Jacques Tardi’s The Arctic Marauder is a rip roaring, rollicking yarn set on the icy seas. When a young doctor searches for his uncle, he is lead down a path of mystery involving the destruction of sailing vessels within the northern reaches of the Atlantic Ocean. Tardi’s work brings to mind the classic science fiction adventures of Jules Verne, both in plot and in an art style that carries shades of Edward Gorey. An unquestionably stunning piece of work, it is brought down a bit by the truncated nature of the story.
The Arctic Marauder is set within a alternate version of 1889 that has embraced the technological and aesthetic advances brought on by steampunk (or “icepunk,” as the book suggests). Flying machines, underwater bases, and sailing ships powered by engines all benefit from this technological revolution. Jerome Plumier is a young doctor aboard the L’anjou when its crew makes a haunting discovery: a dead ship stuck atop an iceberg. Investigating the remains, Jerome, the ship’s captain, and a small compliment of crew board the frozen ship only to watch in horror as the L’anjou suddenly explodes under unknown circumstances. Surviving the trial, Jerome goes to London to seek out his uncle only to find out that he has died. Poking around his uncle’s home he uncovers strange equipment and experiments that suggests its occupant left in an immediate hurry. This sends Jerome off on a personal investigation to find out more about his uncle, a journey that leads him to a most unlikely place.
Tardi’s work would have been more fun to read if there were better cohesion between chapters. Most of the chapters are short moments of Jerome’s life, be it his exploration of his uncle’s estate or a train ride. Left with few clues to the nature of his uncle’s work, there’s very little information for Jerome to go on, thus making his adventure one built on being in the right place at the right time. The story gets better when the plot finds its footing, making the final third of the book a funny (unintentionally so?) yarn in which villains work together to move against the world for slighting their achievements.
With the plot being rather weak, the immediate draw of the graphic novel is the gorgeous illustrations. This is very much a case of style over substance, with the oversized pages filled with an antiquated, yet dazzling, art style resembling that of the old European woodcut drawings. The work is at its best when depicting environments and landscapes. Toward the end of the book, when Jerome has a life altering meeting with two industrialists, walls of text take up the majority of panels. The Arctic Marauder is great so long as the characters stay out of the way.
It’s hard to recommend Tardi’s graphic novel. It offers a gorgeous collection of vintage artwork that steampunk fans will love. However, the story is simplistic and rather threadbare. It’s not particularly exciting and the mystery isn’t substantial enough to render the reader powerless against the oft uttered phrase, “Just one more chapter….” Entertaining in a retro/vintage sort of way, The Arctic Marauder is pretty to look at, but not much else.