Sunday, January 16, 2011

Fort Navajo: the Trail of Navajos

With the beginning of 1969, Jean Giraud and Jean Michel Charlier set out to complete their Fort Navajo cycle of stories in the pages of Belgium's "Pilote" magazine. Each of the five albums dealt with the fictionalized version of the Apache wars conflict, but the initial outline didn't factor in the popularity of the lieutenant Blueberry character. Thus, the middle parts of the Fort Navajo circle became somewhat less epic, and more focused on the characters. Yet, even though it was apparent that Blueberry would soon continue his adventures in the broader Wild West setting, it was unavoidable that his involvement with the Fort Navajo mission be much more plot driven.

Thus, the book begins with the Indian council, focusing on the state of affairs between Cochise and his Mexican benefactors. And even though Blueberry, accompanied by Jimmy McClure sticks close to the initial brokering of the terms of the negotiations, it's another of his Fort Navajo friends that unofficially establishes contact with the Indians. The entirety of the first third of the book, largely follows Mike's fellow lieutenant as he tries to prepare the War council for Blueberry's approach, promising to end the hostilities by carrying out the presidential message.

The slow paced, tense and serious storytelling is a welcome break from the burlesque portrayal of the Native Americans in the previous volume, and a clear statement from the creators that they have gone a bit too far with the "Lucky Luke" flavored antics in the "Mission to Mexico". Once again, Lone Eagle's presence provides for the drama in what started as largely static opening, leading to an impressive chase with some very real consequences for Blueberry's friend. Once again, despite the lethal nature of the gun fights, Giraud renders them skillfully and without much gore. The relatively long chase feels energetic the whole time, masterfully coreographed, and ends at a cliffhanger. With the reader unaware of the exact outcome of the encounter, the creators maintain tension throughout Blueberry's subsequent late arrival at the scene, that in turn sets up the events to come.

With Blueberry now harboring a personal grudge against Lone Eagle, propelling him to come up with the new plan, the creators enable this volume to stand on it's own, as it requires no previous knowledge to understand, and more importantly, connect with the events and the characters involved. In plot terms, this means that in order to make sure the negotiations with Cochise lead toward piece for both sides, Blueberry must find a way to cut off the supply of guns and ammo promised by general Armendariz. In the terms of Apache wars, this meant once again substituting the work of the United States Army and it's intelligence for a Wild West pulp plot starring a single soldier. By now, the reader has had to accept the terms of the creative license which lead to Blueberry being assigned an important role in all the key events of the conflict. In "the Trail of Navajos", Charlier and Giraud are very clear as to their intentions - while they are certainly inspired by the Bascom affair, the goal was to still present the reader with a genre comic that is easily understood by the audience uninitiated with the historical facts.

This is achieved by giving Blueberry and McClure a clear goal, sabotaging the Mexican mine, and by treating the bulk of the album as the heist story. The bulk of these scenes show just how much Giraud's art has advanced in the span of these five albums. The craggy hills, and the barren plains underneath them are rendered with such detail and efficiency that they transport the reader into Wild West, as rendered by the authors. There's hardly a trace of the somewhat stiff poses that characterized Giraud's initial work on the Blueberry saga, with the presentation being wholesome and breathtaking. The art is not only painstakingly detailed, but at the same time unmistakably personal, with the artist rendering both the figure work and the backgrounds as part of the same style.

The fact that a lot of the scenes in the middle of "the Trail of Navajos" take place in open spaces, at night, unfortunately does work to hide some of the richness of Giraud's texture. The murky blues and grays don't really add up to the cumulative effect a drawing designed purposely to be left in black and white sometimes has, when rendered by masters of the form. Giraud was seemingly unaware of the color separations that his publisher would decide upon, ending up with a series of scenes that, while not really making the storytelling unclear, still detract from the layouts.

Charlier on the other hand, doesn't really bother with establishing the Mexicans as the threat, and basically has Blueberry and McClure solve the problem by in their usual roundabout way. This means establishing contact with the Jay Hawker deserters, who enter into the agreement in order to provide diversion to the protagonists' plan, which is how creators thankfully restore at least some semblance of reality to the proceedings. For all his cowardice and buffoonery, Jimmy McClure actually continues to prove useful to young Blueberry, and indeed it is through one of his contacts that Donovan is able to think up a strategy for avoiding the Mexican defenses.

In a very critical moment, McClure provides vital help to the lieutenant, sealing their friendship and proving that the creators have successfully managed to create another character versatile enough to outlast the Apache wars inspired saga. As for the trickery employed in getting to the shipment of arms meant for Indians, and the inspired bouts of heroism perpetrated by the pair in the process, they make for some intriguing, if somewhat familiar action scenes. What stands out is a carefully executed sequence showing the sabotagers climbing the mountain. And while the characters are poised to overcome a nominally simple problem, it is hard to imagine any other artist rendering the predicament as clearly as Giraud. Expertly laying out the pages, he makes the whole scene clear, from the characters coming upon the unexpected situation through to dealing with it.

Unfortunately, most of the following drama feels mechanical, despite the hurried actions of the characters, and the explosions that directly threaten their life at various points. It's by all accounts serviceable genre storytelling, but somewhat weightless past the aforementioned moment between McClure and Blueberry. Using another page to wrap up the Jay Hawkers part of the plot brings the book to the finale of the whole saga. And it's clear that all of the Fort Navajo saga couldn't wraps up satisfactory in following four short pages. Instead, Charlier and Giraud devote their efforts to end the album on the strong note, without any kind of formal epilogue. Reading the albums in sequence, it surprises that even if the creators decided they would not be providing a broader sweep of the aftermath of their dramatization of the Apache wars, then they could have certainly devoted a couple of pages to provide some closure regarding Blueberry's friends at Fort Bowie.

But nonetheless, what Charlier and Giraud offer works as the ending of what was primarily a Wild West genre approximation of the real world events. By boiling down all of the conflict to a tomahawk fight between Blueberry and Lone Eagle, the creators are at least sincere towards where their intentions lay all along. And though it may feel like somewhat of an anticlimatic finale to a sprawling epic adventure, one should keep in mind that it was a representation of the military conflict that every step of the way scaled back to allow for smaller moments of stealth and trickery, and never really focused on larger army battles that took place in the early 1860s. Fort Navajo was all about Blueberry substituting for a complex military machinery and endless historical personas that contributed to the resolution of the conflict, and as such it's only fitting that in the process he developed beyond the archetypal gruff but honorable soldier.

It is this promise of moral complexity and charm that's lead the audience to react so strongly to Donovan, as designed by Charlier and Giraud, enabling them to continue exploring the Wild West lore using the same point of view character and the stylish feeling they've started establishing. And considering the quality of the work, and their constant effort to perfect the storytelling, the best and most iconic of Blueberry's adventures were still to come, propelling both to international fame and their collaboration into an European sequential classic.

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