Friday, November 5, 2010

Blueberry Fort Navajo 3 - Lone eagle

Serialized in 1967, "Lone eagle" had it's premiere in "Pilote", continuing the saga of Civil war veteran Mike Steve Donovan "Blueberry". In the third entry of the Fort Navajo cycle, both Jean Michel Charlier and Jean Giraud were already so comfortable with their new comic, that their hard work turned into page after page of solid western storytelling, without the experiments witnessed in the previous volumes.

In fact, the creators confident grip of the story is evident from it's very first scenes. Following the always dubious use of a map when it comes to depicting larger then life events, Charlier proceeds to recap the story so far. This is done using completely new characters, that serve to be introduced to Blueberry in his present state, and disappear as soon as their role is served. Yet, it's hard to find fault in this kind of a decision, considering the complicated events that are to follow. The reason for starting small is apparent as soon as the protagonist reaches Fort Quitman, for it is here that Charlier and Giraud's fiction meets it's real life inspirations, and the plot starts connecting to the important events in the previous albums.

Once again, Blueberry is put in front of the major action in the Apache wars, acting as a fictional surrogate replacing many of the important players in the events that took place in the old West. Interestingly, the long march connecting the rest of the military outposts with the ammo that Blueberry's new regiment is carrying, turns the story into a real thriller. In fact, almost all of the first half of "Lone eagle" plays almost like a detective story, with an unknown outside force sabotaging the convoy. Unfortunately, employing such specific genre conventions while restricted with page count, often leads into mysteries that are much too obvious, considering the modest number of introduced suspects.

Charlier must have been aware of this, which is why he proceeds with a scene cut, revealing the identity of the saboteur to the reader, before Donovan and his men are able to figure it out for themselves with absolute certainty. In doing so, the creative team manage to spotlight the Lone eagle character, revealing him to be a perfect foil for the protagonist, and certainly the first clear villain as such, in the series so far.

Following the trickery needed to alert the Indians to the approach of the military convoy, the story turns into a much direct confrontation between the opposite sides, making it feel like a truly well executed military serial. But again, Fort Navajo effectively turned into the Blueberry series with the previous album, thus most of these skirmishes are overshadowed by the game of wits, between two skilled hunters. Seeing someone else employ the wilderness savvy strategies that have saved Blueberry and his friends so many times before, certainly brings a welcome dynamic to the proceedings.

Yet, Lone Eagle isn't the only foil Blueberry has to endure throughout the long trek to reconnect to the other outposts. The men he's leading are dozens in number and generally virtuous, yet their given commander is a highly improbable Irish caricature. Sporting red hair and a hard drinking problem, O'Reilly is to blame for many of the mistakes that the creators are simply unwilling to let their protagonist make. Ultimately, the heroic Blueberry is cognizant of his fellow soldier's simple failings, but in recognizing O'Reilly as only human, Donovan somehow reasserts his own status as an archetype, standing in for the real world military personnel that have made the decisions attributed to him. "Lone Eagle" is thus definitely not the volume that spotlights the character's anti-hero side, but still falls short of "Thunder in the West"'s almost mythological treatment of the character.

Interestingly, Charlier uses the closing scenes for the reintroduction of a major "Fort Navajo" character, with lieutenant Graig, returning to participate in the final set piece. And following several literal highly orchestrated cliffside skirmishes, the last chance to stop the army from reconnecting with the rest of the troops in Fort Bowie, Lone Eagle uses to stage an elaborate trap. It goes without saying that Giraud used most of the album's rugged settings to get the most authentic and life-like atmosphere, but in that last ditch Indian effort, the artist advances to provide a visually spectacular scene of frantic chase and high stakes action.

In as dense a plot as "Lone Eagle" has developed over the serialization in "Pilote", the proceedings are still very clear, despite at one time the army being split in three directions. Giraud's faces are still somewhat less relaxed and natural, going against his style of clean layouts and detailed textures. Despite this, all of the main characters have distinctive designs and it's always clear what their role is, even in the most complicated of setups, dealing with false tracks and advanced strategic thinking employed by Blueberry and Lone Eagle, trying to sway the outcome to the benefit of their own respective sides.

And even though the closing scenes dully set up the following events in this fictional recreation of Apache wars, "Lone Eagle" is effectively the first time the readers were treated to a complete story by Charlier and Giraud. Their third Fort Navajo album has a very definite beginning and the end, which cannot really be said for the preceding volume, with it's last minute Mexico adventure.

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