The fun, frills-free tale of a French boy detective that should crack the case of American audiences.
Translations are, as the Italian writer Umberto Eco once eloquently described, “the art of failure.” Taking such a powerful and subtle thing as language and trying to convey its depth and nuance and humor and heart in another tongue has to be like cramming an elephant into the microwave. Or bathing a great ape in the kitchen sink.
Yet that hasn’t stopped the folks over at IDW from serving up an English language version of Jerome K. Jerome Bloche, the long-running French comic by Alain Dodier about a 20-year-old detective described as more “Will Ferrell than Humphrey Bogart.” (Spoilers: there are no dick or fart jokes here.) Even with the language barrier, what we get in the first of many translated tomes is an enjoyable throwback tale with oodles of pathos.
It helps that the Dodier’s depiction of young Jerome exudes a certain universal appeal. Jerome’s very much in the same mold as a less badass version of Conan Edogawa, or a slightly more rebellious Hardy Boy. He’s young and awkward, practically swimming in his patented trenchcoat, but he’s got the kind of energy you’d expect from a fledgling PI. It’s easy to identify with someone brimming with vigor and gusto and struggling amid their own immature inadequacies.
The fact that he fumbles around so much, missing the mark entirely of the smooth-as-silk private dicks of yore, makes you want to cheer him on even more. It’s an archetype that transcends all the culture minutiae in the world, pulling at a soft spot that remains central to young folks while feeling like a happy case of indigestion for everyone a wee bit older. Jerome very well could be your best friend or dumb younger brother, and when he shows off some skill, it’s hard not to be impressed and feel as if you’re watching someone come into their own.
At the same time, there is at least some level of disconnect when it comes to translating these books in the here and now. Book one – “The Shadow Killer” – dates back to the mid-80s, and aside from a great story, it can feel like Jerome’s operating back in the Cretaceous. To some extent, his reliance on reel-to-reel and — ugh — books does have its charm, undoubtedly poking away at the same retro luster deep in the ol’ cabeza. But it also means that the story has a kind of simplistic, aw-shucks air that can feel distant. Not that audiences are any smarter these days, or they’re not fans of a good old fashioned detective story.
Instead, we’re a little more savvy, and our expectations are a bit more grandiose (and, based on modern-day procedurals, geared toward violence and super sleuths a la Sherlock Holmes and Bones). As a result, the story feels almost too quaint at times, and it’s easy to get distracted from what is an unabashedly hokey tale about hunting down a magic assassin with a most bizarre twist ending. It feels quite a bit like stumbling upon your parents’ old Police Action comics, and there’s a sense that Jerome is as much a deliberate trip down memory as a profoundly engaging narrative.
That may be the larger point, though. Dodier’s work is best seen as less of a direct story and more of an extended character study. It’s not just that we want Jerome to grow and come into himself; he’s a most compelling stand-in for our own thoughts and feelings. A totem of sorts for the unease and outright confusion that accompanies your early 20s. As Jerome steps through the world, trying to solve the mystery, he represents the molten passion, blinding idealism, rugged determination, and sheer earnestness young people subside off (that, and iced coffee and ramen).
Watching him move along his chosen path is a powerful emotional reminder of your own hopes and dreams, and there are plenty of things in the art and story that bolster that. Like his foppish movements and interactions with love interest Babette – physical signs of an uncertain boy becoming a man, and how powerfully awkward (and profoundly impactful) that transitory shuffle can be.
Speaking of the truly awkward, it’s important to note there are several instances where the story’s French origins are more abundant than a 30-foot mime. There’s no denying that country’s unique tastes (frog legs and a pious devotion to Jerry Lewis), and so they don’t always whet the appetite of American readers. There’s a breezy – dare I say laissez faire?! – pacing throughout the story, and even the most intense action moments won’t always ring true in the sweltering hearts of some Americans.
That’s in addition to moments – like Jerome eating chocolate and lounging about – that are almost too anti-climatic even for an artsy comic book. But even some of those misses only add to Jerome’s charm, a surge of awkwardness to help play up his position as good-natured dweeb. That clear sense of silliness and outdated vibe will certainly be a hamper to some readers,. However, it’s a nice blast from the past that tickles not just one’s innate nostalgia but offers a fresh window into story development and a narrative’s basic life-cycle.
I’ll be curious to see how subsequent stories/volumes are received. For a “debut” offering, The Shadow Killer does everything it should despite the clear language/culture barrier — namely, establish the basic universe, reveal our character (upsides and shortcomings included), set some kind of emotional tone, and leave us with an idea of what’s next (plenty of whimsical mysteries and motorized bicycles).
The fact that this translation worked so fluidly is a testament to the creators and characters alike. Timing and cultural static may affect Jerome’s reception for some readers – especially if you have other ideas in mind of the genre. Most people, though, will be too busy falling in love or buying their own detective hat to care too deeply.