Tardi was born on 30 August 1946 in Valence, Drôme. After graduating from the École nationale des beaux-arts de Lyon and the École nationale supérieure des arts décoratifs in Paris, he started drawing comics in 1969, at the age of 23, in the Franco-Belgian comics magazine Pilote, initially illustrating short stories written by Jean Giraud and Serge de Beketch, before creating the political fiction story Rumeur sur le Rouergue from a scenario by Pierre Christin in 1972.
A highly versatile artist, Tardi successfully adapted novels by controversial writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline and crime novelist Léo Malet. In Malet's case, Tardi adapted his detective hero Nestor Burma into a series of critically acclaimed graphic novels, though he also wrote and drew original stories of his own.
Tardi also created one of French comics' most famous heroines, . This series recreates the Paris of early 20th century where the moody heroine encounters supernatural events, state plots, occult societies and experiments in cryogenics.
Another graphic novel was
Ici Même which was written by Jean-Claude Forest, best known as the creator of Barbarella. A satire, it describes the adventures of Arthur Même who lives on the walls of his family's former property.
Tardi has produced many antiwar graphic novels and comics, mainly focusing on the collective European trauma of the First World War, and the pitfalls of patriotism spawned several albums (Adieu Brindavoine, C'était la guerre des tranchées, Le trou d'obus, Putain de Guerre...). His grandfather's involvement in the day-to-day horrors of trench warfare, seems to have had a deep influence on his artistic expression. He also completed a four-volume series on the Paris Commune, Le cri du peuple.
In the English language, many of Tardi's books are published by Fantagraphics Books, edited and translated by Fantagraphics' co-founder Kim Thompson. Books published by Fantagraphics include West Coast Blues (Le Petit bleu de la côte ouest), You Are There (Ici Même), It Was the War of the Trenches (C'était la guerre des tranchées), Like a Sniper Lining Up His Shot (La Position du tireur couché) and The Arctic Marauder (Le Démon des glaces). Four books, including two albums collecting the first four Adele Blanc-Sec volumes, were previously published by NBM Publishing, the previous rightsholder to Tardi's works, in translations by Jean-Marc Lofficier and Randy Lofficier.
In January 2013, Tardi was nominated as a Chevalier in France's Legion of Honour, the country's highest distinction. However, he turned down the distinction, citing that he will "remain a free man and not be held hostage by any power whatsoever."