Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Bruce J. Hawker 1 - Destination: Gibraltar

William Vance is today best known as Van Hamme's artistic collaborator on Dargaud's "XIII", but in 1976 he was the writer/artist of "Bruce J. Hawker". Introduced in the "Femmes d'aujourd'hui" magazine, the character was to have his first adventure reworked and published in 1979, in the pages of the weekly "Tintin" magazine. In 1985, after the success of the "XIII" debut, Lombard published the collected "Destination: Gibraltar" concurrent with the second album of the Dargaud series.

"Bruce J. Hawker" starts out as a period piece, centered on the exploits of the 20 year old British ship commander, promoted by Nelson to take HMS Lark on a mission to Gibraltar. His crew exhibits some initial hesitation, but ultimately proves loyal to the captain. Their trust in him is justified by Hawker' serious disposition and dedication to the British Navy, as he seems to have left his private life and outside concerns on land, along with his fiancĂ©e.

For the majority of the album's 48 pages, the focus is not on characterization, with Vance's detailed illustrations providing a unique look in the history of naval warfare. In 1976, much like today, a large scale costumed drama was just as unlikely a subject for a movie presentation as it is today, thus Vance's work serves to visualize the nautical novels of Patrick O'Brian. "The Master and Commander" film adaptation is a good approximation of Vance's work on the series, but the story has just as much to do with classic newspaper adventure strips. The narration the writer/artist uses is much more suited to the form, but otherwise, the work draws from the same well as the majority of the Hal Foster and Alex Raymond devotees.

Despite his sound storytelling instincts, it cannot be overstated that "Destination: Gibraltar" is the strongest when it comes to the detailed depiction of uniforms and every aspect of the HMS Lark. Only the readers prejudiced against historical fiction will be able to overlook Vance's clean, well researched pages, providing a rare view into the underused period setting. The writer/artist provides for some mystery involving Hawker's secret orders, while nicely sets up the imminent clash against the Spanish fleet.

The use of fog to obscure the location of the Lark and the following chase make nice use of the creator's talents, with the following battle likewise competently depicting the chaos and desperation in a close quarters encounter between the British vessel and it's superior rival. What little Vance sets up story wise, such as Hawker's complete dedication to his men, he follows through. The British cannons overheat, the Spanish are relentless in defending their coastline, and in the several pages detailing the naval battle, the writer/artist only makes a misstep when he decides to superimpose the image of Bruce's enrage face over the depiction of his subordinates.

Yet, the story doesn't end with the failure of the Lark's mission, as the final pages pick up on the captain's fate. Thrown into a Spanish dungeon along with lieutenant Lark and a few of the other surviving officers, Hawker is subjected to the torture at the hands of El Medico, the doctor turned dungeon keeper. Having the Spanish inquire as to the nature of their enemy's mission is a perfectly logical plot point, but to do so by employing the services of a crazed psychopath not only breaks from the established tone, but completely re-frames the preceding 40 pages.

With the ultimate fate of captain Bruce J. Hawker uncertain, Vance is deliberately steering the story into the direction of the more traditional adventure story, with the hero undergoing a long and perilous journey, filled with sidetracks, as he notionally tries to get back to his previous life. Thus, the majority of "Destination: Gibraltar" ultimately posits itself as little more than an origin for a character that seems to be heading in the broader direction of an all purpose adventurer. As long as the stories are tangentially related to historic naval fiction, there is every reason for an open minded reader to give the series a chance.

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