Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Fort Navajo - Mission to Mexico

Serialized in 1968, "Mission to Mexico" was the fourth entry in the Fort Navajo cycle. Publishing their stories in French's premiere "Pilote" magazine, writer Jean Micheal Charlier and artist Jean Giraud were rapidly developing the lieutenant Blueberry style and feel.

What differentiates "Mission to Mexico" is that it takes a strong step away from the previous three albums, and is definitely the first entry in the series to give off the feeling of the creators thinking beyond their Apache wars inspired story. Even though the bulk of the story deals, more than ever before, with direct conflict with the groups of Indian warriors, for the first time it feels like the conflict is merely a framework for a more traditional Western story. This laid back feeling is epytomised by the introduction of Jimmy McClure as Blueberry's guide to the Indian territory, who subsequently goes on to become a permanent supporting cast member.

From the start, almost instinctively, Charlier and Giraud seemed to be rejecting the leaden stereotypical soldiers that have served with Blueberry in Fort Navajo. Giraud dully tried to render them as both stoic and emotional, but they always felt too robotic and cliched, their appearance almost entirely photo referenced.

"Mission to Mexico" starts with Blueberry searching for lieutenant Graig, who has gone missing while carrying the president's response regarding the negotiations with the Apache. The following situation is both elaborately set up and cleverly executed, drawing on the traditional Indian lore, yet on the other hand, it feels as staged and dated as a typical pulp adventure hook. Also, using Lonesome Eagle as the head of the hostile group so soon after the previous volume feels even more stilted and campy.

It is precisely after this lacklustre introduction, and Blueberry's return to Fort Bowie that the album, and the series as a whole even, starts finding a new voice. The basic set up of a possible love triangle between the heroic lt. Graig, his friend Blueberry, and young miss Muriel gets basically abandoned between the lines, as the anti-heroic protagonist finally starts easing up in a more natural manner. Gone is the crusader against alcohol of the very previous volume, and especially the suffering universal hero of the "Thunder in the West".

With McClure on his side, Charlier finally feels at liberty to make Donovan capable of making a wrong choice, and indeed it is Jimmy who becomes somewhat of a father figure to him at various times in this volume. The hard-drinking, elderly rogue stands in sharp contrast to the various soldiers we have already seen in this series, and Blueberry immediately takes a liking to him. And not only is Jimmy Captain Haddock to his Tintin, but the unkempt overweight prospector is initially to be very capable in his role as a scout of the Indian territory. Counting on the Indians' continued tolerance of his comedic appearance, he plays a key role in leading Blueberry to Mexico, where he is to contact Cochise.

Along the way, our protagonist actually learns from Jimmy, and the two make a very interesting pair. This is not to say that they manage to avoid all danger that comes their way, as the genre work tries to maintain tension at all times. Yet, for once both Charlier and Giraud's interest in the historical background of the Indian conflict seems to be waning, as there is little direct involvement with any of the events that happened in the old West.

Thus, the encounters with Indians, and later on, Mexicans, have a feeling of status quo to them, with Blueberry's trip to Mexico serving almost like a McGuffin stringing together the necessary dangerous situations. The threat of the Indians likewise continually devolves, as the capable warriors of the previous albums, are increasingly rendered in buffoonish and stereotypical manner. Of course, their relative incompetence was always a key factor in keeping the protagonist alive, but in those previous situations, they have at least proven capable of decimating the ranks of unknown soldiers surrounding him. This time, they resort to empty threats and continually manage to have Jimmy and Blueberry slip under their noses, due to their gullible nature.

A particularly egregious example is Jimmy's ruse to escape the Indian patrol by tricking the warriors into drinking a special brand of beverage. Truly, this time around, under Giraud's directions, the proud tribesmen behave little more deadly then their fellow comic book villains, the Romans that plague Asterix and Obelix in Goscinny and Uderzo's classic albums (even those creators previous "Oumpah Pah" Western series seems to have treated the Native Americans more sympathetically than "Mission in Mexico").

Unfortunately, all of these encounters have had a direct impact on lessening the threat of Fort Navajo's chief antagonist, Lonesome Eagle, who has direct involvement in most of the Indian parties going after Blueberry in this album. The ingenious hunter and at every point Blueberry's equal of the previous volume seems to have been replaced with a pulp villain, who is continually beset and incapable of doing serious harm to the hero. With every encounter, the Indian's threat diminishes to the point where he feels almost like a nuisance, an authority figure that keeps turning up to sober up the relaxed adventurers. By the end, even his allies shy away from him, which seems logical, but still feels like Giraud should have built some kind of framework from keeping the Eagle from being directly responsible for all of the crushing defeats that he suffers in this volume.

Once in Mexico, the creators pick up on some of the historical backdrop of the time, which works to somewhat lessen the generic style of most of the preceding pages. The Jayhawkers expatriate soldiers feel like a very nice addition to the series, and provide for a lot of the color and excitement in the book's final pages. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the Mexican authorities, whose late addition to "Mission" seems slight and necessary only because of the historical framework that the story is set in. It is not that they deter from the plot, only that the manner in which they are presented is too overly familiar, almost perfectly their perfunctory role in Giraud and Charlier's depiction of the conflict.

The return of lieutenant Crowe serves a function to the plot, but does little to further develop the character, following his emancipation in "Thunder in the West". Once again, despite their role in the events, the original Fort Navajo characters feel stiff and both Giraud and Charlier have trouble with them. Even with the redesign and the greater role Crowe has got to play following his somewhat low key introduction, he doesn't really feel like a presence that could be maintained following the Apache wars conflict, which was exactly the fate his creators have eventually assigned him.

Going back to Jimmy McClure's status as the new sidekick to Blueberry, his very presence seemed to be inspiration to the creators. Seeing Mike drop his guard, get back to cards, and in doings so all sense of time and hurry, while under the pretense of helping Jimmy out of an unfortunate situation, shows exactly where Charlier and Giraud were doing the penultimate chapter of their Fort Navajo epic. The creators have quickly found their niche in dramatizing American history, but five years into doing this, they have certainly earned their right to try and breach out into the more creative direction. Hence, the Apache war being relegated to finish in the very next album, enabling them to try something new, that would bear the name of Lieutenant Blueberry, and not his former military facility.

And it is exactly in the image of Jimmy McClure that the reader can see all the difference. His derelict appearance is full of character, and also much more universal to the old West than that of the soldiers serving with Blueberry. But even more important, Jimmy seems like the first character that Giraud is completely at ease with. His lucid look, the careless way he goes about, mash perfectly with the Spaghetti western sensibility that characterized all but the original military premise of the series. While rapidly distancing themselves from the classical Western storytelling, the creators are merely acknowledging the complex morality that was always apparent in their stories. It is only that with Jimmy in tow, Blueberry finally starts navigating Giraud's astonishingly detailed and life-like backgrounds with much more charm and humanity. And this is exactly what has lead the series to attract such a huge following in the years subsequent to the Fort Navajo cycle.

1 comment:

zoli79 said...

I really like your reviews! Especially about BB - not too many of them on the net in English. Keep up the work!