Music is a notoriously difficult artform to depict on the comic-book page, but French cartoonist Blutch gives a master class in musical visualization with Total Jazz (Fantagraphics), a collection of comic strips originally published in Jazzman magazine. The majority have no dialogue, but they are far from silent. Blutch experiments with texture, contrast, and line quality to represent specific qualities of sound, and this expressive abstraction is the book’s most compelling feature.
Stan Getz’s name emerges from his saxophone when he plays, oozing out and morphing into legibility to reflect the smoothness and the underlying structure that becomes clear the longer he plays. By contrast, Wayne Shorter’s saxophone emits a thick black line that breaks apart and winds through the air, cutting through rather than filling the space. In “Sonny Sharrock,” Blutch uses wispy clouds, smoky swirls, and round bubbles to distinguish different sounds that are all pushed away in the chaotic black scribbles of Sharrock’s guitar.
The subject matter of Total Jazz shifts from observations about jazz culture to spotlights on famed musicians, and Blutch imbues these short comics—most are only a page long—with deep feeling and rich stories. “The Muse” tells the tale of a woman who was a muse for four different musicians over four decades, with each panel condensing an entire phase of her life in a single evocative snapshot. “The Secret Life Of Sun Ra” begins with the musician playing in his dramatic afrofuturistic garb, but suggests a much bigger story as he changes out of his costume and into his street clothes to ride the train home from the gig. He’s a larger-than-life presence on stage that seems to come from another plane of reality, but once the music stops, he’s back to being an ordinary man, riding public transportation with his briefcase, suit, and tie.
True Jazz begins on an uncomfortable note with a strip that uses Native American caricatures to explore Blutch’s insecurities about his work, and there are points in the book where racist imagery works against the overall reverence of Blutch’s work. “The Scene” shows a black man and woman having an argument that becomes physically violent, and they are drawn with the big white eyes, bushy hair, and thick round lips that are common across offensive visual representations of black people.
Blutch acknowledges these stereotypes later in “Study On The Prejudice Of Classic Comics Toward Jazz,” but that doesn’t stop him from reinforcing racist images in “The Scene.” It’s one of the generalized strips that isn’t about a specific person, place, or piece, and as the first appearance of black characters in the book, it undermines what follows with its alienating, crude point of view. Vulgarity is also an issue in “Viva Italia!”, a strip about the homogenization and fetishization of jazz in Italy that personifies the genre as a black woman who has her fingers and toes sucked by four barely distinguishable men. The racial dynamics of Blutch’s work get troublesome when he ventures away from specific experiences to make broader statements, and it puts a damper on an otherwise impressive collection of short comics.