The Bluecoats volume 6: Bronco Benny


By Willy Lambil & Raoul Cauvin, translated by Erica Jeffrey (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-146-4

The glamour of the American Experience has fascinated Europeans virtually since the actual days of owlhoots and gunfighters. Hergé was an absolute devotee, and the spectrum of memorable comics ranges from Italy’s Tex Willer to such Franco-Belgian classics as Blueberry and Lucky Luke, and even to colonial dramas such as Pioneers of the New World or Milo Manara & Hugo Pratt’s Indian Summer.

Les Tuniques Bleues began at the end of the 1960s, created by Louis “Salvé” Salvérius & Raoul Colvin – who has solo-written every best-selling volume since. The strip was created to replace Lucky Luke when the laconic gunslinger defected from weekly anthology Spirou to rival comic Pilote, and his rapidly-rendered replacement swiftly became one of the most popular bande dessinée series on the Continent.

Salvé was a cartoonist of the Gallic big-foot/big-nose humour style, and when he died suddenly in 1972 his replacement, Willy “Lambil” Lambillotte slowly introduced a more realistic – although still broadly comedic – illustrative manner. Lambil is Belgian-born (in 1936) and – after studying Fine Art in college – joined publishing giant Dupuis as a letterer in 1952.

Born in 1938, scripter Raoul Cauvin is also Belgian and before joining Dupuis’ animation department in 1960 studied Lithography. He soon discovered his true calling as a comedy writer and began a glittering and prolific career at Spirou.

In addition to Bluecoats he has written dozens of other long-running, award winning series including Cédric, Les Femmes en Blanc and Agent 212: more than 240 separate albums. The Bluecoats alone has sold more than 15 million copies.

The sorry protagonists of the series are Sergeant Cornelius Chesterfield and Corporal Blutch: a pair of worthy fools in the manner of Laurel and Hardy, hapless, ill-starred US cavalrymen posted to the wild frontier and various key points of mythic America.

The original format was single-page gags about an Indian-plagued Wild West fort, but with the second volume ‘Du Nord au Sud’ (North and South) the sad-sack soldiers went back East to fight in the American Civil War (this tale was rewritten in the 18th album ‘Blue rétro’ to describe how the chumps were drafted into the military during the war). All subsequent adventures, despite ranging far beyond the traditional environs of America and taking in a lot of genuine and thoroughly researched history, are set within the timeframe of the Secession conflict.

Blutch is your average whinging little-man-in-the street: work-shy, mouthy, devious and especially critical of the army and its inept commanders. Ducking, diving, even deserting whenever he can, he’s you or me – except sometimes he’s quite smart and heroic if no other easier option is available.

Chesterfield is a big burly man; a career soldier who has passionately bought into all the patriotism and esprit-de-corps of the Military. He is brave, never shirks his duty and wants to be a hero. He also loves his cynical little pal. They quarrel like a married couple, fight like brothers but simply cannot agree on the point and purpose of the horrendous war they are trapped in…

Bronco Benny is the sixth translated Cinebook album (chronologically the 16th French volume) and opens with our surly stalwarts waiting at a rail depot for much-needed fresh materiel…

As usual the war has stalled due to lack of crucial resources. This time the dearth is horses to ride, but when the train carrying the replacement mounts unloads, what Chesterfield and Blutch find is a shambles which makes them want to laugh and cry…

The smugly-isolated General Staff quickly retire to their comfortable residence and are soon back in high-level conference. Callously obnoxious Young Turk Captain Stillman posits a most practical – if appallingly unethical – solution to the equine stalemate: don’t pay the soldiers until after the forthcoming battle and use the money to purchase mounts from horse traders beyond the western mountains. To make sure the sale and transport goes according to plan the Captain intends sending the smallest military detail possible, but they will be accompanied by Bronco Benny, the greatest horse-breaker in the world…

Next day, luckless Blutch and Chesterfield set out on the suicide mission they have been volunteered for with strong, silent Benny in attendance. They are astounded by how easily they pass through Confederate pickets and defences. They also have no idea that the enemy is well aware of the plan and is allowing them expedited passage…

Travelling the arid rocky region to the traders’ ranch our heroes are surprised when a band of Indians attack. The Bluecoats only escape through sheer dumb luck and after rendezvousing with the mustang-hunters discover the natives are in uproar because the horsemen have captured a magnificent white stallion the Indians revere as a god…

It’s love at first sight for Benny. He is utterly smitten with the mustang dubbed “Traveller” and the next few days fade to a bruised blur as he strives to break the mighty wonder horse. Sadly, after he does, the true nature of the horse-traders is exposed and Blutch and Chesterfield realise they’ve been suckered yet again…

However, even after being deprived of cash, horses and dignity and left to die at the hands of the furious Indians, Sarge has a plan to fix things and, whilst it doesn’t exactly work as expected, it does get him and his pals back to Union lines in time to witness one more horrific, pointlessly stupid battle and subsequent slaughter with no apparent winner…

This is another hugely amusing savagely anti-war saga targeting young and less cynical audiences. Historically authentic, always in good taste despite its uncompromising portrayal of violence, the attitudes expressed by the down-to-earth pair never make battle anything but arrant folly and, like the hilarious yet insanely tragic war-memoirs of Spike Milligan, these are comedic tales whose very humour makes the occasional moments of shocking verity doubly powerful and hard-hitting.

Fun, informative, beautifully realised and eminently readable, Bluecoats is the sort of war-story that appeals to the best, not worst, of the human spirit.
© Dupuis 1980 by Lambil & Cauvin. English translation © 2012 Cinebook Ltd. All rights reserved.

Graveslinger


By Shannon Eric Denton, Jeff Mariotte, John Cboins, Nima Sorat & various (IDW Publishing)
ISBN: 978-1-60010-364-3

The iconography and intrinsic philosophy of the western is so strong that it will readily mix-&-match with any other narrative genre.

Space Cowboys? Done.

Murder mystery? War?

Culture clash; political thriller; buddy movie; coming-of-age-drama; romance; epic quest? All covered in landmark cowboy books and/or film tales.

However – probably due to the brutal nature and subtext of the Wild West mythos – the most effective genre-mash-ups have always involved broad humour or supernatural shock.

Intriguing case in point is this short, sharp saga written by Shannon Eric Denton (The Revenant) and Jeff Mariotte (Desperadoes), beguilingly brought to un-life by illustrators John Cboins and Nima Sorat, with the whole chilling confection coloured by Chris Wood & Carlos Badilla with lettering courtesy of Ed Dukeshire.

Originally released in 2009 as a 4-issue miniseries, the tale is by no means an original one, but is stylishly undertaken (that’s a freebie from a veteran punslinger, folks) and rattles along at a breakneck pace to its gory conclusion…

The drama begins in ‘The Devil’s Playground’ as a strangely gaunt man closes in on a night-time campfire. With little ceremony the top-hatted old timer despatches the man-like things basking in the fire’s glow and dumps them unceremoniously in the coffin on the wagon pulled by his trusty mule Lucifer

In the growing daylight Frank Timmons meets some riders whilst crossing spartan cattle country and learns that a range war is brewing between the independent ranchers and merciless cattle-baron Harvey Newell.

Frank has no time for their petty problems as he is involved in a relentless pursuit. He used to be the undertaker at Gila Flats Territorial Prison and, after a recent incident, has been tasked with tracking down some very dangerous escapees…

As Timmons heads on, one of the cowboys joins him. Will Saylor already suspects something nasty is occurring and, since the manhunter’s course is in a direct line for his own stead – where his wife and daughters are waiting – Will thinks he ought to be heading home…

As they near the ranch Will’s worst suspicions are confirmed. Timmons is no normal bounty killer and the things threatening his family stopped breathing a long time ago. They also seem immune to his bullets and crave living human flesh…

The old man does have a few advantages of his own, however, and before long has the dead men on the run and the women-folk back with the horrified Will…

The hunter’s problems grow in ‘The Undertaker’s Lament’ as Frank shares a few more unwholesome truths with Will, even as miles distant, the bulk of the risen dead Timmons has been following introduce themselves to local tyrant Newell.

Timmons was not a good man when he worked at Gila Flats: abusing his position for profit and living the high life with a local woman named Dorothy. Things started to go bad in 1878 when Frank was cursed by hardened killer Bart Bevard as he fought the noose around his neck. They then got much worse when Frank desecrated the corpse of Mexican witch-man El Brujo to steal the shaman’s fancy amulet.

That night 117 corpses dug themselves out of the Boneyard and went on a ravenous killing spree, slaughtering an entire town… including Dorothy…

And that’s when something truly diabolical spoke to Frank: offering him a deal he could not refuse. Hell wanted its escaped souls back and, if Frank delivered them. he might be reunited with Dorothy…

As Frank and Will reach the local town to spread a warning, they are caught in a lethal ambush. However it isn’t Bevard’s corpse gang but Newell’s bully boys gunning for them. Faced with ‘The Good, the Bad, & the Undead’ Frank needs to make a quick decision about temporarily abandoning his unholy mission…

After an horrific gun battle he manages to convince a few cowed survivors to join him in a raid on Newell’s ranch for a showdown with the human monster before his own final apocalyptic confrontation with Bevard and ‘The Malevolent Six’ zombies he still commands…

And when the shooting stops Frank and Lucifer the mule head for the sunset, painfully aware that they still have 107 more soiled souls to send to the inferno before they can rest…

Simple, straightforward, eerily evocative and leavened with just the right amount of gallows humour, Graveslinger was quickly optioned for eventual movie glory – although to me it smacks more of numerous TV episodes rather than 120-odd minutes of supernatural shoot-outs – but the original comicbook inspiration has all but vanished from sight, despite its welcoming premise, solid action ethic and the vast gallery of guest art (three dozen potent and powerful pieces by the likes of Adam Archer, Bloodworth, Francesco Francavilla, Michael Geiger, Phil Noto, Tom Mandrake and others) that came with the collected edition.

If you’re in the mood for spooky six-gun thrills, Graveslinger is well worth tracking down in either printed or digital editions.
© 2009 Shannon Eric Denton and Jeff Mariotte. All rights reserved

Jonah Hex: Welcome to Paradise


By John Albano, Michael Fleischer, Tony DeZuñiga, Doug Wildey, Noly Panaligan, George Moliterni, José Luis García-López & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-2757-9

Western stories are shaped by an odd duality. The genre can almost be sub-divided into two discrete halves: the sparkly, shiny version that dominated kids’ books, comics and television for decades, as typified by Zane Grey stories and heroes such as Roy Rogers and Gene Autry – and the other stuff.

That kind of cowboy tale- grimy, gritty, excessively dark – was done best for years by Europeans in such strips as Jean-Michel Charlier’s Lieutenant Blueberry or Bonelli and Galleppini’s Tex Willer which gradually made their way into US culture through the films of Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone. Jonah Hex is the USA’s greatest example of the latter sort…

DC (or National Periodicals as it then as) had generated a stable of clean-cut gun-slingers since the collapse of the super-hero genre in 1949, with such dashing – and highly readable – luminaries as Johnny Thunder, The Trigger Twins, Nighthawk, Matt Savage and dozens of others in a marketplace that seemed insatiable in its voracious hunger for chaps in chaps. However, all things end, and by the early sixties the sagebrush stalwarts had dwindled to a few venerable properties.

As the 1960s closed, thematic changes in the cinematic Cowboy filtered through to a comics industry suffering its second super-hero sundown in twenty years. Although a critical success, the light-hearted Western series Bat Lash couldn’t garner a solid following, but DC, desperate for a genre readers would warm to, retrenched and revived an old title, gambling once again on heroes who were no longer simply boy scouts with six-guns.

All-Star Western #1 was released with an August/September 1970 cover date, filled with Pow-Wow Smith reprints and became an all-new anthology with its second bi-monthly issue. The magazine was allocated a large number of creative all-stars, including Robert Kanigher, Neal Adams, Gray Morrow, Al Williamson, Gil Kane, Angelo Torres and Dick Giordano, working on such strips as Outlaw!, Billy the Kid and the cult sleeper hit El Diablo, which combined shoot-’em-up shenanigans with supernatural chills, in deference to the real hit genre-type that saved comics in those dark days: horror comics…

It wasn’t until the tenth issue and introduction of a grotesquely disfigured, irascible bounty hunter created by writer John Albano and Tony DeZuñiga that the company found its greatest and most enduring Western warrior.

This superb collection of the garish gunman’s early appearances has been around for a few years, with no apparent sign of a sequel yet, so consider this a heartfelt attempt to generate a few sales and more interest…

Our star is the very model of the modern anti-hero. Jonah Hex first appeared in All-Star Comics #10, a coarse and callous bounty hunter clad in shabbily battered Confederate Grey tunic and hat, half his face lost to some hideous past injury; a brutal thug little better than the scum he hunted – and certainly a man to avoid…

Collecting key stories from All-Star Western #10, Weird Western Tales #14, 17, 22, 26, 29, 30 and Jonah Hex #2 and 4 (ranging from March 1972 to September 1977), the grisly gunplay begins with Albano & DeZuñiga’s ‘Welcome to Paradise’ which introduced the character and his world in a powerful action thriller, with a subtle sting of sentimentality that anyone who has seen the classic western “Shane” cannot fail to appreciate.

From the first bullets blazing, blistering set-up Albano was constantly hinting at the tortured depths hidden behind Hex’s hellishly scarred visage and deadly proficiency. With the next issue the comic had been re-titled Weird Western Tales (aligning it with the company’s highly successful horror/mystery books) and the adventures continually plumbed the depths oh human malice and depravity…

From the very start the series sought to redress some of the most unpalatable motifs of old style cowboy literature and any fan of films like Soldier Blue or Little Big Man or familiar with Dee Brown’s iconoclastic book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee will feel a grim sense of vicarious satisfaction and redress at most of the stories here.

There’s also a huge degree of world-weary cynicism that wasn’t to be found in other comics until well past the Watergate Scandal, when America as whole lost its social and political innocence…

From Weird Western #14, ‘Killers Die Alone!’ – by Albano & DeZuñiga – is a vicious tear jerker of a tale where Hex’s only friend valiantly dies to save him the vengeance of killers who blame the bounty hunter for their brother’s death. There is then a reckoning that is the stuff of nightmares…

‘The Hangin’ Woman’ (WWT #17) is a classy thriller wherein Hex runs afoul of a sadistic harridan who rules her hometown with hemp and hot lead before meeting an ending both ironic and much-deserved…

It was left to new writer Michael Fleisher (assisted at first by Russell Carley) to reveal Hex’s secrets, beginning with Weird Western Tales #22’s ‘Showdown at Hard Times’. A chance meeting in a stagecoach put a cabal of ex-Confederate soldiers on the trail of their ex-comrade for some unspecified earlier betrayal and it inevitably ended in a six-gun bloodbath, whilst creating an ominous returning nemesis for the grizzled gunslinger.

Train-robbers were the bad guys in the superb traditionally-informed caper ‘Face-Off with the Gallagher Boys!’ scripted by Fleischer and illustrated by the inimitable Doug Wildey, after which more details of Jonah’s chequered past are revealed in #29’s ‘Breakout at Fort Charlotte’ limned by Noly Panaligan. It was the first chapter of a two-part extravaganza that gorily concluded in #30 in ‘The Trial’ (illustrated by George Moliterni) as a battalion of Confederate veterans and former comrades-in-arms passed judgement on the man they believed to be the worst traitor in the history of the South…

Eventually Hex graduated from Weird Western Tales into his own solo title and the final brace of tales in this primal primer are both drawn by the magnificent José Luis García-López. In ‘The Lair of the Parrot!’, Fleischer has the doom-drenched wanderer sucked into a scheme designed by US Secret Service agent Ned Landon to infiltrate the gang of flamboyant Mexican bandit and border raider El Papagayo. Hex is none to happy when he finally realises Landon has been playing both sides for personal gain and left the bounty hunter to the brigand’s tender mercies after framing him for murder in Texas…

The tale continues in ‘The Day of the Chameleon!’ as a disguise artist steals Hex’s identity to perpetrate even more brazen crimes at the behest of a rich and powerful man determined to destroy bounty hunter at all costs…

Happily Jonah has unsuspected allies determined to save him from the villain and his own prideful stubborn nature…

With a cover gallery by DeZuñiga, Luis Dominguez and García-López, this splendid selection of uncanny exploits proves Jonah Hex is the most unique and original character in cowboy comics: darkly comedic, riotously rowdy, chilling and cathartically satisfying. His saga is a Western for those who despise the form whilst being the perfect modern interpretation of a great storytelling tradition. No matter what your reading preference, this is a collection you don’t want to miss.
© 1972-1975, 1977, 2010 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Galveston


By Johanna Stokes, Ross Richie, Todd Herman & various (Boom! Studios)
ISBN: 978-1-93450-668-4

At the beginning of the 19th century, Jean Baptiste Lafitte was a French privateer based in New Orleans – and later Barataria Bay – who famously turned down a huge bribe from the British and instead stood beside the Americans during the War of 1812. His alliance with General Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans is the stuff of American mythology.

When the victorious Americans then started cracking down on piracy, Jean and his older brother Pierre became spies for the Spaniards during the Mexican War of Independence (1810-1821), relocating to Galveston Island, Texas and continuing their trade as freebooting privateers targeting Central American ports.

They established a pirate colony called Campeche to facilitate their maritime activities. Jean died – or at least dropped from sight – sometime around 1823.

Jim Bowie is more myth than man. Born in Kentucky around 1796, he was pioneer, frontiersman, law officer, land speculator and quintessential warrior. After accruing wealth and a certain reputation in New Orleans, he eventually relocated to Texas (whilst it was still part of Mexico), married and settled down.

Of all the legends surrounding him the two truest are his proficiency with the lethal “Bowie knife” (created from the fearless fighter’s design by bladesmith James Black) and that he died in Texas at the Battle of the Alamo in 1836.

With such a historic pedigree and so little verifiable fact, it’s perfectly natural that somebody should place these two bellicose American icons together, and that’s exactly what scripter Johanna Stokes (with input from Ross Richie, Tom Peyer & Mark Rahner) and illustrator Todd Herman – ably assisted by colourists Digikore Studios and Andres Lozano and letterer Marshall Dillon – have done in this light-hearted action-romp which is as much buddy/road movie as pirate yarn or western…

Originally released as a 4-issue miniseries in 2009, Galveston begins in the Gulf of Mexico in 1817, where the infamous Jean Lafitte’s crew are trying to kill him. It’s not personal: they simply heard that he’s hidden a huge stash of gold donated by the Emperor Napoleon for helping him escape from France.

Lafitte’s only ally is a wiry American he’d recently befriended: a man named Bowie…

The greed-inciting gold story was circulated by Cyrus Wesley, an old acquaintance from New Orleans and no friend of the pirate captain…

After escaping certain doom through quick-wittedness and a certain amount of chicanery, Lafitte brings Bowie to the prate colony he built in Galveston, introducing him to the glories of the Maison Rouge and the light of his life: a fiery tongued and ferociously independent woman named Madeline Ragaud

She seems welcoming but also brings news of a ship full of spies masquerading as traders. All too soon Bowie is experiencing first hand how his pirate pal deals with real threats to his people…

A bigger worry is Wesley. Acting on behalf of vengeful Louisiana Governor Claiborne, the old enemy has brought a small army of bought-&-paid-for “lawmen” into the shady new town, ready to deal with Lafitte on the slightest pretext. A man of absolutely no principles, Cyrus is, however, quite prepared to let the mission slide… if Lafitte gives him Napoleon’s gold…

It would be a sound bargain if there actually was any bullion, but Lafitte swears all he got for his services was a couple of ornamental cannon. They don’t even work…

Temporarily escaping his problems, the wily pirate accompanies Bowie on his own mission to set up trading ties with the Commanches, but Cyrus’ threat to harm Madeline lingers, prompting Jean to bicker with his buddy and storm off in a fury. By the time Jean gets back to Galveston the settlement is in flames and Wesley is ensconced aboard a warship in the bay…

It’s time for old war-hero Lafitte to rally his piratical troops for a showdown, but he might be less fired up if he knew that his aggravating paramour has despatched a message to even the odds. Hopefully Madeline’s young courier can find Bowie and his Indian friends before it’s too late…

Culminating in a classic and epic underdog vs. bad guys showdown and delivering a marvellously traditional twist in the tale, this rowdy, raucous riot of fun is a sheer delight all lovers of straightforward, no-nonsense matinee thrills.
© 2009 Boom Entertainment Inc. and Johanna Stokes. All rights reserved.

Zorro: Matanzas


By Don McGregor, Mike Mayhew, Sam Parsons & John Costanza (Dynamite Entertainment)
ISBN: 978-1-60690-147-2

One the earliest masked heroes and still phenomenally popular throughout the world, “El Zorro, The Fox” was originally devised by jobbing writer Johnston McCulley in 1919 for a 5-part prose serial entitled ‘The Curse of Capistrano’. He debuted in All-Story Weekly for August 6th, running until 6th September. The part-work was subsequently published by Grossett & Dunlap in 1924 as The Mark of Zorro and further reissued in 1959 and 1998 by MacDonald & Co. and Tor respectively.

Famously, Hollywood royalty Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford read the serial in All-Story on their honeymoon and immediately optioned the adventure as the first film release from their new production company/studio United Artists.

The Mark of Zorro was a global movie sensation in 1920 and for years after, and New York-based McCulley subsequently re-tailored his creation to match the so-different filmic incarnation. This Caped Crusader aptly fitted the burgeoning genre that would soon be peopled by the likes of The Shadow, Doc Savage and The Spider.

Rouben Mamoulian’s 1940 filmic remake of The Mark of Zorro further ingrained the Fox into the world’s psyche and, as the prose exploits continued in a variety of publications, Dell began a comicbook version in 1949.

When Walt Disney Studios began a hugely popular Zorro TV show in 1957 (78 half-hour episodes and four 60 minute specials before cancellation in 1961), the ongoing comicbook series was swiftly redesigned to capitalise on it. The media corporation began a decades-long strip incarnation of “their” version of the character in various quarters of the world.

This series and later iterations also resulted in comics and strips all over Europe from Disney and Marvel in the USA. During the 1990s, Topps Comics spearheaded Zorro’s return courtesy of Don McGregor & Mike Mayhew which led to a short-lived newspaper strip (illustrated by Thomas Yeates) and also incidentally and memorably introducing a salacious “bad-girl” sidekick in the unwisely-clad form of Lady Rawhide

And there were more movies, this time with an actual Spaniard playing the lead role (Antonio Banderas, in case you were wondering…)

In 2008 Dynamite Entertainment reintroduced the Fox in new yarns by Matt Wagner and as part of the package excavated this lost tale from the Topps iteration: an unpublished adventure by McGregor & Mayhew, with colours by Sam Parsons and letters by industry veteran John Costanza.

Zorro: Mantanzas has a chequered history. Part of a longer storyline begun during McGregor & Mayhew’s run on the Topps Comic in the 1990s, the tale was only completed in 2010 for the Dynamite run and released as 4-issue miniseries before being collected as a trade paperback and later an eBook. For all that, however, the lost episode offers a passionate and sophisticated portrayal of the quintessential champion risking his own security and happiness to thwart a macabre and complex villain: a struggle rendered even more appealing by the magnificent illustration of Mayhew and Parsons.

For the uninitiated: Don Diego de la Vega is the foppish son of a grand house in old California when it was a Spanish Possession, who used the masked persona of Señor Zorro (the Fox) to right wrongs, defend the weak and oppressed – particularly the pitifully maltreated natives and Indians – and thwart the schemes of a succession of military leaders and the colonial Governor determined to milk the populace of the growing township of Los Angeles for all they had.

Whenever Zorro struck he left his mark – a letter “Z” carved into walls, doors, faces…

Diego has a whole support structure in place. Although in this iteration his stiff-necked Hildalgo father is unaware of his double life the secret hero has a number of assistants who do. The most important is Bernardo (a deaf-mute manservant) and Jose of the Cocopahs – a native chief who often acts as stableman, decoy and body-double for the Masked Avenger. Diego also occasionally employs a retired, reformed one-eyed pirate named Bardoso to act as his spy amongst townsfolk and outlaws…

The settlement is basking in unaccustomed liberty after Zorro’s overthrow of the military governor, unaware that their new Regency Administrator Lucien Machete is a sadistic fiend with a nasty line in prosthetic weapons nursing a rabid grudge against Zorro – the man who made his replacement limb necessary…

The villain has struck up a friendship with Diego’s father Don Alejandro; an increasingly frustrated grandee who finds his son’s unseemly and unmanly behaviour more and more inexplicable and intolerable.

Infuriatingly, Machete is not talking advantage of the familial rift as ploy; he just likes the old man whilst despising his foppish son, blithely oblivious that the soft poltroon is the black-clad avenger who has thwarted his previous malevolent depredations…

Zorro knows – but cannot prove – that Machete’s credentials are forged and his claims to act as the Spanish King’s official representative are false. The Fox urgently seeks to expose the impostor before whatever vile plot he fosters can be completed. Thus he cannot let anything distract him…

The drama unfolds after Don Alejandro and Lucien attend the Matanza: an annual festival where the young men show off their strength and manhood by ceremonially butchering cattle and other livestock in a gory display of horsemanship and bloodletting. Diego has naturally declined to attend or participate, preferring to surreptitiously watch Machete.

He is wise to do so, for the maniac has malicious plans to sabotage the event with a new addition to his arm’s arsenal…

Taking up position above the killing grounds, Zorro and Bernardo have a perfect position to observe proceedings but their keen surveillance is disrupted by a huge bear attracted to the site by the smell of blood.

Its attack is devastating and leaves the secret champions battling for their lives. By the time they can again turn their attention to the Matanza, Lucien has done his dirty work: good men are dead or maimed and an horrific stampede is underway. Moreover, in the chaos personal tragedy has struck at the De La Vega household and Machete seems to be getting away with murder again, whilst El Zorro is painted as the blackest of monsters…

A simple tell well-told and lavishly illustrated, Zorro: Matanzas is packed with spectacular action and diabolical intrigue in the grand manner and incidentally offers a potted origin and discreet peek at the fabulous subterranean citadel covertly crafted by Diego and Bernardo to facilitate the Fox’s war on injustice.

Although more incident than main feature, this is a blistering romp every lover of human-scaled adventure will adore…
Zorro®: Matanzas, Volume One © 2014 Zorro Productions, Inc. All rights Reserved.

Outlaw Territory volume 1


By Many & Various (Image Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-60706-004-8

The Western is a rather odd entertainment genre which can be sub-divided into two discrete halves: the sparkly, shiny version that dominated kids’ books, comics and television for decades, best typified by heroes such as Roy Rogers and Gene Autry – and the other stuff: the material typified by the efforts of Sam Peckinpah, Sergio Leone, Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef…

In comics, that kind of cowboy yarn – grimy, gritty, excessively dark and nihilistic – was done best for years by Europeans in such strips as Charlier & Giraud’s Lieutenant Blueberry or Bonelli and Galleppini’s Tex Willer: iconic sagas which have only recently made their mark on US culture…

Outlaw Territory is of the latter variety; an anthological series offering fervid snapshots of  the sort of bleak, brutal incidents and accidents that were latterly sanitised for kiddie consumption but which in the end are probably just as far from the historical truth as any six-gun shootout on Main Street…

The iconic trappings of the Western make the milieu well-nigh irresistible to creative folk. We all want a crack at a cowboy yarn and this invitational series drew in a vast number of writers, artists and colourists who all took their shot – and occasionally more than one – resulting in this evocative initial paperback compilation of dark vignettes covering all aspects of the genre.

This first collection gathers stories by veteran and neophyte comics-creators who all have a spirited go at making something fresh out of a well-worn subject and, whilst the quality might occasionally falter, the rampant enthusiasm never does…

The moody moments begin with a painterly and poetic dialogue-free treatise on the traditional vengeance quest in ‘Daniel 5:27’ by Moritat, after which ‘Ballad of a Bad Man’ from Joe Kelly, Max Fiumara & letterer Thomas Mauer (who inscribes almost all of the tales in this collection) details the family traumas and depths plumbed to make a stone-cold killer…

Joshua Ortega & Trevor Goring deliver an iconic view of cruel and unusual punishment delivered at ‘Sundown’ before Shay, Dean Kotz & Ramiro Diaz Legaspe reveal a Civil War skirmish between aged experience and youthful enthusiasm for possession of ‘The Dispatch’ and Jose L. Torres & Jorge Molina Manzanero stylishly recount the story of a Mexican bounty hunter gripped by the ‘American Dream’

Ivan Brandon, Andy Macdonald, Daniel Heard & Kristyn Ferretti offer a different spin on a legendary moment in history with ‘The First Car in Mexico – or, the End of Pancho Villa’ whilst ‘The Most Civilized Establishment from Ocean to Ocean’ sees two would-be bandits dealt the most terrifying experience of their sorry lives in a spooky chiller by James Patrick, Khoi Pham & Jeremy Colwell.

‘Ahiga’ concentrates on rip-roaring gunplay and a bold jailbreak in a violent vignette from Christian Beranek & Koray Kuranel whilst Joshua Hale Fialkov & Christie Tseng plump for macabre moodiness as ‘Incident over Thirty-Six Days in the Colorado Rockies’ examines the instinct for survival in sub-zero conditions which seizes both a bounty hunter and his captive…

As depicted by Greg Pak & Ian Kim, institutional racism and casual genocide in ‘Rio Chino’ results in payback from most a most unusual avenger, after which ‘One Man’s Land’ by Stephen Reedy & Giorgos Gousis finds a fanatical territorial dispute devolving into murderous farce before Steven Grant, Shannon Eric Denton & John Choins deliver a wicked spin on the tried-and-true tragedy of ‘The Bounty Killer’

Greed for gold leads bad men to an extremely baroque and ugly end in Chris Moreno’s ‘He Will Set Your Fields on Fire’ whereas Fred Van Lente, Johnny Timmons & Danika Massey contrive deviously beautiful closure for a merciless beast after he meets ‘The Weaponsmith’ and M. Sean McManus & Michelle Silva craft a “Western Style Romance” when a sadistic brute meets his just end in a whorehouse after mistreating ‘Nora’

A very nasty father/son bonding experience informs ‘The Apprentice’ by Steve Orlando, Tyler Niccum & Matt Razzano whilst ‘Griswold’s Song’ – by Chad Kinkle & Ming Doyle – elegiacally examines a life short, unwise and bloody before Leonard N. Wallace & Christopher Mitten detail the grisly fate of Indian Hunters who hate each other more than the painted devils hungry to inflict their ‘Savage Practices’ upon them…

‘For Old Times’ Sake’ by Pat Loika, Jose Holder & Garry Henderson has old adversaries reunite in scarlet-spattered showdown after the intervening years have pulled each to the opposing side of the law, before cattle dispute leads to bloody murder in ‘Gutshot’ (Michael Woods, David Miller & Philip Fuller) and ‘Them What Comes’ from mpMann details a protracted siege and most unusual meeting of East and West…

Frank Beaton & Melika Acar scrutinise the ‘Craftsmanship’ of a hangman-turned-outlaw, Nemo Woodbine & Yeray Gil Hernandez detail the work practises of an exceedingly accomplished lady in ‘We Never Sleep’ and Josh Wagner & Joiton lavishly perform the sorry saga of an unrepentant rogue in ‘The Ballad of Sid Grenadine’.

‘The More Things Change’ by Skipper Martin, Christopher Provencher & Ellen Everett references big sky country and a truly twisted romance before Orlando, Niccum & Razzano reunite to trace the career-path of a long-in-the-tooth manhunter ‘Working on Christmas’

A band of unlovely brutes are served their just deserts in Noble Larimer, Jason Cheeseman Meyer & John Forucci’s ‘Hell Hath No Fury’ after which the mythic movie showdown scenario is given a smart makeover in ‘We Meet at Twelve’ by P. J. Kryfko, William Simpson &Mark Murphy before Simon Fraser craftily opts for a monochrome delivery and outrageous bad-taste black comedy to outline a bloody shaggy dog tale in ‘Ass Meat’

Wrapping up this first foray into contemporary Western wonderment, project instigator Michael Woods & illustrator Chad Sell share a gory story of frontier surgery and doing what’s right in ‘Memories’; calling to a close a superb compendium of mini-epics encapsulating the Good, The Bad, the Ugly and most especially the Fascinating for us literary mavericks and any newcomers keen on trying out new entertainment territory…
© 2009 Michael Woods. Outlaw Territory™ and its logos are trademarks of Michael Woods. All stories and characters likenesses are trademarks of their respective creators unless otherwise noted.

The Survivors! volume one: Talons of Blood

talons
By Hermann, translated by Kim Thompson and Dwight R. Decker (Fantagraphics Books)
No ISBN. ASIN: B000O15YBK

Welcome to another Wild West Wednesday with an indulgent peek at a favourite book I first read way back in 1982, crafted by a Belgian master of graphic narrative.

Hermann Huppen’s comics career began in 1963 but really took off three years later when he joined with writer Greg (Michel Régnier) to create cop series Bernard Prince for Tintin. The artist then added to his weekly chores with Roman adventure serial Jugurtha (scripted by Jean-Luc Vernal). In 1969 Hermann expanded his portfolio further by adding the Greg-penned western Comanche to his seamlessly stunning output…

Bernard Prince and Comanche made Hermann a superstar of the industry – a status he has built upon with further classics such as The Towers of Bois-Maury, Sarajevo-Tango, Station 16 and many more.

However, in 1978 Hermann bravely dropped guaranteed money-spinner Bernard Prince (he stayed with Comanche because of his abiding love for western- themed material) when a rival publisher offered him the opportunity to write and draw his own strip.

The result was Jeremiah: a saga of survival and friendship in a post-apocalyptic world created for German magazine Zack. Another instant hit, the series has subsequently seen print in Spirou, Metal Hurlant and many other places around the world and subsequently gathered in 33 Albums to date, most of which can be read as stand-alone tales.

Inexplicably, despite its American settings and the sheer quality of the stories and art, the series has never really caught on in the US. Fantagraphics were the first to introduce the unlikely hero and his world – retitled The Survivors! – with this volume from the opening years of the specialised Comicbook Direct Sales marketplace.

That heady air of enterprise and openness to new and different kinds of illustrated experiences somehow didn’t spread to Jeremiah, however, and the series ended after just two translated volumes.

Catalan took up the challenge next with a single album in 1990, after which Malibu released a triptych of 2-issue comicbook miniseries between January and September 1991.

At the end of 2002, Dark Horse Comics partnered with Europe’s Strip Art Features syndicate to bring the series to the public attention again; releasing two of the later albums with no appreciable response or reward, despite tying in to the broadcasting of J. Michael Straczynski and Sam Egan’s woefully disappointing TV series based on the strip.

In 2012 the publishers had another shot: releasing the first nine European albums in three of their always-appealing Omnibus editions…

So now I’m having a go.

I’m not publishing anything, just categorically stating that Jeremiah – in whatever printed iteration you can find it – is one of the finest bodies of sequential graphic storytelling and illustrative excellence ever put to paper, so if you love science fiction, gritty westerns, rugged adventure or simply bloody good comics, track down Hermann’s masterpiece and give it a go.

In case you need a bit of plot and context, here’s what happens in the first tale as delivered by Fantagraphics. La Nuit des rapaces was released as a French-language Album in April 1979 and picked up by the US Indy publisher in 1982, and describes how America died, not due to political intrigue or military error but as the result of a grotesque and appalling race war.

When the dust settled and the blood dried, the republic was reduced to pockets of survivors scavenging in ruins or grubbing out a life from leftover machines and centuries old farming practises. It was a new age of settlers, pioneers and bandits. There was no law but brute force and every walled community lived in terror of strangers…

In that pitiless world, Jeremiah was an unhappy, rebellious teen who craved excitement and despised his little dirt-grubbing stockaded village of Bend’s Hatch.

He got his wish the night he didn’t get home before the gates were locked. Stuck in the desert wastelands the callow boy encounters nomadic scavenger Kurdy Malloy and ends up beaten and unconscious. The assault saves his life…

Finally reaching home next morning, Jeremiah finds the village razed and burning, with everything of value taken – including all the able-bodied men women and children…

Assuming Kurdy to be at least partly responsible, Jeremiah tracks the wanderer and finds him being tortured by other outlaws is the desert wastes. A rather botched rescue results in them establishing an uneasy truce and Kurdy begins training the kid in the necessities of life on the run.

Jeremiah is determined to find his people and their trail leads to the thriving outlaw town of Langton. The sordid, makeshift metropolis is divided in two: ordinary folk trying to get by and a small army of thugs led by a debauched and baroque madman named Mr. W. E. Birmingham… and never, ever call him “Fat-Eye”…

A ruthless egomaniac, Birmingham only feels affection – warped but genuine – for his collection of steely-eyed raptors kept in a vast aviary atop his colossal fortress-castle in the centre of town. From this citadel his thugs run roughshod over everybody else, but recently the body-count has been rising too quickly and tempers are fraying. There’s a whiff of potential revolution in the air…

That’s soon amplified into a ferocious storm of outright rebellion as wily Kurdy’s unconventional tactics stir things up amongst the transient whores and desperadoes whilst Jeremiah’s accusations incite the resident populace. Birmingham has been selling white slaves to the detestable and resurgent savages of the Red Nation and when the Indians’ chief is spotted in town, a riot leads to lynchings…

Impatient for vengeance, inexperienced, impetuous Jeremiah sneaks into Birmingham’s castle and almost ruins everything by getting caught, but Kurdy has another devious plan in mind…

When the shooting subsides the settlers are bloody but triumphant and Kurdy has been convinced – against his own best judgement and self-interest – to join Jeremiah in invading the Red Nation in search of the missing slaves…

Fast-paced, explosively engaging with wry and positively spartan writing, Talons of Blood lets beautiful pictures tell a thrilling story and is one the best homages to the wild west ever crafted. Try it and see…
The Survivors! volume one: Talons of Blood © 1982 Koralle, Hamburg.

The Bluecoats volume 5: Rumberley


By Willy Lambil & Raoul Cauvin, translated by Erica Jeffrey (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-108-2

The myths and legends of the filmic American West have fascinated Europeans virtually since the actual days of owlhoots and gunfighters. Hergé and Moebius were passionate devotees and the wealth of stand-out Continental comics series ranges from Italy’s Tex Willer to such Franco-Belgian classics as Blueberry and tangential children’s classics such as Yakari. Even colonial dramas such as Pioneers of the New World and Milo Manara & Hugo Pratt’s Indian Summer fit the broad-brimmed bill.

As devised by Louis “Salvé” Salvérius & Raoul Cauvin – who has scripted every best-selling volume – Les Tuniques Bleues (or as we know them The Bluecoats) debuted at the end of the 1960s, specifically created to replace Lucky Luke when the laconic gunslinger defected from weekly anthology Spirou to rival publication Pilote.

The substitute swiftly became one of the most popular bande dessinée series in Europe.

Salvé was a cartoonist of the Gallic big-foot/big-nose humour school, and when he died suddenly in 1972 his replacement, Willy “Lambil” Lambillotte slowly introduced a more realistic – but still overtly comedic – illustrative tone and manner. Lambil is Belgian, born in 1936 and, after studying Fine Art in college, joined publishing giant Dupuis as a letterer in 1952.

Born in 1938, scripter Cauvin is also Belgian and before entering Dupuis’ animation department in 1960 studied Lithography. He soon discovered his true calling – comedy writing – and began a glittering and prolific career at Spirou. In addition to Bluecoats he has written dozens of long-running, award winning series including Cédric, Les Femmes en Blanc and Agent 212: more than 240 separate albums. The Bluecoats alone has sold more than 15 million copies of its 60 (and counting) album series.

As translated for English audiences, our sorry, long-suffering protagonists are Sergeant Cornelius Chesterfield and Corporal Blutch; a pair of worthy fools in the manner of Laurel & Hardy: hapless, ill-starred US cavalrymen posted to the wild frontier and various key points of fabled America during the War Between the States.

The original format featured single-page gags set around an Indian-plagued Wild West fort, but from the second volume Du Nord au Sud (North and South) the sad-sack soldiers went back East to fight in the American Civil War (a tale was rewritten as 18th album Blue rétro to describe how the chumps were drafted during the war).

Every subsequent adventure, although often ranging far beyond America and taking in a lot of thoroughly researched history, is set within the timeframe of the Secession conflict.

Blutch is your run-of-the-mill, whinging little-man-in-the street: work-shy, mouthy, devious and especially critical of the army and its inept commanders. Ducking, diving, even deserting whenever he can, he’s you or me – except sometimes he’s quite smart and heroic if no other (easier) option is available.

Chesterfield is a big burly professional fighting man; a career soldier who has passionately bought into all the patriotism and esprit-de-corps of the Military. He is brave, never shirks his duty and wants to be a hero. He also loves his cynical little troll of a pal. They quarrel like a married couple, fight like brothers and simply cannot agree on the point and purpose of the horrendous war they are trapped in…

Rumberley was the fifth translated Cinebook album (chronologically the 15th Franco-Belgian volume) and a far darker affair than usual. After a horrific battle Union and Confederate forces are spent and exhausted, although the Blues have advanced far into the South as a result of the sustained slaughter. However, with dwindling food and little ammunition the Generals decide to fall back and re-supply with fresh troops and munitions.

The only problem is what to do with the wounded. After all, bringing them back to safety would only slow down the rearward advance…

Then one bright privileged spark has the notion of just billeting the unfit Union soldiers on the nearest – albeit enemy – town…

Amongst the dead and dying are grievously injured Chesterfield and war-crazy Captain Stark. Even Blutch is there, although his leg wound might be minor, self inflicted or possibly even utterly bogus…

Their reception by the women, children, aged and infirm of Rumberley is hostile to say the least, but the Union dregs have no place else to go and no strength left to leave anyway. Forcibly appropriating the livery stable as a field hospital, Blutch and Chesterfield aid the exhausted doctors and surgeons as best they can but the simmering tension and occasional assaults by the townsfolk indicates that there is real trouble brewing and this kettle is about to boil over very soon…

And then the townsfolk start drifting away and rumours spread that a Confederate force is approaching Rumberley. The doctors opt to move their charges out, and Blutch finds himself in the uncanny position of staying behind as rearguard when Chesterfield decides to buy them time to get away…

When it comes, the battle is a bizarre affair. The Rebs are fit but have little ammunition so the Bluecoats give a good accounting of themselves, but are almost done for when Stark unexpectedly leads a life-saving cavalry charge of the Union wounded to save them. During the insane clash the town buildings are set afire and the citizens of Rumberley rush back to save their home and possessions…

And then something strange happens: the killing stops and Blues, Greys and civilians work together to save rather than destroy…

Here is another hugely amusing anti-war saga targeting younger, less world-weary audiences. Historically authentic, and always in good taste despite an uncompromising portrayal of violence, the attitudes expressed by the down-to-earth pair never make battle anything but arrant folly and, like the hilarious yet insanely tragic war-memoirs of Spike Milligan, these are comedic tales whose very humour makes the occasional moments of shocking verity doubly powerful and hard-hitting.

Funny, thrilling, beautifully realised and eminently readable, Bluecoats is the sort of war-story and Western which appeals to the best, not worst, of the human spirit.
© Dupuis 1979 by Lambil & Cauvin. English translation © 2011 Cinebook Ltd. All rights reserved.

Yakari and River of Forgetfulness (volume 10)


By Derib & Job, coloured by Dominque, translated by Erica Jeffrey (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-140-2

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Cartoon Perfection… 10/10

Children’s magazine Le Crapaud à lunettes was founded in 1964 by Swiss journalist André Jobin who then wrote for it under the pseudonym Job. Three years later he hired fellow French-Swiss artist Claude de Ribaupierre who chose the working name “Derib”. The illustrator had begun his own career as an assistant at Studio Peyo (home of Les Schtroumpfs/The Smurfs), working on Smurfs strips for venerable weekly Spirou. Together they created the splendid Adventures of the Owl Pythagore before striking pure comics gold a few of years later with their next collaboration.

Launched in 1969, Yakari detailed the life of a young Oglala Lakota boy on the Great Plains; sometime after the introduction of horses by the Conquistadores but before the coming of the modern White Man. This year has been a landmark one. The 39th album was released – a testament to the strip’s evergreen vitality and the quality of its creators – and Job announced his retirement. Further albums will be written by Joris Chamblain.

Overflowing with gentle whimsy, Yakari enjoys a largely bucolic existence; at one with nature and generally free from strife. For the sake of our delectation, however, the ever-changing seasons are punctuated with the odd crisis, generally resolved without fuss, fame or fanfare by a little lad who is smart, compassionate, brave… and can converse with all animals…

Derib – equally at home with enticing, comically dynamic “Marcinelle” cartoon style yarns and devastatingly compelling meta-realistic action illustrated action epics – went on to become one of Europe’s most prolific and revered creators. It’s a crime that such groundbreaking strips as Celui-qui-est-né-deux-fois, Jo (the first comic on AIDS ever published), Pour toi, Sandra and La Grande Saga Indienne) haven’t been translated into English yet, but we still patiently wait in hope and anticipation…

Many of Derib’s stunning works over the decades feature his beloved Western themes, magnificent geographical backdrops and epic landscapes and Yakari is considered by fans and critics to be the feature which first led him to deserved mega-stardom. Continentally released in 1989, La rivière de l’oubli was the 15th European album (and now Cinebook’s tenth translated tome): a compellingly rendered, superbly suspenseful yarn offering dazzling wonder and guaranteed enjoyment from a minimum of foreknowledge…

Whilst riding on his valiant pony Little Thunder, Yakari spots a bear cub in distress over a waterfall and rushes in to save it. The noble act ends in disaster as both are washed away in the rushing torrent. Then the little boy sustains a hard blow to the head in the foaming waters…

Some time later he washes ashore far downstream and is picked up by a distressed, confused she-bear who has lost her cub. When the battered little one in her arms calls her “momma” she makes a potentially tragic assumption and carries Yakari off to her den…

Little Thunder meanwhile has traced the river to the spot where his friend emerged. Finding nothing, the wonder pony returns to the camp and informs Yakari’s human friends Rainbow and Buffalo Seed of the accident. After all three have exhausted every avenue of search, they dejectedly call off the search.

Back in the cave the strange cub finally awakes. His head hurts and he can’t remember his name or anything really, so is understandably relieved when the bear tells him she’s his mother. Apparently, her playful, wayward Honeycomb was lost and had an accident and the Great Spirit changed his scent and appearance, but now that mother has found him again all will be well…

The next day she begins teaching him how to be a bear again, but this oddly transformed cub is just so weak and feeble. Conversely, he begins to wonder if there has been some kind of terrible mistake…

As his friends continue their hunt for him, “Honeycomb” greets another new day with growing anxiety. He’s failing every simple task mother sets him, and all too soon her patience is exhausted. Everything changes when she gives the cub a light cuff that sends him flying across a clearing. When his head stops spinning, Yakari instantly realises what’s happening and is soon consoling a heartbroken mother who now realises her son is gone.

Yakari is not so sure though, and whilst searching near the river stumbles upon Rainbow and Buffalo Seed riding Little Thunder. Joyously reunited, they renew their efforts to bring Momma bear and Honeycomb back together…

Whilst maintaining gripping tension, Job’s joyously inventive tale is a stripped down marvel of restraint, allowing Derib’s beguiling artwork and boisterous pacing to carry the tale to its inevitable happy ending: another visually stunning, seductively smart and happily heart-warming saga to delight young and old alike.

Yakari is one of the most unfailingly entertaining all-ages strip every conceived and deserves to be in every home, right beside Tintin and Asterix.
Original edition © Le Lombard (Dargaud- Lombard S. A.) 1989 Derib + Job. English translation 2012 © Cinebook Ltd.

Lucky Luke volume 9: The Stage Coach


By Morris & Goscinny, translated by Luke Spear (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-905460-40-3

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Classic Seasonal Adventure… 9/10

One could quite convincingly argue that the USA’s greatest cultural export has been the Western. Everybody everywhere thinks they know what Cowboys and Indians are and do, but the genre has migrated and informed every aspect or art and literature all over the planet. Comics particularly have benefited from the form, with Europe continuing to produce magnificent works even in these latter years when sagebrush sagas are less dominant in America than they have been for decades.

This side of the pond, westerns were a key component in every nook and cranny of popular fiction from the earliest days. Newspapers were packed with astoundingly high quality strips ranging from straight dramas such as Gun Law and Matt Marriott to uniquely British takes like Bud Neill’s outrageous spoof Lobey Dosser, whilst our weekly anthology kids comics abounded with the episodic exploits of Texas Jack, Desperate Dan, Colorado Kid, Davy Crockett, Kid Dynamite and more.

As previously mentioned, Europe especially embraced the medium and expanded the boundaries of the genre. In Italy Tex (Willer) remains as vital as ever as it approaches its 70th anniversary, far outdistancing later revered and much-exported series such as Captain Miki, Il Grande Blek, Cocco BillZagor, Larry Yuma, Ken Parker, Magico Vento and Djustine.

The Franco-Belgian wing also has a long tradition and true immortals amongst its ponderosa Pantheon: from all ages-comedic treats such as Yakari, OumPah-Pah, Chick Bill or The Bluecoats to monolithic and monumental mature-reader sagas like Jerry Spring, Comanche, Sergeant Kirk, La Grande Saga Indienne, Buddy Longway or the now-legendary Blueberry

Topping them all in terms of sales and fame however is a certain laconic lone rider…

Lucky Luke is seventy years old this year: a rangy, good-natured, lightning-fast quick-draw cowboy who roams a fabulously mythical Old West on his super-smart horse Jolly Jumper, having light-hearted adventures and interacting with a host of historical and legendary figures of the genre.

He’s probably the most popular Western star in the world today. His unbroken string of laugh-loaded exploits has made him one of the best-selling comic characters in Europe (83 albums selling well in excess of 300 million copies in 30 languages at the last count), with spin-off toys, computer games, animated cartoons and even a passel of TV shows and live-action movies.

As alluded to above he was dreamed up in 1946 by Belgian animator, illustrator and cartoonist Maurice de Bévère (“Morris”) for that year’s Seasonal Annual (L’Almanach Spirou 1947) of Le Journal de Spirou, before launching into his first weekly adventure ‘Arizona 1880’ on December 7th 1946 in the famed weekly comic.

Prior to that, Morris had become acquainted with future comics super-stars Franquin and Peyo while working at the CBA (Compagnie Belge d’Actualitiés) cartoon studio and by contributing caricatures to weekly magazine Le Moustique. He quickly became one of “la Bande des quatre” (The Gang of Four) comprising creators Jijé, Will and Franquin: all leading proponents of the loose, free-wheeling art-style dubbed the “Marcinelle School” which dominated Spirou in aesthetic contention with the “Ligne Claire” style used by Hergé, EP Jacobs and other artists in rival magazine Tintin.

In 1948 the Gang (all but Will) visited the USA, meeting American creators and sightseeing. Morris stayed for six years, encountering fellow Franco-tourist René Goscinny and scoring some work from newly-formed EC sensation Mad whilst making copious notes and sketches of the swiftly vanishing Old West.

That research resonates on every page of his life’s work.

A solo act until 1955, Morris produced another nine albums worth of affectionate parody before formally teaming up with Goscinny, who became the cool cowboy’s regular wordsmith. Luke rapidly attained the dizzying heights of superstardom, commencing with ‘Des rails sur la Prairie’ (Rails on the Prairie), which began serialisation in Spirou with the August 25th 1955 edition.

In 1967 the six-gun straight-shooter switched sides, transferring to Goscinny’s own magazine Pilote with ‘La Diligence’ (The Stagecoach). Goscinny & Morris produced 45 albums together before the author’s death in 1977, after which Morris continued both singly and with fresh collaborators.

Morris passed away in 2001, having drawn fully 70 adventures, plus launching the spin-off comics careers of Rantanplan (“dumbest dog in the West” and a charming spoof of cinema canine Rin-Tin-Tin). The immortal franchise was left to fresh hands, beginning with Achdé, Laurent Gerra, Benacquista & Pennac who have carried on the undying tradition.

Curiously, apart from the initial adventure, Lucky (to appropriate a quote applied to the thematically simpatico Alias Smith and Jones) “in all that time… never shot or killed anyone”. He did however smoke prodigiously, like all the cool cowboys and – if the stereotype still applies – most Frenchmen…

Lucky Luke was first seen in Britain syndicated to weekly comic Film Fun, then reappeared in 1967 in Giggle, renamed Buck Bingo. In all these venues – as well as the numerous attempts to follow the English-language successes of Tintin and Asterix albums from Brockhampton and Knight Books – Luke had a trademark cigarette hanging insouciantly from his lip, but in 1983, Morris – no doubt amidst both pained howls and muted mutterings of “political correctness gone mad” – substituted a piece of straw for the much-travelled dog-end, which garnered him an official tip of the hat from the World Health Organization.

Unquestionably, the most successful attempt at bringing Lucky Luke to our shores and shelves is the most recent. Cinebook – who have rightly restored the foul weed to his lips on the interior pages, if not the covers – have translated 60 albums thus far with the 61st scheduled for a December release.

The Wagon Train was their ninth – still readily available both on paper and as an e-book – and first published on the Continent in 1964 as Lucky Luke – La Caravane: the 24th European release and Goscinny’s fifteenth collaboration with Morris. It’s also one of their most traditional tales; playing joyously with the tropes and memes of the genre and clearly having as much fun as the future readers were going to…

In begins in dusty Nothing Gulch as a bedraggled procession of “Prairie Schooners” limp into town. Expedition head Andrew Boston is arguing with unscrupulous guide Frank Malone who is demanding even more money before completing his commission to bring the hopeful settlers to California. When heated words are replaced with gunplay, a dusty observer ends the fracas before blood is shed…

Boston has heard a lot about Lucky Luke and promptly starts a multi-pronged charm offensive to get the Sagebrush Stalwart to take over guiding the party to the fabled Golden State. Our hero is flattered but not interested, until Boston wheels out his big guns and has the kids ask in their own unique ways…

Despite being prepared to use children to emotionally twist the cowboy’s arm, the twenty or so wagon-loads of pioneers are an affable if odd bunch from all over the world and soon Luke is leading them across prairies and through deserts and mountains.

However as the days pass an exceedingly large number of accidents and mishaps occur and before long it cannot be denied that somebody is clearly attempting to sabotage the expedition…

As close calls and near-death escapes mount Lucky splits his attention between blazing a trail and playing detective but the list of suspects is just so large. Anybody from the undertaker in his hearse to the inventor in his constantly evolving horseless converter-car (there’s more than a passing similarity to TV’s Whacky Races here!); the suspiciously French Barber/Surgeon, creatively foul-mouthed mule driver or even the no-nonsense School Marm could be the culprit. But then again there are so many others who act out of the ordinary…

Nevertheless, the voyage proceeds and as the would-be homesteaders survive the temptations of bad towns and other dens of vice and iniquity, bad food, and inclement weather a sense of community builds. Sadly that’s soon tested to the limit when word comes of that Sioux Chief Rabid Dog is on the warpath…

Despite all these traditional trials and tribulations Luke persists and before long the Promised Land is reached and a vile villain is finally exposed…

Cleverly barbed, wickedly ironic and joyously packed with classic cowboy set-pieces, this splendidly slapstick spoof of a crucial strand of the genre is another grand old hoot in the tradition of Destry Rides Again and Support Your Local Sheriff (maybe Paint Your Wagon, Evil Roy Slade or Cat Ballou are more your style?), superbly executed by master storytellers for any kids who might have missed the romantic allure of an all-pervasive Wild West that never was…

And in case you’re worried, even though the interior art still has our hero chawin’ on that ol’ nicotine stick, trust me, there’s very little chance of anyone craving a quick snout, but quite a strong probability that they’ll be addicted to Lucky Luke Albums…
© Dargaud Editeur Paris 1971 by Goscinny & Morris. © Lucky Comics. English translation © 2007 Cinebook.