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Roach Killer. By Jacques Tardi and Benjamin Legrand. Translated by Randy and Jean-Marc Lofficier. New York: NBM, 1992. 60p. $11.95. ISBN 1-56163-054-3.

Crime and mystery fiction; surrealist fiction

Adults, teens; violence, sex, adult situations

Speaking from a darkened, barred room, Howard Eisenhower reminisces about the circumstances that brought him to this room. He had been an exterminator with Blitz Exterminating Company; more than that, he was an insecure, scrawny man with an unusual past. Born during the war in Nazi Germany, he was sold to an American GI by his birth mother. The GI promised to come back for the other eight children but got out of the agreement by claiming that Howard had died in transit. Now Howard lives with his adoptive mother, who is confined to a wheelchair.

Anyway, while going about his exterminating chores in New York City, he is called to a 12th-floor doctor's office to zap the roaches there. However, when he enters the office building, he sees that the building has a 13th floor. He hadn't realized that any NY buildings had 13th floors, and, curious, he punches that button. When he arrives at this otherwise perfectly ordinary floor, he overhears a couple of men discussing murders for hire behind a closed door, and Howard quickly gets out of there. But the man who is waiting for him on the 12th floor is spooky and suspicious, and after Howard sprays the office, he leaves the building very nervously. To calm himself, he enters a bar, where he meets a co-worker, Luis, a hard-bitten Puerto Rican. Immediately recognizing that Howard is frightened about something--especially when the man from the doctor's office and a fellow goon walks past the bar window--Luis sneaks Howard out the back door of the bar and takes him to his apartment in the barrio. A former gang member, Luis seems to feel that there's money in Howard's story, and he goes to check out the 13th floor while Howard waits with Luis's friend Herminio.

While Luis is gone, his voodoo-practicing sister comes in and starts making predictions about Howard, how "Death follow you!" She ends up forcing herself on him, and Luis comes home in the middle of their sex. Luis is furious both over this and over the fact that he found nothing on the 13th floor. He strikes Howard, but then they sit down to watch the movie Patton [yeah, this didn't make any sense to me, either], and Howard falls asleep and dreams about killing Nazi roaches, one of whom is his real father. He awakens in the morning to find Herminio asleep and Luis gone to work.

Walking through the blasted landscape of the barrio, Howard buys a newspaper, but while he sits in a bar to read it, he looks outside and sees Luis and several of his friends confront the two goons from the previous day. In a few seconds, three of the men are dead, and Luis is kidnapping the doctor's-office goon. Howard walks away from this but is picked up later by Luis, who intends to turn him over to the goons for "a suitcase full of cash." However, the goons have gone to Luis's apartment, trashed the place, killed Herminio, and kidnapped Luis's sister. They later call Luis at a random pay phone (demonstrating their power), and the exchange becomes Howard for the sister. However, the goons are much smarter and better organized than Luis; Luis, his sister, and another friend end up dying, and Howard is framed for the murder and made to look like a lunatic. But that's perfect for the shadow organization of the goons; they have use for a man already "known" to be a crazy killer.

Besides the short introduction by art spiegelman (who has the gesture returned in the book when his last name is used as the name of a business), there are two other pieces of prose: "Necromobile," by Legrand, which apparently bridges the gap between two pieces of sequential art, and an afterword by Tardi.

What's black and white and red all over? This book. The only color used is on the Blitz uniform and truck and on such archetypical red things as blood, Nazi uniforms, and stripes on the American flag. Indeed, Luis occasionally refers to Howard as "Santa Claus," as Luis took off his uniform early in the story but Howard continues to wear his. This is a very striking visual convention, making Howard stand out like crazy (hah) in the gritty, black-and-white world of New York City. The final sequence, when Howard leaves the psychiatric ward, has his drawn image meandering through real B&W photographs of the city; what's scary is that he still fits in.... Anyway, the background art in general is exceptionally realistic, with the human figures mostly goony or ugly (with the exception of Luis and his sister). So, visually, there's little wrong with this book. (Though the lettering is a bit problematic; often, capital D's look like capital P's, and I kept reading "Berlin" as "Berun" and wondering where this "Berun" place was in Germany.)

The problem really lies in the story. No surprise why art spiegelman focuses largely on the art ("No comix artist has ever captured a Sense of Place with greater skill") in his intro. This is one of those pretentious, artsy "insanity" books that irk me. Sometimes the reader is asked to accept fairly outrageous things--there are a couple of "Huh?" moments that even the possiblity that Howard's memory is faulty don't explain them, like the "Patton" one mentioned above, or Luis's mercenary beliefs about what he might find on the 13th floor (I mean, why would that seem to be a money-making possibility?). The latter is a key point that gets Luis involved in the story, so its shakiness is a real problem.

So maybe Howard is crazy and sees things only as he believes they happened. Well, that's a copout--too many people use insanity as a substitute for intelligible plotting and believable events. I'm also getting tired of thoroughly colorless heroes around whom events swirl uncontrollably. Howard's expression almost never changes; the only real emotion he ever displays is fear. (Let's face it, when the act that sets all this in motion is the pressing of an elevator button, you know this isn't a dynamic character.) Frankly, I was more interested in the amoral Luis, who at least was lively and trying to make events work for him.

Another problem is that some extremely important information only comes out in Legrand's text piece or Tardi's afterword. For example, the shady organization employs whackos to kill famous people in order to make sure no suspicion falls on the organization. Well and good, but why couldn't that be part of the drawn story rather than explained in text? If, for example, instead of the head of the shady organization referring to "the rock star" (the seemingly out-of-context reference confused me when I first encountered it), why not use "Lennon"? That one word would have clearly explained the purpose of the organization and rendered all the textual explanation unnecessary.

The story is only for fans of Tardi. However, the book may be of interest to budding serious comics artists for its stunning visuals.


Copyright 2000, D. Aviva Rothschild


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