Graphic Novels

The American West in Franco-Belgian Comics

The western will be one of themes of Seattle's Francophone Comic Arts Festival, Booom!, held online from November 5 to 12. In the run-up to the event, we took a closer look at the fertile, longstanding relationship between the “ninth art” and the Wild West.
© Lucky Comics

Comics appeared in the American press around 1890, shortly after the end of the frontier. When The Great Train Robbery, considered the very first western movie, was released in 1903, trains were still being attacked in Texas! That same year, George Herriman, comics precursor, took the genre and used it in his six-panel strip Lariat Pete. The term “western” first appeared in 1910 and became commonly used around 1925. The pioneers and colt-toting heroes were the stars of the first adventures, before the arrival of Native Americans and the occasional heroine. U.S. comics went on to enjoy storming success during the 1930s with series including King of the Royal Mounted, Little Joe, and Red Ryder.

In Europe, Hergé was the first to focus on Native Americans in 1931 with Tintin in America. The same year, Marijac created Jim Boum, a loyal, courageous cowboy inspired by the knights of old. After this initial wave, France and Belgian were producing more western comics than America! European strips offered an idealized vision of the protagonist, a vigilante embodying the law who stood up to bandits and other corrupted scoundrels. Jerry Spring, a realistic, heroic western series, appeared 1954 under the pen strokes of comics master Jijé. The conquest of the West (on paper) had begun!

Zozo (1935) et Nounouche (1938): The Forerunners of Modern Comics

Zozo the monkey and his friend Croquefer arrive in Hollywood, where they outsmart imposters and visit the movie studios. These two heroes are the creation of C. Franchi, a Belgian artist, and first featured in Le Journal de Francette et Riquet in 1935. Nounouche, a little teddy bear, was originally drawn by André Durst, a painter and musician from Puteaux, near Paris, in 1938. She traveled the world and stopped in America in 1950, before continuing for 32 books until 1954. Native Americans were portrayed as kindly savages, an image that had already been seized upon by the Hollywood film industry.

Franchi, Zozo en Amérique, 1935. © René Touret
André Durst, Nounouche, 1950. © Enfants de France

Lucky Luke (1946): 95 Comedy Comics

Belgian illustrator Morris dreamed up a wandering cowboy, Lucky Luke, for the Spirou comics magazine. The artist drew inspiration from the actors he had admired as a child, including Tom Mix, William S. Hart, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and Gary Cooper. He also offered an array of historical characters (Jesse James, Calamity Jane, Roy Bean) along with flamboyant fictional creations who contrasted with the somewhat bland protagonist. In his early days, Lucky Luke shot down a number of outlaws, including Bob Dalton, one of the four infamous brothers (along with Grat, Bill, and Emmett). From the twelfth book onwards, the hero also took on the Dalton cousins, Joe, Jack, William, and Averell, who were out for revenge. But baby boom-era France feared that comics and other American publications would corrupt children, and a certain moralism set in.

Lucky Luke - L’intégrale volume 24, 2012. © Lucky Comics

The French law of July 16, 1949, on publications aimed at young people forced Morris to censor his stories. In the revised versions, Bob Dalton was captured alive, the seedy saloon settings were sanitized, and women of easy virtue were hurriedly clothed. In 1948, Morris set out to discover the United States, and ended up staying for six years. While there, he created comic books, sent his western strips to France, and met Harvey Kurtzman (founder of Mad magazine) and René Goscinny (the future editor in chief of Pilote and the father of Asterix and Le Petit Nicolas). In 1968, Morris left Spirou to work for Pilote. Finding itself without its favorite cowboy, Spirou launched the much-loved Bluecoats by Cauvin and Salvé, featuring two crackpot soldiers in the Union Army during the American Civil War. Aimed at children, Lucky Luke then swapped his cigarette for a whisp of straw in 1983 and tried to find a following on the U.S. market.

Blueberry (1963): The Leading Name in Franco-Belgian Westerns

French critic André Bazin observed the rise of the “hyperwestern” in the 1950s: “A western that would be ashamed to only be itself, and would seek to justify its existence through an additional aesthetic, sociological, moral, psychological, political, or erotic purpose.” The subsequent wave of spaghetti-westerns, directed by Italian filmmakers, rebooted the genre. The West and its ideology were no longer presented as the future or a conquering spirit, but rather as past events. It was accompanied by musings on progress and history, perceived as an accumulation of violent clashes and the destruction of places and peoples, drawing on the tradition of director John Ford and shifting from calvary charges to Native American conflicts. Westerns then took on a humanist tone and, much like in Ford’s movies, indigenous tribes were rehabilitated.

Charlier & Giraud, Blueberry - Tome 1 - Fort Navajo, 1965. © Dargaud
Charlier & Giraud, Blueberry - Tome 2 - Tonnerre à l’ouest, 1966. © Dargaud

French artist Jean Giraud, a student of Jijé, was spotted by Belgian comics writer Jean-Michel Charlier (Les Belles Histoires de l’oncle Paul, Buck Danny, Barbe-Rouge) after a trip to the United States. This encounter led to one of the most iconic sagas in comics history, Blueberry, first published in Pilote in 1963. The strip followed the adventures of a generous, playful, rebellious cavalry soldier who looked a lot like French actor Jean-Paul Belmondo. Many episodes portrayed the Native American genocide before the series settled on a handful of key characters and removed the historical themes.

Comanche (1969): A Wild, Feminine Epic

This series appeared in Tintin magazine in 1969 as a response by Greg and Hermann to the success of Jerry Spring and Blueberry. A ranch in Wyoming, the Triple Six, is managed by young woman, Comanche, helped by a copper-haired Irish cowboy by the name of Red Dust. They are joined by Clem, a.k.a. “Crazy-Hair,” a former slave called Toby (“Dark-Face”), a Cheyenne tribesman (“Moon-Spot”), and old Ten Gallons. Just like in Blueberry, the comics featured strong female characters. Hermann was influenced by the films of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah, who used violence to smash apart the myth of the West and craft a metaphor for the Vietnam debacle in his 1969 movie The Wild Bunch.

In this series, the comic-book version of the wild west became adult and brutal: Red Dust would think nothing of coldly gunning down an enemy; the Native Americans embodied every facet of humanity and behaved just as poorly as the white settlers; cowboys were depicted as sweaty and often ugly, hateful misfits. The murders portrayed caused an uproar and saw Comanche removed from Tintin magazine, which enabled the series to grow in independence and maturity.

Greg & Hermann, Comanche - Tome 6 - Furie rebelle, 1976. © Le Lombard

Yakari (1969): Education in the Great Outdoors

Derib, the pseudonym of Swiss illustrator Claude de Ribaupierre, was a horse-riding instructor before joining Peyo’s studio in Brussels and collaborating on the Smurfs. In 1969, he teamed up with comics writer Job to create a coming-of-age series starring a Native American papoose called Yakari. In this semi-realistic, environmentally minded fable, the little boy can speak to animals – a gift bestowed upon him by his totem, Great Eagle. The work was an instant, long-lasting hit. Translated into 23 languages, the book sold 100,000 copies annually.

Marijac’s Sitting Bull (1948) had been the first comic to offer a respectful portrayal of Native American cultures. Similarly, themes of power, money, cowboys, and soldiers were nowhere to be seen in Yakari’s world, which was dominated by the harmony of nature. Derib introduced a certain fullness, flexibility, and cinematic technique into his panels. In 1971-1972, he then published Go West, a more typical western, with comics writer Greg.

Derib & Job, Yakari. © Le Lombard

Buddy Longway (1972): A Familial Epic and an Ode to Tolerance

In his adult comics, Derib narrated the life of Buddy Longway for 34 years. His protagonist, inspired by Sidney Pollack’s 1972 Jeremiah Johnson, was a complex character, a white trapper of occasionally questionable morals who starts a family with Chinook, a Native American woman. In this saga championing a young America, Derib reveals his fascination for the “red-skins” and contrasts the differing worldviews of conquering pioneers and native peoples through this mixed and eternally misunderstood family. Buddy Longway ages in each instalment, and finally passed away in La Source (2006). Derib also continued his exploration of Native American culture in the series Celui qui est né deux fois (1983) and Red Road (1988).

Derib, Buddy Longway - L’intégrale, 2010. © Le Lombard

Desert Star (1996): The Spectacular West

Published in two tomes, Desert Star is the fruit of a collaboration between Belgian writer Stephen Desberg and Italian artist Enrico Marini, who trained at the Basel School of Fine Arts. In this comics series, Matthew Montgomery, whose appearance was inspired by actor Sean Connery, is a high-ranking official in the Department of War in Washington D.C. in 1870. After a mysterious gang rape and murder his wife and daughter, using a knife to mark the bodies with a star, he steps back from society and travels to Topeka, the capital of Kansas. This conventional investigation paired with a personal vendetta is visually spectacular.

Desberg & Marini, L’Etoile du désert - Tome 1, 1996. © Dargaud

Gus (2007): The Romantic West

Westerns are often reduced to an accumulation of archetypes, which makes them even more enjoyable to parody! Inspired by his first copy of Lucky Luke, Dick Digger’s Gold Mine, Christophe Blain pushed the exercise to its limits by stripping back conventions and turning clichés on their heads. In Gus, the traditionally hyper-masculine world is rebuilt around women. The protagonist, accompanied by his two “handsome bandits,” Gratt and Clem, spends his days holding up stage coaches, but dreams of nothing more than being with his sweetheart. The clumsiness of the male characters, sketched in a cartoon style, matches the indecipherable charm of the female counterparts, who are drawn realistically. “Artists and gangsters are very similar characters,” said Blain in an interview with Libération. “They’re both fascinated by their self-image and those presented by others.”

Blain, Gus - Tome 1 - Nathalie, 1996. © Dargaud

Rain Wolf (2012): A Female Narrator of Legends

Through the writing of Jean Dufaux and the bold drawings of Rubén Pellejero, the western moved closer to Greek tragedy, drawing on Native American traditions and legends. Rain Wolf is a nomadic Native American man who kills a white man in an act of self-defense. He takes on the Cody brothers who have kidnapped Blanche, the narrator, and battles against the racial tensions of his environment. The visual world is inspired by period photographs, depicting a world built on violence and contemplation.

Dufaux & Pellejero, Loup de Puie - Tome 1, 2012. © Dargaud

W.E.S.T. (2003): The Supernatural, Evanescent West

An English adventurer with a troubled past, a Native American exorcist, a sniper, a henchman, and a female psychiatrist: The Weird Enforcement Special Team is a multiethnic team of extraordinary rebels working for the American government. Playing on the western codes, the six-tome series by Xavier Dorison and Fabien Nury, combines history – the U.S. occupation of Cuba in 1898, the start of modern psychiatry, the presidencies of McKinley and Roosevelt, social conflicts, and anti-trust laws – with an esoteric thriller, particularly in the final tome, Seth. The entire creation is carried by the superb watercolors by cartoonist Christian Rossi.

Dorison, Nury & Rossi, W.E.S.T. - Intégrale, 2013. © Dargaud


Seattle Comic Arts Festival
From November 5 through 12, 2021