Bernard Vrancken and Stephen Desberg
Cinebook (English Translation), 2008
IR$ is a Belgian comic book about an American tax inspector, translated to English for the British market by Cinebook. A comic about a tax man. Wild, right?
I picked it up as a nod to my abiding love for Pete Trask, T-Man, a mid-century comic hero who traveled the world investigating cash-related crimes for the American Treasury, getting in scrapes, and falling for fatal dames. This is more of that, but played serious. So serious! T-Man isn’t a joke book, but it’s a “ripping yarn”-style adventure title that allows its hero to be viewed as an affable buffoon as often as he’s the day-saver or the traditionally-molded hero.
IR$’s Larry B. Max never smiles, never wavers, and even when he’s caught short in a deadly woman’s bedroom by her evil-minded father, his line “Shit! How did I let myself get trapped a hundred yards from my car?” doesn’t seem spoken as amusing, self-effacement for the audience, but as a genuine question from the character to his own professionalism. That good ol’ Franco-Belgian doll-like precision—it’s what makes these unflamboyant action stories work. It’s so unAmerican. For some reason, that’s extra good in action stories about America. I suppose it’s a matter of the book being an outside observer of American culture as much as I, an English person, am. We are chatting behind our hands regarding what we notice about that big economy and those guns.
Because the figure work looks so much more down to earth than I am used to in a comic—by comparison, more realistic than house realism in American Market comics—it’s easier to discuss things in action movie terms. IR$ is the Daniel Craig James Bond of tax man comics, if you use that label to mean “about a man who uses stoicism and career aptitude to hide his emotional compromise and walks stone-faced through the whole world trying to murder him,” and not “an oddly paced disappointment I could nitpick all year.” There are good things about Daniel Craig James Bond and there are bad things about it, is what I am saying, and in my opinion IR$ takes the better and leaves the worse. (It’s not a chronologically fair comparison; IR$’ first volume was originally published, in French, in 1999, Brosnan’s tour of duty. If Daniel Craig’s James Bond had only been an IR$ adaptation! I’m sad that it wasn’t, now. I am!) There are some foibles of form that none of these subjects escape; Larry makes love to three woman in this ninety-six page volume and kills two of them. He seems to crave intimacy (you don’t have to sleep with a woman before you can look through her files), and find it easy to achieve physically, but place the job ahead of keeping it.
Throughout this volume a sense of encapsulation in the ongoing moment of “this case,” an impression of total focus, is achieved through Larry’s regular conversations with Gloria, a phone sex operator. He cagily updates her on his status, and they develop a sort of closeness, which is to be expected—that’s the point of her job. Larry calls her number (and pays the fee; the dialogue makes it very clear that he’s buying her time and expertise in customer service quite beyond the verbal eroticism she’s advertising, but which he asks to avoid—an exacting application of the “hostess as therapist” notion) in moments when it can be extrapolated that he’s nervous because he’s about to go and perform some adrenaline-filled secret agent task.
Allowing the audience to identify these moments of need for companionship by requiring Larry to purchase them, and additionally that this purchase is from someone who is appraised and appraising of her “provider” role, is contrary to the usual notion of secret agency. Larry doesn’t go and have a drink with his guy pal in the bar, masking his need for comfort by using casual contact and the don’t ask/don’t tell masculine template of public friendship to assuage the pangs. His neediness is not “emotional” or demonstrative, but it is shown to us, like a very subtle diagram.
The choice of a tax man character as the vehicle for an exhibition of humanity is very fascinating. This is a Biblically-derided profession that works on its employees as a social taint! There is a very careful sequence, which is used to introduce the death and victim that set the investigation of this volume in motion, in which a radio “plays,” in captions, a discussion of what the “average person” thinks of the IRS. Here’s an excerpt.
We have already been gently shown that Larry is neither inhuman nor a machine. We have seen he does not only care about money (and we will see that to far greater extent throughout the remainder of the book). I don’t think we’re asked to consider whether or how the IRS can be an inhuman machine when it is a machine of people; we are asked, in the other direction, what working within—being “a mechanism” of—this machine can or might do to a human person. Larry is clearly affected by the perception of his job in the minds of the people he meets. He takes the opportunity to show off (the most understated grandstanding you’ll ever see) how he can glean information about a person through their tax statements in front of an FBI agent, who is suitably impressed. In the first panels pictured here, Gloria amusingly says he could even be a tax inspector, and it causes him an entire panel of pause. His forehead creases. He’s looking at the ice water function of his fridge. (Get it? You get it) He’s lonely. But, or and, he’s dedicated. Larry B. Max has chosen his career, and he has found some coping mechanisms for the parts of it that don’t naturally nurture. I think I’m actually happy for him?
A deficit of connection is easy to identify as the consequence of a cool, spy lifestyle, but it is not easy to exhibit in fiction. IR$ achieves a portrait of that personal sacrifice for personal gain and without making its protagonist a tragedy.
Now, I mentioned “Biblical” disdain for tax collectors. Let me address the elephant in the room. The blurb for this book might easily make a prospective reader shy away,
“Larry B. Max is an unusual specialist from a little-known branch of the I.R.S. (Internal Revenue Service), the all-powerful tax-collecting agency of the United States. Reading into tax-evasion and money-laundering rings the way a virtuoso pianist would read a sheet of Mozart, Max has every technological method at his disposal to find links between high finance and high crime. In the first album, he must look into a particularly delicate file belonging to a rich Jewish-American, known for his involvement in recovering items that were confiscated by the Nazis. Dissecting this billionaire’s accounts, Max embarks on a dangerous journey to find the mysterious origins of the man’s immense fortune… ”
The first question that springs to mind, “Is this a vehicle for antisemitism?” No. In fact, IR$’ first English-language volume (Cinebook’s release contains two volumes of the original Franco-Belgian printing) is a Jewish revenge story, a Holocaust reckoning, which ends with very purposeful visual inversion of extremely recognisable tropes from World War II era crime journalism, testimony, and cinematic narrative. At the end, the Nazis get theirs, after Larry discovers the dirty details, like just how much of what wasn’t theirs they took and how. Almost from the beginning rich Jewish Americans and less-rich Jewish Europeans both appear in entirely sympathetic (really almost empathetic) roles, in innocence. The betrayals of humanity, community-sized and directly personal, that it takes to be a Nazi, or to stand with Nazism—the scope of evil—are given testimony, slowly and carefully.
Have you noticed how often I’ve said “clear,” “precise,” and “careful” in my description of this book? IR$ takes pains (pains that remain largely untaken in T-Man, alas) to examine economic history, how money, and access to money, and authority over money, and the power each of these afford or deny individuals and demographics, have shaped people and places and perceptions. I suppose it’s a story about capitalism, and the navigation of, or even the possibility of defining, morality within a state of historic capitalism.