Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Blueberry Fort Navajo 2 - Thunder in the West

"Thunder in the West" is the 1966 follow-up to Charlier and Giraud's western debut, originally serialized in Franco-Belgian's seminal "Pilote" magazine. Continuing directly from their "Fort Navajo" debut, the creative duo comes back with a story that is much more clearly in line with the overall lieutenant Blueberry saga. By dispersing with the ensemble cast scenario of the debut album, they put Mike Steve Donovan first and foremost as the hero on a quest of vital importance. Still, this decision feels very much like an organic progression, and is all the while fully integrated into the historically inspired setting of the looming war between the US army and Indian tribes.

In a lot of ways, "Thunder" is a much more wholesome entry in the series, despite being the second of the five volumes in the cycle. Charlier accomplishes this by having the background plot continue around his hero's mission that takes him away from the direct involvement in the events in Fort Navajo. The expensive setting of the Apache wars lends itself neatly for just such a treatment, in turn dividing this second volume in roughly three acts. When all is said and done, Blueberry's solo adventure takes up only the middle third of "Thunder", but despite the important events plot-wise taking place before and after his ride to Tucson, it forms the heart of the story.

At the same time, this fictional episode provides for a much more mythic portrayal of the journey, as if the temporary diversion from the historical canon of Apache wars inspired Charlier and Giraud to imagine Blueberry as a western Ulysses of sorts. Yet, despite the all around storytelling innovations in the "Thunder in the West", this early entry in the lieutenant Blueberry saga still has all of the hallmarks of the Fort Navajo story arc.

And although later editions have somewhat softened up the garish coloring of the original, the whole of Fort Navajo remains a very complicated and laborious beginning, with a very rigid plot, and a much more formulaic realization than the later, more freewheeling Blueberry adventures. This is not to say that the exposition heavy volume is solely of historical importance, but that it's hard to view it as something other than the training ground for the massive loose story that follows it up. Because, genuinely, the many twists and turns the Fort Navajo saga offers are very interesting, with "Thunder in the West" particularly being a good example of both creators doing extensive work to get the reader to invest emotionally.

Once again, the plight of the Indians, wrongly accused, and forced to defend themselves, forms the emotional core of the story, with a very important exception. Due to special attention given to Blueberry, the reader is drawn to start sympathizing with his efforts, beyond the casual attention given to whether one of the introduced US soldiers will live or die, that must have been a common reaction to the plot-heavy "Fort navajo" debut. And, Blueberry is not the only one to benefit from continued focus in "Thunder in the West" - lieutenant Crowe particularly displays a complex morality only hinted in the previous album, quickly becoming a major factor in Charlier and Giraud's depiction of the conflict.

Interestingly, the major plot point achieved at the close of "the Thunder" feels perfunctory for just that - the lack of extra care taken to fleshing out the particular concern. As for the chief impressions beyond the characterization, most of them involve the more practical concerns, voiced in the many action scenes. Once again tying in with the "Fort Navajo" debut, the creators extensively spotlight Blueberry's abilities as an experienced hunter and tracker. Giraud is called upon to time and again illustrate with clarity one of lieutenant's tricks, improvised at the moment, that usually serve to help him stack the odds in his favor. In a very real way, by slimming the cast of Fort Navajo to one clever soldier, the creators abandon all semblance of objectivity and focus on symbolizing a hero's plight, albeit illustrated with all of the realism that they can muster.

It is important to note that despite the storytelling approach of the day, favoring large doses of dialogue, broken only to be replaced by the captions, Charlier and Giraud still manage to provide a very suspenseful in "Thunder". The creators' sense of timing is impeccable, and most of the twists manage to be both entertaining and, in retrospect, logical. Likewise, when the stakes feel too much to convince the reader of Blueberry's survival, Charlier wisely introduces, and in one case, reintroduces, a companion to even the odds against the lieutenant.

Most impressively, the duo's compatibility achieves a stylistic highpoint in the scene depicting Blueberry's approach to the Diamond ranch. This single page is so brilliantly laid out and executed, that the reader is kept feeling every step of Blueberry's approach. As the point of view switches around, the scene reaches the climax of it's tension just as the reader is about to turn the page, and discover the truth of the matter at hand. By utilizing such a thrilling approach, Charlier and Giraud almost approach the horror atmosphere and keep it going just enough to get their point across and then continue with the plot.

In many ways, the best parts of the album as a whole mirror the experience of the Diamond ranch scene. The creators cover a lot of plot, albeit somewhat less epic parts of the conflict, with inspiration and a lot of ingenuity, and still eventually leading to fairly important story points, as signified by the final chase that finishes of the album. "Thunder in the West" remains a transitory chapter, a more personal one that fits well into the over action oriented fictional representation of the Apache wars conflict. Yet, by giving Blueberry the requisite spotlight, Charlier and Giraud slowly start working towards making him a character broader than the Fort Navajo epic, and capable of continuing in the other West-oriented adventures, that have come to define him much more definitely than his military days. The end result is, of course, one of complete success, in that by trusting their instincts and refining their craft, the creators have eventually created the complex and definite portrayal of the essential Franco-Belgian western comic, one whose fame far outstrips it's somewhat humble Fort Navajo origins.

As with many a long-form serialized story, there is simply no point in going back and bemoaning the lack of the familiar level of competency as shown in the title's mature phase. What's important is that "Thunder in the West" was deemed interesting by it's concurrent audience, and that support has helped Blueberry's up and coming creators work their way to the more memorable tales. Today's readers will no doubt be drawn to the Fort Navajo saga by recognizing it as the beginning of a long run starring a popular character, and looking at the work like that, it's best to take it as an engrossing genre story that equally serves as a showcase of the evolution of style of Charlier and Giraud, with the latter being of particular importance considering his eventual medium transforming influence and productivity.

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