Monday, October 25, 2010

Lieutenant Blueberry "Fort Navajo"

In 1963, French premiere comics outlet "Pilote" started serializing "Fort Navajo", a western publication by the magazine founder Jean-Michael ("Buck danny") Charlier and the newcomer Jean ("Jerry Spring") Giraud. Envisaged as the post Civil war ensemble piece spotlighting several different soldiers stationed in the eponymous outpost deep in the Indian territory, the story was heavily inspired by the Bascom affaire, that started the 25 year long Apache wars.

Starting out with a familiar scene set in a western saloon, the creators introduce the main characters, lieutenants Graig and Donovan, as an odd couple of action heroes. Yet, it is the latter, the anti-hero of the two, nicknamed "Blueberry" that has gained so much prominence and spotlight since, that the series was effectively rebranded under his own name following the debut episode. Following the opening scene, Charlier and Giraud almost immediately start launching a complicated plot mechanism that would showcase all of their creative choices regarding Fort Navajo as a story setting.

Thus, a simple investigation into a robbery they stumble upon on their way to the garrison, leads rapidly into a severe misunderstanding with the local Indians, threatening to erupt into an all out war. In order to rapidly accelerate the revenge story, Charlier uses a number of plot contrivances, all leading to the worst possible outcome, that still matches the key events, as they happened some 100 years previous.

In the process, the writer establishes only a handful of non-historical characters, and most of them in shorthand. This collection of archetypes is easily excusable when taking into account the epic brush strokes of the conflict. Lieutenants Graig, Blueberry and their new friend, half-Indian Crowe all get somewhat more nuanced portrayals, with distinctive character designs. Even then, only the Civil War soldier Blueberry comes out as a fully formed character, with formally trained officer Graig a distant second.

Still, their superior major Bascom is likely to elicit the strongest emotional reaction from the reader. Charlier depicts the historical character as a racist career man that directly makes all of the most controversial decisions, leading to the conflict with Apache leader Cochise. The storytellers cleverly paint Bascom almost like a force of nature, a character that the reader both fears and loathes, but taking a closer look, one realizes that there would simply not be much of a story without him.

Laying the groundwork for the rest of the story, "Fort Navajo" is a somewhat exposition heavy debut, but it nonetheless manages to carry across a lot of plot and three intricate action scenes. The first of these highlights the difference in the approach lieutenants Blueberry and Graig take in investigating what seems like an Apache raid. During the initial skirmishes with Indians, Mike Steve Donovan displays a lot of his later trademark wisdom and experience, by tricking his opponents in order to help his new friend.

Following the dialogue heavy opening, these chase scenes highlight Giraud's aptitude towards the material, revealing the young artist as endlessly adept at providing very naturalistic depictions of animals and the western surroundings. His detailed style is somewhat more formulaic when it gets to the characters, who seem to possess a somewhat plastic, and too visibly researched grimaces. When it gets to open spaces, and the combat dynamics, though, even this early, Giraud seems unequaled in depicting the plausible and memorable Wild West atmosphere.

Simply put, the artist's depiction of desert feels searing hot, simple and unforgiving, yet lined with a bevy of characteristically western rock formations that enrich and carry across the unique atmosphere of the prairie.

Yet, perhaps the series' biggest achievement is that in humanizing the Indians, it carries over a feeling of realistic politics, not only mirroring the historical Apache wars, but getting the reader to really appreciate the complexity of the situation. The original album is content to introduce the conflict and masterfully raise the foreboding feeling, with both sides victims of an elaborate set-up. After the massacre that serves as the book's central point and it's emotional highlight, the volume ends with a powerful and subdued scene clearly depicting the outcome of the negotiations and spelling disaster for the three lieutenants. Outranked by their greedy superior, and outgunned from all sides by the Apache tribes, these fictional stands ins to the violence that exploded around Fort Buchanan in Arizona, invited "Pilote" readers to accompany them through the dark days ahead.

Considering the talents of Charlier and Giraud, even though their first collaboration seems tame and classical compared to their later work with Blueberry, it was a very sensible proposition that lead to some of the greatest moments in the history of Franco-Belgian comics, while at the same time paving a way for Giraud's later experiments that would lead to him adopting the Moebius pseudonym and cement his world wide fame.

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