Thursday, April 23, 2009

Comic Book Review:
Gus & His Gang by Christophe Blain

French cartoonist Christophe Blain approaches the Western genre in much the same way as the chapbooks of old. His stories are short, exciting, melodramas full of bank robbers and beautiful women (and occasionally, bank robbers who are beautiful women).* But where the chapbooks downplayed the chit-chat in favor of the action scenes, Blain does the opposite. The bank heists, train robberies, and poker games in Gus are often brief, four or five panel affairs, while the title character's inept attempts at wooing can easily eat up four or five pages. Normally, this might imply an artist's unease with action, but with Blain, this is clearly not the case. He's one of those rare, Kirby-esque cartoonists whose every brush stroke packs a punch. So why would Blain even bother to write a Western if he was only going to use the genre as a Christmas tree with which to hang his brightly colored characters and vivid, engaging, and above all, hilarious dialogue? For the same reason that novelists like Elmore Leonard and film directors like Howard Hawks did: because it's fun.
Let's back up a second, back to my comment about Blain's 'Kirby-esque' art. What I'm referring to here is not an aping of the King's aesthetic, but a kinship in the kinetic energy that each of these artists is able to summon through their work. Like Kirby, Blain's art is quick. It moves quick, it reads quick, and it often feels like it was drawn quick. If you took out the color and the word bubbles, it could easily be mistaken for thumbnail sketches. But by keeping this loose approach, Blain is able to give his work a 'pop' often missing in the 'cleaner' lined comics.** You find yourself visually surfing the squiggly, swirling curves of Blain's lines instead of staring stiffly at the page. Blain's modern day, American equivalent might be Paul Pope (no surprise, considering how strongly Pope was influenced by French comics), although where Pope approaches his work as Capital-A Art, Blain's cartooning feels more like the madcap lunacy of the original MAD magazine crew.
In a world where academia and the Academy Awards have turned most Westerns into stoic examinations of 'Man's relationship to Nature' or 'Man's inhumanity to Man,' it's sorta refreshing to read one where the overriding theme is 'Boy + Girl.' Or, to put it in a pull-quote: In Christophe Blain's Old West, the cowboys spend the majority of their time getting struck by arrows. Not Indian arrows, but Cupid's.

*I wanted to throw the word "intelligent" in here, too, but I didn't want to seem like I was trying too hard to sell the work as an Old West story featuring new millennium sensibilities. The fact is, the women in this story are mostly girlfriends, daughters, and wives. The three main characters are Gus and his gang, and so everyone else we meet is -- to some extent -- defined by their relationships to them. That said, as the story progresses, Gus & His Gang actually becomes more about Clem (one of Gus' two-man 'gang') and his complicated relationships with his wife (Ava), his daughter (Jamie), and his mistress (Isabella). Abbreviated solo stories and quiet, stolen moments do an amazingly economic job of fleshing out Ava and Isabella, to the point where the reader knows their motivations and inner workings as well as, if not better than, the male leads'. I can only speak for myself here, but a week after reading it, it's 'Clem & his girls' who still linger loudest in my head.

**To keep my Kirby comparison going a li'l longer, compare a page of Jack's pencils to its final, inked incarnation. Kirby enthusiasts aren't exaggerating when they complain that most of the King's inkers unintentionally sapped some of the life out of his work.

To sample seven pages, click here.