Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Change of direction and the value of the protracted Second Act (PART THREE)

The creative team set to follow Uderzo on "Asterix" will not seek to undo the appeal of the series with glaring changes in direction. At best, they will be returning some vigor to the long gestating best seller by infusing it with their own talent and energy, but there is no need to artificially change the working formula. Following Goscinny's death in 1977, Uderzo himself has undertaken to preserving the flair of the series' best period, even going so far to sign Goscinny on the albums done decades after his friend's passing.

Without a rigid adherence on continuity these stories work as complete episodes that are fully rounded and accessible, but at a glance might seem slighter than the storytelling model prevalent in American comics. Yet, another regular staple of the "Pilote" magazine illustrates the point much more efficiently.

Charlier and Giraud's "Blueberry" is a comic book series that has endured at least one major change in direction. Starting out as an ensemble piece military western, following the initial story cycle, the creators have started mapping out smaller stories, that complimented each other and basically all fit in the western mold despite the many twists and turns. All told the story of Mike S. Donovan, an roguish character whose travels made for a very engrossing genre adventures. With the writer's death and the main strand of the series finished, Giraud simply shifted the story to Blueberry's final days, determined to tell a Tombstone epic that stood on its own, and hardly qualifies as a change of direction.

Yet, it's clear that the Franco-Belgian premier western title has had its phases and hardly constitutes a single story, except when viewed as the story of Blueberry's life, which is certainly a reading encouraged by its creators, seeing as how Donovan, actually ages through the saga that allowed its creators to create their own spins of most of the typical western scenarios. Precisely this aspect of Blueberry is picked up by Swiss-born Derib, whose "Buddy Longway" presents a much more unified story of a trapper living with his family in frontier, with all of the changes coming naturally, due to the passage of time and his children coming of age.

Of all the popular Franco-Belgian comics, American genre comics most resemble the popular fantasy "Lanfeust of Troy". Derived from singular creative vision of its creators, the genre hybrid mixes lighthearted epic fantasy with the idea of what can be described in the terms of comics as mutant superpowers, the series has progressed to multiple spin offs and direction changes. After Arleston and Tarquin send their sword and sorcery mutant off on a "Star Wars" like science fiction adventure, and spin-off the popular Troll character into its own open ended "Troll of Troll" series of albums, its difficult to talk about the aesthetic unity and creative cohesiveness. "Lanfeust" is another victim of its own success, with the publisher more than happy to flood the market with dozens of spin-offs. Once again, only the most ardent fans will stick with all of the many incarnations, leaving a more typical medium afficianado to pick and choose what constitutes Lanfeust's story for them. It's clear that the tangential stories hurt the brand and dilute the brand, but "Soleil" so far seems perfectly content to forgo the priorities of a well rounded, well told story in lieu of satisfying short-term financial reports.

To pick a less extreme example, Vance and Van Hamme's "XIII" has followed the progression that thankfully inches much closer to Blueberry's part of the spectrum. The initial five album story was so successful that the creators decided to chart a new course for their popular characters, that tried to expand the conspiracy to more of the XX century hot-spots. This proved every bit as diverting and uneven as this implies, but the "Bourne identity"-inspired mystery provided with a canvas broad enough to let the reader gravitate to Vance and Van Hamme's detailed, entertaining stylings when the story details felt forced and stretched too thin.

Along the way, Vance and Van Hamme finished their run, but have arranged with "Dargaud" to have another creative team follow them. As with "Blueberry", the series was spun-off into a companion title spotlighting the past of the characters prior to the dramatic events of the main series. And while it's still early to tell what course will Jigounov and Sente's "XIII" take, in regards to the continuity of the original albums, it's certain that the editorial oversight will sooner or later return the series to its roots, preserving that much suffering
man with the XIII tattooed on his skin will likely continue to exist in the late Cold war world of spies and characters hinting secrets about his past, quickly forgetting about the original creators' lukewarm epilogue.

Again, despite the fact that most of the cast ended up dead during the course of preceding albums, "Dargaud" is not at fault for continuing in the same mold. Despite the pretense of realism, at its core "XIII" is an adventure serial and as such more than welcome to continue to spin its wheels. After all, Vance and Van Hamme were the first to provide the road map for just such continued exploitation.

Taking a different publishing model into account, it's clear that the American genre comic book still has much more in common with traditional superhero industry than it appears at a first glance. In many ways, with its beginnings at DC and the subsequent Top Shelf edition, Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill's "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" becomes a unique mirror to look upon the development of the modern genre comic in America.

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