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This cop’s life is an open book

Times Staff Writer

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.

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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.

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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.”

Dragon’s artistic adventure began during the international furor over caricatures of the prophet Muhammad published by a Danish newspaper in September 2005, setting off anger, violence and a debate about freedom of the press and religious tolerance. When Charlie Hebdo, a satirical weekly here, published the cartoons the following February, Muslim extremists responded with threats.

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Dragon’s unit got involved in protecting the staff. During a meal with journalists and writers, he met Joann Sfar, an editor at the Gallimard publishing house. After a session of hearing his war stories, Sfar asked him whether he would be interested in participating in a comic book project.

Faithful to his culture of secrecy, Dragon had to think it over and ask his bosses for permission. His response: “As long as it’s poetry, I am allowed to do it.”

At first, the editors saw him as a consultant. But a full-fledged collaboration soon evolved with Peeters, 32, a star author of titles about science fiction and AIDS. The diversity of the topics illustrates the breadth of the BD phenomenon here.

Last year, the industry published 4,000 titles and sold 13 million copies; more than half of French young adults read BDs, according to some surveys. A 34-year-old comic book festival held in the southwestern town of Angouleme draws about 200,000 participants a year.

Dragon was not a BD enthusiast. Nor did he have literary aspirations. The creative partnership took the form of long talks and walks with Peeters, who armed himself with a camera to hunt atmosphere. The illustrator’s chief interest was the man behind the badge.

“A cop BD was not really his thing,” Dragon recalled. “It was more about the people. I would tell him a story and he would say: ‘That’s good, but difficult to put on the page. We need to do it in a different way.’ He’s very talented. And by now he’s starting to talk a bit like a cop.”

The mission of the RG agency lends itself to writerly analysis and introspection. Few law enforcement agencies involve such a mix of political and sociological analysis, clandestine intelligence-gathering and U.S.-style community policing.

“It’s pretty unique. I have trouble finding an equivalent,” Dragon said. “It has a presence all over the national territory and keeps an eye on any movement that could pose problems.”

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The tradition of spying on the citizenry here dates to the days of kings and emperors. But the Renseignements Generaux began a century ago and spread its net throughout society, developing massive dossiers, armies of informants and the nickname “The Big Ears.”

The main targets were fascists, leftists and labor unions, but officers did everything from monitor casinos to act as liaisons to religious leaders.

RG officers tend to have a nuanced understanding of topics such as Islam and politics and a worldly flair. A recently retired chief rode a Harley- Davidson motorcycle, belonged to a cultural association that aided young artists and had an encyclopedic collection of Hollywood Westerns.

French intellectuals have often been criticized for putting theory before practice and words before substance. But the hard-nosed street sociologists of the RG ground their vision in reality. They had warned for years about the danger of nationwide riots like the ones that erupted in fall of 2005 and, somehow, caught the elite off-guard.

In recent years, the agency has toned down its less savory, police-state aspects.

The current priorities are battling Islamic extremism and urban violence, subcultures that often intertwine in vast immigrant slums.

But more change looms. The government has begun a delicate attempt to consolidate intelligence services that have engaged in longtime turf rivalries. The first step took place recently when the RG and other agencies were placed in the same high-tech headquarters on the outskirts of Paris.

The end of “Riyadh on the Seine” is therefore topical. Just as Dragon’s investigation gathers steam, he gets big-footed by the powerful DST, the national counter-espionage agency, which takes over his case.

Meanwhile, the real-life Dragon and Peeters have plunged into work on a second issue, due next spring, about gangs that traffic in illegal Asian immigrants.

The theme, Dragon said: “Man’s exploitation of man. It’s about an investigation, but it also spends more time exploring the human side. The terrible things the cops encounter during the case really affect them. They can’t just stay focused on the investigation. It forces them to reflect on human misery.”

rotella@latimes.com


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