in translation as I've had in life, and is also extremely laid-back and kind.
Back to you. If this book succeeds, what are your future plans for Tillieux?
There are 16 Gil Jourdan books (which would mean seven more of our "double" books). The last four were drawn by another cartoonist and are so far as I'm concerned not canonical, and are generally perceived as the weakest anyway even aside from the art; I would do those only if the series is such a huge success that we plow through the other 10 and there's genuine demand for them. I'd probably proceed to books 5/6, then 7/8, then 9/10, then double back to 1/2... then 11/12, which are lesser short stories (including some of those Félix recyclings)... but what are the odds? And even if I get to do a couple more of these I might want to focus on some other Franco-Belgian stuff as well. All I can say is that if this one isn't an unmitigated sales disaster, I'll definitely want to do one more double volume.