Funny thing happened last week. My pal Rob Beddard drops me a line to say he’s going to see Eddie Izzard in performance that night. Mentions in passing Izzard’s co-starring in the forthcoming BLUEBERRY movie, based on the LT. BLUEBERRY series by Jean-Michel Charlier and Jean “Moebius” Giraud. I get curious, look up the movie to see what it’s about, and it looks like it’s based on the LT. BLUEBERRY arc “The Lost Dutchman’s Mine” and “The Ghost With The Golden Bullets.” I’ve got the BLUEBERRY stuff around, but I hadn’t looked at it in years – I originally had (and read) the volumes in the original French hardcovers; along with Philippe Druillet‘s work, this was the work I loved the most when I went mad for French comics in the ’70s – so I pulled them out, and have been reading them ever since. The LT. BLUEBERRY series breaks down into six arcs: three volumes of YOUNG BLUEBERRY; the original first story, set in the Southwest and comprised of FORT NAVAJO, THUNDER IN THE WEST, THE LONE EAGLE, THE LOST RIDER and THE TRAIL OF THE NAVAJOS, in which Blueberry intercedes with Cochise to halt an Indian war; a standalone, THE MAN WITH THE SILVER STAR; a second Indian saga, in which Blueberry’s transferred to the Plains to deal with Red Cloud and Sitting Bull with somewhat lesser results due to a glory-hungry Custer stand-in in THE IRON HORSE, STEELFINGERS, THE TRAIL OF THE SIOUX and GENERAL GOLDEN MANE; the aforementioned LOST DUTCHMAN’S MINE and THE GHOST WITH THE GOLDEN BULLETS, in which Blueberry, assigned to sub as a town marshal, tracks down a murderous grifter who tempts victims with tales of an incredible gold mine; and an incredible BLUEBERRY mega-epic that sets Blueberry on a secret mission after Confederate gold that turns him outlaw and ultimately entwines him in a plot to kill President Grant that winds through CHIHUAHUA PEARL, THE HALF-A-MILLION DOLLAR MAN, BALLAD FOR A COFFIN, THE OUTLAW, ANGEL FACE, BROKEN NOSE, THE LONG MARCH, THE GHOST TRIBE, THE LAST TRIBE and THE END OF THE TRAIL, and a coda, ARIZONA LOVE, altogether running around 500 pages (and, remember, these were European-sized pages, running twice the average number of panels than American pages.)
I was having a conversation the other day with someone studying to be a teacher, and one of the questions in an assignment is whether or not it’s better to focus on “American” culture (which, let’s face it, is almost always used as a synonym for Euro-American traditional, or, more specifically, Anglo-American traditions) with multi-ethnic students and risk alienating them from their heritages, or to emphasize a multicultural curriculum and risk “Balkanizing” American culture, splitting our citizenry down into separate cultural tribes that fragment the society. I realized it was a specious question, not only in its implied pre-conclusions but in its entire premise. It entirely misses the point of American culture. The great virtue of American culture is that any other culture that “enters” our culture automatically becomes part of the culture. I used food as an example – food crosses all cultural bounds – and then I thought of comics.
In my lifetime, there have been three major waves of “foreign” influence in American comics. Most recently, of course, there’s manga, and it’s less influential counterparts from Korea and Hong Kong. (Those may gain steam yet, though.) There’s no doubt manga’s had an effect economically on American comics, and it’s repopularizing the medium in a way no American publisher has been able to do in a decade, much the same way underground comix repopularized the medium among an entire subculture whose members often had little or no prior use for comics at all. Manga may originate in Japan, but as soon as they’re published in America, they’re no longer Japanese comics, they’re American comics. We absorb whatever touches us, and it becomes another component of what we are, which is why some cries of “fighting” manga are irrelevant; in a way Walt Kelly never intended, we have met the enemy and he is now us. In the 80s, the “British invasion” brought a new sensibility to American comics and to some extent remade them in their own image. But when Alan Moore did SWAMP THING, it wasn’t a “British comic,” something alien to us. It was very much an American comic, and as soon as the Brits started doing comics here, they were doing American comics. They were just American comics of a type never seen in American before.
The first invasion, though, was the influx of French comics in the early ’70s. Let’s rename them “franga,” for the hell of it. They were hugely influential, not because so many people read them but because the Americans who did see them now had a whole new point of reference on what comics were. The books were often hardbound, usually printed in full color, always on good paper and sporting a variety of genres. When “independent” publishers started up, French comics strongly influenced what many of them wanted to do; many had visions of comics that stood as books in their own right, and it’s a vision that ultimately created the trade paperback/ graphic novel market today.
There’s a popular theory that the reason the superhero became the predominant genre in comics is because it’s the only genre that comics do better than any other medium. Or at least did, before the recent spate of CGI comic book movies came around, and that’s an argument being used for why superheroes won’t get us out of this rut. Neither argument really holds much water.
But the BLUEBERRY series really rips the hell out of the first argument, because, frankly, there’s no better western ever done anywhere in any medium than the final BLUEBERRY arc. There are the odd nods to various spaghetti westerns here and there, particularly to FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE and THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY, but Charlier’s characterizations are dead on while the stories are masterfully paced with drama, mood and great twists and action, and, while Giraud’s better known for his more fanciful fantasy art, his evocations of western landscapes and conditions are perfect and beautiful. The coloring is gorgeous and equally evocative; there’s no way this material could be published in black and white to the same effect. (Not that the art doesn’t evolve over time. The early BLUEBERRY art owes a strong debt to Joe Kubert, while later art becomes more looser and more stylized; it’s a long-running joke that Mike Blueberry starts out looking like Jean-Paul Belmondo and ends up looking like Charles Bronson. (In the movie he’ll be played by Vincent Cassel.) In a way, it’s a shame Moebius remains best known for his fantasy work – for all I know it’s his favorite as well – because his LT. BLUEBERRY work, particularly in the final epic, is some of the best comics art ever. Period.
Where are the rights to this stuff? I know Marvel repackaged most of the Moebius material, including the BLUEBERRY books, in paperback under its Epic imprint in the ’80s; those are the editions I currently have. You’d think in this age of graphic novels, some enterprising publisher would do a new BLUEBERRY set, collecting the arcs into single graphic novels that would really give the stories the weight (I mean that figuratively and literally) they deserve. It’s brilliant, brilliant work.
I’m not arguing that flocks of westerns should replace superheroes as the “mainstream” of comics. Or any other genre. All I’m saying is this:
Don’t try to tell me that, given the space and the talent, comics can’t do any genre as well as or better than any other medium can, because BLUEBERRY proves you’re wrong, or you’re lying, or you’re just trying to fool yourselves. Everyone, and I mean everyone, who hasn’t read the LT. BLUEBERRY books, whether you like westerns or not, owes it to themselves to track this material down and read it, wallow in the sheer epic beauty of it. And someone, for god’s sake, get it back into print.
Here’s what got me into comics, as a reader: I got sick. Back when I was a little, little kid, my dad would take me to a barber shop where they had various Dell comics, and while I was waiting to get my hair cut – in those days the only cut was a buzz cut, a memory that has haunted me my entire life; as a kid you just feel so helpless as you’re stuck in that chair almost totally covered in a cloth and someone you can’t see just runs an electric razor over your head – I’d read THE LONE RANGER. I don’t remember ever seeing THE LONE RANGER on TV at that age, and I don’t remember anything about the comics, which suggests they didn’t make much impression on me. Dell comics never did. So, anyway, I got sick, one of those childhood diseases that condemns you to bed for a week, and my dad (who had read comics as a teenager and in the army; he, in fact, had DETECTIVE COMICS#27 and ACTION COMICS #1, but when his father remarried after his mother died, the new wife found them in the attic and dumped them all) decided to cheer me up with a comic book. Specifically, this one:
I didn’t know it then, but ALL-STAR WESTERN introduced me to the work of Gil Kane. Most striking in the book, though, was an ad for JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA; it may have been the most exciting thing I’d seen in my life to that point. (Now that’s the response you want a kid to have to a comic book.) But when I managed to get out of bed to somewhere they sold comics, that issue was gone and in its place was:
And, bam, like that I was hooked.
Now I’ve never been much for team books. I was something of a loner as a kid – still reflected in my general disinterest in other people’s opinions – and when I was growing up teams were the province of bullies, braggarts and thugs: little more than authorized gangs. Of course, if you were on a sports team in school – sports were never something I was much interested in or any good at – you were golden, and if you weren’t you were expected to show “school spirit,” a rather unidirectional mode of appreciation. But the Justice League didn’t play like a “team,” they were more like a club. They were pals. Still, as soon as I was familiarized with the characters (I didn’t know any of them, including Superman, from Adam before that), I was on the prowl for the solo books. Turned out the first one I found was the single most influential DC comic of the ’60s:
And that was really cool, dangling whole – dare I say it? – unexpected universes in front of me. Did I have a prior clue that comics had been published in the 1940s, with different characters with the same names? I’m not sure I even had a concept of “the past” before that. Carmine Infantino’s stylized artwork was, to my young eyes, alluringly bizarre and unearthly, but not so much as the art in what was to become my favorite book and character (and, eventually, artist):
After that came a flurry of comics, mostly DC. DC was my meat for the first couple years I read comics. I briefly subscribed to ACTION COMICS (I particularly recall some issue about a Kryptonian monster with a fortune-telling TV screen on its head) and got membership in the Supermen Of America, went through everything from SUGAR AND SPIKE to CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN, but it had sunk in fairly early that the comics I liked the best were edited by Julius Schwartz. I don’t know why I didn’t do it earlier, but finally I subscribed to JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA, and I remember a drably overcast Wisconsin June day when I opened a brown paper wrapper with a folded over comic inside it, and unfolded the comic to find
Earth-1 and Earth-2 had become something of a surprise theme in my life.
I didn’t much read Marvel comics. I was vaguely aware of them, but the ones I’d seen were all by Jack Kirby or those who tried to draw like him, and Jack at the time was always inked by guys like Chic Stone or Paul Reinman, whose thick lines over Kirby’s primal art made it all seem a bit crude and graceless, esp. compared to the more sleekly illustrative Gil Kane and Carmine Infantino artwork adorning Schwartz’s books. A friend – I did have a few of them – introduced me to a coverless copy of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #9, which did fascinate me a little but it wasn’t until a few months later, when, in a rush I inadvertently bought and paid for
instead of some forgotten SUPERMAN ANNUAL (which had been right in front of it in the rack, but I never bought the face issue in the rack if I could avoid it, because that was most likely the one everyone looked at). At first I was appalled. After reading it, I was hooked. Steve Ditko was Marvel for me, and Steve Ditko’s Spider-Man immediately my second favorite character. I wasn’t able to find another issue until
which did something you never saw in a DC comic: end with the hero in abject, if undeserved, disgrace and seriously considering flushing it all. It was about that time I caught on something different might be happening at Marvel Comics, and I started reading all of them, even KID COLT OUTLAW. (Well, I never read PATSY WALKER that I recall, but there were a couple issues of MILLIE THE MODEL in there.) I read books from many companies – the main exceptions were Dell, Gold Key and Archie, and even a few of those snuck in there – but hunting down the hard-to-find ones became a game for me. Ditko lured me to both Charlton and Tower
but there were still plenty of things at DC to hold my interest as well. Past ’65, I never had a clear favorite company. Just too much was going on. The only thing I ever had trouble finding at DC was Adam Strange; MYSTERY IN SPACE just never seemed to show up anywhere. (The second time I was sick for a week, I asked my Dad to pick up a copy when he went to Snappy’s, a great news shop in downtown Madison that may or may not still be there, but he brought home a copy of Dell’s SPACEMAN instead.) When I finally started finding them regularly, with this issue
the good days of that series were just about over. But the BATMAN TV show, along with the lionization of Stan Lee as the next great pop prophet, kept new product arriving from new sources, most of it not worth mentioning but interesting at the time. (One moment from those days that sticks in my head was overhearing a classmate named Dianne Goth, who had something of a reputation as a “tough girl,” talking about the soon-to-debut AVENGERS TV show (the famed British spy series, of course, but none of us knew that at the time) in the hall and wondering how they were going to do “that woman who shrinks to the size of a wasp.” It was a complete shock to realize that Dianne Goth read THE AVENGERS. Apropos of nothing, but these are the moments that stick with you.)
By the end of the ’60s, change and fear were in the air, but it was an exciting time to be around. The books from those days would count as tame these days, many of them “failed experiments,” and it’s hard to describe how revolutionary something like Deadman
I’m mainly bringing this up because I often come across as negative and even antagonistic toward comics, and it’s worth reminding people once in awhile that I have a long history with comics and I do love them. I love the medium. I even love some of the comics. I don’t feel particularly nostalgic toward ’60s comics – it’s been a lifetime since I’ve even really shared those sensibilities – but those were my formative years, and these are still a few of my favorite things.
Of course, if you can’t find these books where you shop, you can always check out the online retailer Khepri. They have great books, a great selection and great prices.
Next week: Year 3. Be there.
Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail me but the chances of a reply are next to nil these days, given my workload, though I do read all my e-mail as long as it’s not trying to sell me something. IMPORTANT: Because a lot of people apparently list it in their e-address books, this account has gotten a slew of virus-laden messages lately. They’re no real threat but dealing with them eats up time I don’t really have, to the extent I can no longer accept unsolicited e-mail with attachments. If you want to send something via attachment (say, art samples) ask me first. If I say okay, then send. Unsolicited e-mail with attachments will be wiped from the server without being read. You can also leave messages for me and have discussions on other topics at my Delphi forum, GRAPHIC VIOLENCE. Please don’t ask me how to break into the business, or who to submit work to. The answers to those questions are too mercurial for even me to keep up with.
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I’m reviewing comics sent to me – I may not like them but certainly I’ll mention them – at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send ’em if you want ’em mentioned, since I can’t review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can’t do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.
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