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This cop's life is an open book

A French anti-terrorism officer's adventures are chronicled in comic form. The result is Pierre Dragon, a critical and popular smash.

August 18, 2007|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — There are two Pierre Dragons.

Pierre Dragon, comic book hero, prowls the shadows of Paris leading a police intelligence unit on the trail of terrorists. He sweats through all-night stakeouts. He wolfs meals in greasy kebab joints. He slams a thug through a plate-glass window during a neon-lit barroom brawl.

The second Pierre Dragon resembles the illustrated cop. He's also a 41-year-old ex-commando. A 21-year police veteran whose first brush with terrorism came in the subterranean carnage of a bombing that killed eight people at a train station here in 1995. A son of Spanish immigrants who is swarthy and brawny enough to operate in Middle Eastern and North African underworlds.

Pierre Dragon is the nom de plume and alter ego of an active-duty anti-terrorism chief who has become the first cop in France, and perhaps anywhere, to write a comic book based on his real-life adventures. This May, a respected Paris publishing house scored a hit with a graphic novel that brings together two quintessentially French institutions: the BD and the RG.

Because the French like to use acronyms, often without throwing foreigners an explanatory bone, that's how a newspaper here would sum up the story. But for the rest of us, BD stands for Bande Dessinee, a genre of hardback comic book that is a huge industry here. RG is Renseignements Generaux, or General Intelligence, the domestic espionage division of the national police long permeated with an aura of secrecy and power.

" 'RG' are the two little letters that have always struck fear," said the author, whose real name remains a secret on orders of his bosses. "I wanted to show the secret workings of that world. The daily life of a unit that works in anti-terrorism. Investigations, surveillance, but also life outside: shopping, family problems, kids."

The first issue of the series is titled "RG: Riyadh on the Seine." Dragon and Frederik Peeters, the Swiss illustrator, depict the tedium, tension and occasional adrenaline blasts of anti-terrorism work. They decode the argot: "tonton," or "uncle," means informant; "planque," or "hide-out," means a surveillance safe house; "serrer," or "grip," means to arrest. They reveal tricks of the trade: Fearing that a suspect under surveillance has spotted him and his partner in a parked taxi, Dragon calls in uniformed officers to roust them at gunpoint and preserve his cover.

The Francophone world has long had a taste for comic book heroes, such as Tintin, the pointy-haired globe-trotter created by a Belgian in 1929, and Asterix, the warrior of Gaul. In the late 1960s, the genre grew into a craze. Exploring politics, history and a range of storytelling techniques, the BD became popular with young intellectuals and gained a cultural status on par with painting and literature.

In a sign of that reverence, the French call their highbrow hardbacks "albums." Peeters paints a moody and cinematic portrait of Parisian splendor and grit: the morning sun illuminating the Pont Neuf over the Seine, a hawk perched on a fence in a graffiti-splattered industrial wasteland.

"On more than one level, 'RG' is an exceptional album," a reviewer in Le Figaro newspaper wrote. "With increasing fascination, it insinuates one into the routine of a team of cops on stakeout in Paris. . . . On the border between documentary and genre film, this is the first great police procedural in a comic book."

"RG" joins the works of an emerging generation of "creative cops," a trend reminiscent of Joseph Wambaugh, the LAPD veteran who launched a spectacular literary career in 1971.

Three slice-of-life books came out recently by French officers-turned-authors: a female lieutenant who dabbles in poetry on her blog; a veteran commander in the riot-torn Seine-Saint-Denis district north of Paris; and a young officer of North African descent who says he witnessed abuse and racism while serving in the riot squad.

Dragon recounts the investigation of a Lebanese gang that finances international terrorism with a contraband clothing racket and a limousine service catering to Saudi high-rollers, who in the summer turn Paris into "Riyadh on the Seine" -- a reference to the Saudi capital. The fictional Dragon also finds time to squabble with his ex-wife, dote on his teenage daughter and romance a woman working in a dental clinic that his scruffy team has borrowed for a stakeout.

The book has made its mark with rigorous, detailed realism. But the plot makes small compromises in the name of art and commerce, such as a scene in which the hero bluffs and bullies his way into the U.S. Embassy to enlist the help of the FBI attache. The author acknowledges that John Wayne tactics are unnecessary because French and American agencies have well-structured communication channels.

"There is super cooperation, and it would not work that way," he said. "But overall, I was happy. All of my colleagues who read it said the details were right on the mark."

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