Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Blueberry 7 the Iron horse

In early 1970, French premiere comics magazine "Pilote" saw the beginning of the serialization of "the Iron horse", Jean Giraud and Jean Michel Charlier's seventh Blueberry adventure. By this time, the creative duo was so productive that they were basically producing two complete 48 page albums a year, which also impacted the storyline in a major way. Following a brief interlude after the epic Fort Navajo saga, the creative team had decided that their new multiple volume saga should center around railroad.

Following Civil War, two different train companies competed with the idea of building a transcontinental track in the land that was still settled claimed by Indians, which certainly makes for a broad Western concept the likes of which Giraud and Charlier tackled in Fort Navajo. In fact, it's remarkable how much their new 4 volume railroad adventure draws from the story that introduced Blueberry. General Dodge sends for Mike's presence precisely because of his role in the negotiations with Indians, but what follows is remarkably similar to his previous experience. The Natives are once again lied to and manipulated in order to serve a third party interest, and it's Blueberry who gets stuck in the middle.

Where the two epics largely differ is abundantly clear in "the Iron horse", and that's the experience of the creators. With Fort Navajo, Charlier and Giraud were new to the story, working as if from a broad outline that still allowed for a lot of major changes along the way. Their next Blueberry epic feels much more tightly plotted, with creators knowing fully well that they intend to produce four complete albums in the space of two years. Thus, the first part feels much more expository and slow pace, with the authors knowing fully well that they already have an audience that will follow their tale to the end.

In this way, they introduce a completely new supporting cast, consisting of Blueberry's superiors in Union Pacific, as well as their employees, courier Red Neck, and free agent Jethro Steelfingers. Red Neck, a gaunt, quiet man would stick around long after the whole saga, and become Blueberry's other permanent sidekick, contrasting Jimmy McClure's buffoonery with a more sober point of view. In any event, he follows McClure's path of going to Fort Navajo to request Blueberry's assistance, with creators once again using the scene for comedic effect. Once again, Giraud and Charlier stay away from becoming self-referential and basically use these scenes to provide the reader with a knowledge of just what kind of a man Blueberry is, and proceed to follow through with the plot.

Similarly to the original Fort Navajo album, the first half of the story features an extended scene of massacre, designed to provoke the reader's emotions and set out the stakes involved in someone's grand plan. This time it's a herd of stampeding buffalo, who are first presented as a threat, almost a natural disaster, that the heroes must overcome, before they are made witness of the first signs telling that the tragedy was engineered by outside forces. Interestingly, Red Neck is presented as a veteran cowboy, who repeatedly offers sound advice amid as the hostilities with Indians start becoming a reality, but mostly gets ignored by the atypically rash and impulsive Blueberry.

As soon as he arrives to the Union Pacific's camp, Blueberry established a feud with Jethro Steelfingers, which he wants to settle immediately, without any kind of plan. The protagonist's hurried actions seem somewhat mirrored by a plot that devotes too short a time to Blueberry's introduction with his superiors and the beginning of his mission as a negotiator. Before he can even start in the official capacity, the rival Central Pacific forces are already plotting against him, which he makes disturbingly easy due to his single-minded obsession with defeating Steelfingers.

The duel finally takes place during a long scene set in a typical western saloon, where Blueberry confronts Jethro with the aid of Jimmy McClure, who has since been shoehorned into story in a slightly contrived way. Despite it's length, the showdown works to build tension, present a nicely paced standoff between key players, and ends with literally tearing the building down, as the two rivals proceed to settle their differences with their fists. Steelfingers is an interesting foil for Blueberry, in that he is completely different from Fort Navajo's Lone Eagle. And while he certainly possess a rude cunning, Jethro is defined mostly by his strength, which exhibits in his using the prosthetic arm as if possessing superhuman powers. Seeing Steelfingers using what is illustrated almost like a karate chop, seems slightly out of place in the heavily labored semi-realistic atmosphere of Giraud and Charlier's Wild West, but it's nonetheless effective.

The scenes that follow depicting the train ride he's been forced on, present the villain in all of his ruthlessness and further cement his presence as a serious obstacle to Blueberry's plans. Unfortunately, with the saloon scene taking up most of the scenes in the Union Pacific camp, there is no space to set up the mystery of the CU saboteurs. The creators thus opt to reveal their identity from the start, which is likely for the best, considering the story's range far surpasses that of a static guessing game between a myriad new supporting characters. In any event, those that are introduced in "the Iron horse" are all notably more realistic in their outlook than Blueberry, who continually seems out of his element, which makes up for a lot of his bewildered behavior in this album.

As the last segment of the first episode starts unraveling, it becomes apparent that Charlier has tailored the plot to peak with the race between the new lethal enemies. Whether Blueberry will get a chance to finish his negotiations with the leaders of Sioux and Cheyenne tribes depends entirely on Steelfingers' ability to get to the meeting place and set the ambush in time to present the threat to Mike's agenda. The set piece involving the valley is large and complicated, but Giraud's layouts never fail to clearly portray the distance between each of Blueberry's allies, and their part in securing the area. The arrival of Steelfingers' men and the reaction of each side of the conflict is depicted so clearly that the reader can ease up and follow the rapid succession of shots with just enough dread and excitement that the creative team expected them to experience.

Once again, Giraud and Charlier finish on a high note, providing a fast paced train sequence that leaves little time for the characters to reminiscence on the gravity of the events set in motion. And although they avoided ending on a cliffhanger, the creators were content to count on their readers to simply continue reading the Blueberry segment of "Pilote". On it's own, "the Iron horse" feels adequate but still fundamentally incomplete, seeing how most of it's plots continue directly in what was eventually published in album form as "Steelfingers". And while perhaps not as ground breaking as Fort Navajo, the saga of building the continental railroad is by all means a formidable Western comic book, featuring the work of storytellers whose best ideas were still some years away, to be released when they finally stopped thinking in such rigid terms as the story cycles limited to four or five albums united with a clearly defined common theme.

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