By Yves Swolfs, coloured by Julie Swolfs; translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-80044-000-5 (Album PB/Digital edition)
In comics, Western skies are at their most moody and iconic when seen through European eyes.
On the Continent, the populace has a mature relationship with comics. They collectively recognise what too many here still dismiss as â€œkidsâ€™ stuffâ€ as having academic and scholarly standing, as well as meritorious nostalgic value and the validation of acceptance as a true art form.
Myths and legends of the American Old West have fascinated Europeans virtually since the actual days of stagecoaches and gunfighters. HergÃ© and Moebius were passionate devotees of cowboy culture and stand at the forefront of the wealth of stand-out Continental comics series. These range from Italyâ€™s Tex Willer to such Franco-Belgian classics as Blueberry, Comanche and Lucky Luke, and tangentially even childrenâ€™s classics like Yakari or colonial dramas such as Pioneers of the New World and Milo Manara & Hugo Prattâ€™s superbly evocative Indian Summer.
Lonesome: La piste du prÃªcheur debuted in 2018, the first volume of a gritty, historically-grounded drama with supernatural overtones, similar in tone and mood to Clint Eastwoodâ€™s High Plains Drifter.
It is crafted by veteran Belgian taleteller Yves Swolfs, who was born in April 1955 and – like most kids of that generation and geographical location – probably grew up surrounded by imported and home-generated cowboy culture.
He studied Literature and Journalism at Brusselsâ€™ Saint-Luc Institute before joining Claude Renardâ€™s Atelier R comics studio, in 1978. His first stories were published in the studioâ€™s own Le NeuviÃ¨me RÃªve magazine before stepping out into the field of commercial design and illustration. His first success was a western: Durango was published by Ã‰ditions des Archers in 1980 and ran for four decades, under various publishers. The feature was inspired by cinematic spaghetti westerns of the 1970s and served asÂ a staple source of income as Swolfs experimented with other genres: French Revolution-set historical drama Dampierre (1987); horror fantasy Le Prince de la Nuit (1991); dystopian sci fi thriller Vlad (2000) and contemporary thriller James Healer (2002).
Always busy, in 1999 Swolfs scripted western Black Hills 1890 for illustrator Marc-Renier and in 2003 wrote and drew medieval fantasy saga LÃ©gendes, amongst a host of other comics projects. He relaxes by playing in a rock band.
The Preacherâ€™s Trail opens in 1861, with a solitary rider trekking through snow-enveloped wastes in the savage period of mounting tensions leading to the American Civil War. Newly-created territories Nebraska and Kansas have been a proxy battleground for the North and South since 1854, with slave-ownersâ€™ agents and radical Abolitionists clashing and stirring up the citizens for religious, political and commercial reasons. Blood has been spilled by anti-slavery â€œJayhawkersâ€ and Missouriâ€™s â€œBorder Ruffiansâ€ indiscriminately and the entire region is a powder keg waiting to explode.
Into this disaster-in-waiting rides the determined searcher. Heâ€™s hunting a proselytizing preacher, and easily overcomes the murderous bushwhackers Abolitionist Reverend Markham stationed in an isolated saloon to deter his enemies. However, before the last gunman dies, the stranger touches him and is granted a vision of where his target is headingâ€¦
In nearby township Holton City, the Reverend – surrounded by an army of gunslingers – stridently entreats the people to join his crusade against the abomination of slavery. Many are not roused or fooled, but all are keenly aware that the holy man care nothing for their livesâ€¦
The town banker/Mayor Harper may be throwing his support behind the rabblerouser, but local newspaper publisher Marcus has been doing some research and has reached a dangerous conclusionâ€¦
As the rider beds down for the night, his thoughts go back to the Indian medicine man who raised him after his family were murdered and he ponders his eerie gift. At that moment elsewhere, farming family the Colsons are being butchered by the Preacherâ€™s acolytes. Markham has judged them to be immoral sinners, but the atrocities he personally inflicts upon the woman prove itâ€™s no God driving his campaign of terrorâ€¦
Next morning the rider stumbles across the massacre. By now, heâ€™s fully conversant with the Preacherâ€™s methods and ignores the faked â€œevidenceâ€ of South-supporting Border Ruffians, but is astounded and delighted to discover a survivorâ€¦
Taking the child to Holton, the stranger is unsurprised to see his accounts of the crime and description of the perpetrators ignored. He knows Markham always finds influential supporters like bankers and local politicians. The townsfolk are shaken though. First the newspaper office burns down and Marcus vanishes, and now a massacreâ€¦
After ignoring an unsubtle warning to mind his own business from Harperâ€™s hired gun Clayton, the riderâ€™s breakfast is interrupted by Sheriff Abel. Heâ€™s more inclined to believe stories about the Preacher, but knows who runs things, if not whyâ€¦
When the rider leaves town in the morning, it’s with new knowledge gained through his strange gift and furtive conversations with bargirl Lucy, an ally of Marcus. Well versed in the brutal whims of men like Harper and Markham. Unfortunately, her allegiance is uncovered and she pays a heavy price after the stranger leavesâ€¦
On the trail, the stalker meets fugitive Marcus and hears what the idealistic journalist has uncovered of an international plutocratic plot to instigate war, but his sole concern is catching the Preacher. Debate distracts them and almost costs their lives when Claytonâ€™s gang ambushes them after they stop at a friendâ€™s cabin. The shootout leaves the stranger with Marcusâ€™ notebook and the psychometrically derived knowledge of what Harper and Clayton did to Lucy, as well as a fierce determination to fix things in Holton before resuming his pursuit of Markhamâ€¦ and this time, the rider will be the one dictating how and where the final clash takes placeâ€¦
Dark, uncompromisingly gritty, diabolically clever and lavishly limned in a style reminiscent of Jean Giraudâ€™s Blueberry, this is as much conspiracy drama as revenge western with an enigmatic figure slowly discovering himself whilst derailing a plot to change the world. Here the inescapable war thatâ€™s looming is not due to a crusade of opposing beliefs but a devious scheme by commercial interests to foment war for profit and their own gain.
Before publication by Cinebook, Lonesome was initially released in digital-only English translation by Europe Comics, so if you donâ€™t want to wait for later Cinebook editions, you can satisfy your impatience that way. Regardless, this is a superb example of a genre standard done right and if you like your west wild and wicked you wonâ€™t be sorryâ€¦
Â© Editions du Lombard (Dargaud-Lombard s.a.) 2018 by Yves Swolfs. All rights reserved. English translation Â© 2020 Cinebook Ltd.