It’s the Lucky Luke story I never thought I’d see.
Putting aside the unfortunate issues that kept it out of print for so long — and we will get to those — it’s a strong story. In fact, it’s likely better than it’ll ever get credit for because of, again, those gnarly issues.
This is the story of how Lucky Luke came to be a ridiculously rich dog’s chaperone…
Credits Faster Than the Creators’ Shadow
Letterer: Design Amorandi
Translator: Jerome Saincaintin
Published by: Cinebook
Number of Pages: 48
Original Publication: 1973
What’s the Story?
Rin Tin Can, the Dalton’s dog in prison, inherits a batch of businesses in downtown Virginia City, Nevada. That city boomed after silver was found in local mines, making those businesses very lucrative. Lucky Luke is accompanying the dog to Virginia City to keep him safe and to be a trusted advisor, at the urging of the lawyers involved.
But here’s where things get complicated: If anything should happen to Rin Tin Can, then Joe Dalton becomes the heir. Now the Dalton Brothers have an urgent need to escape from prison to kill the dog. Then, Joe will be rich beyond his wildest dreams, the owner of several businesses in a town booming from a recent mine find.
(We’ll put aside for the moment any concern about whether the law would actually work like this. Once Rin Tin Can is given control, his death would trigger his ownings to go to his heir, then, not the original owner’s second choice, right? But since Rin Tin Can arrives in the city in good health, Joe Dalton’s attempted murder of the dog should only land him more jail time, not a second hand inheritance.
Besides which, why does Joe Dalton want to become an entrepreneur? That’s too much work! Who wants employees in the Wild West?!?
Back now to the review, already in progress…
Lucky Luke is the only thing that stands between the heir dog and the next-in-line heir, the dangerous Joe Dalton.
Oh, but that story is too easy, so Morris and Rene Goscinny add an extra layer to it: the dog thinks Lucky Luke is his captor and that Joe Dalton is his best friend. (OK, so the dog would likely name Joe his heir and my earlier parenthetical would be a moot point.)
It’s a crazy, mixed-up mess. Can a dog run a city? Will Lucky Luke be the shadow owner? Will the Daltons figure out a clean escape and kill both Lucky Luke and Rin Tin Can to set themselves up for a life of rich luxury?
Of course not, but Goscinny and Morris are going to make it a lot of fun getting there.
The Characters Get You There
For what is essentially a silly western comedy, there’s a lot of thought that goes into a book like this. It layers the humor in, solidly supported by a plot that’s based on authentic circumstances of the old west: Virginia City is a real place — there’s information on it at the back of the book — and it did have a major Chinatown area for all the underpaid labor that came from China to work in the area.
On top of that, the characters that populate the plot send it in directions you would never otherwise have guessed. Goscinny does an amazing job writing essentially dumb characters. He’s a smart guy; it takes a certain amount of mind-bending to see the world from another point of view in a way that makes sense to the character but absolutely none for the plot thread.
That’s the humor of the book. It centers on Rin Tin Can’s obliviousness to his own situation and the Daltons’ relentless, take-no-prisoners approach to finding and eliminating Rin Tin Can. The Dalton Brothers, of course, are naturally clueless, which they don’t recognize, making it even funnier.
Honestly, the Dalton Brothers are not my favorite part of the Lucky Luke canon. I know, that’s a heretical thing to say. I think, though, that they show up too often and don’t have enough depth to be interesting, but they’re always funny, anyhow. Goscinny turns their hapless, but earnest, desires into comedic gold. The Dalton Brothers are always fighting amongst themselves, one doing something dumber or more impulsive than the next. It might make them too easy a foe for Lucky Luke to defeat, but that’s where Goscinny’s skills as a writer come into play: He makes those situations interesting. In the hands of a lesser writer, this situations would be boring, paint-by-numbers playbook, with no variation.
You shouldn’t want to root for the Daltons or even care about them. There’s nothing even vaguely redeeming about them. But Goscinny sets them up to create fireworks in such a way that they drive the pages of the story that they’re on, and I can’t wait to see what they do next. To me, they’re holdovers from the Vaudeville comedy tradition, which is something I see a lot of in Goscinny’s work on “Asterix.” They don’t need to always make sense; they just need to be funny.
We also get a good look at Lucky Luke as a character in this book. He’s the Superman of the old west: He’s a big blue boy scout with an “aw, shucks” demeanor and the superhuman capacity to do good for people even in the hardest and craziest of circumstances. He’s not interested in helping the dog deal with his newfound wealth so much as he wants to help protect all the employees of those companies that the dog is suddenly in charge of. In fact, he pushes some initiatives to take care of the “little people” along the way.
He might not have any actual physical superpowers, but — no, wait, he can shoot faster than his own shadow. In the 1850s, that would be a power worth having.
That all said, there’s one last aspect of the book I need to touch on now. It’s a big one, and the reason Cinebook sat on this particular Morris/Goscinny album for so long.
Why Did Cinebook Print This Last?
The one part of the story I’ve left out so far is another “antagonist” of sorts. There’s a population of workers from China living in the city. It’s an early example of a “Chinatown” inside a bigger city. This is based on historical accounts. Low paid Asian labor was used in the West to help build railroad tracks, work in the mines, etc.
That’s not a problem in and of itself. But the way Morris and Goscinny depict them is not in any way acceptable today.
We’ve seen this problem come up before, most notably in “Spirou in New York,” where the caricature of Asian people was, uhm, less than solid. That’s putting it mildly.
It’s the same problems here: Stereotypical, cliche, the worst of the worst, etc. The buck teeth, the squinty eyes, the yellow skin.
No, I’m not joking. They’re literally colored yellow in this book.
The coloring of “Lucky Luke” has always relied on flat colors to fill in large areas in layers, but the is an intentional effort to color the Chinese people yellow to set them apart. It’s far from subtle. And it’s just not something that is tolerable today.
A major running gag throughout the book, also, is the fear that the local Chinese residents eat dogs, so they’re just as likely to eat people they don’t like, too.
And I just about jumped out of my chair when I saw the word “Coolie” get used in this book. Yikes. To be fair, it’s used correctly in its original context of a laborer, but has since been considered a racial slur, specific to Asians. It’s easier — and better — to just avoid that bit of ugliness, to be honest.
Now, there are a couple of ways to look at this. The first is that these thoughts and words used by the locals in the book is a very accurate representation of what the people in towns like that thought of the Chinese people at the time. If nothing else, a story like this shows the reality of the situation. There’s always some level of thought like that in any large population with a sizable new minority. (“No Irish Need Apply” was once a thing, remember.) Ultimately, that depiction of the truth should win out over everything.
Also, the Chinese characters in the book aren’t actually violent towards the rest of the town. They’re shown as being productive members of the community. They tend to keep to themselves, perhaps, but they’re not eating their neighbors. It is a bit of a plot point that they would eat Rin Tin Can, though.
You can argue around that, if all else was equal. The problem is, Morris’ art is so flagrantly not right by today’s standards that it’s hard for many to give the benefit of the doubt in any other comparison. I understand that.
And, also, there’s this bit of dialogue:
It’s not quite like Goscinny’s script has the Chinese characters doing the whole “Replace Every “L” with an “R”” thing. After all, these are white guys trying to imitate Chinese people and showing their own limited knowledge along the way. It’s perfectly in character. But that’s now how people are going to read it…
Goscinny made his career creating stories in Asterix that poke fun at various cultures for their national identities. That’s the whole basis of the “Asterix” series. It also comes up repeatedly in the “Lucky Luke” series, using real world events and locations to be the jumping off point for his stories.
And it’s something of a debate in the Asterix world. Goscinny and Uderzo, by today’s standards, are judged harshly for specific caricatures of specific people in some cases, but not others. What is OK to caricature and what isn’t? What gets a pass, and what’s the cause for shock and outrage? Is it ever consistently applied? The topic came up again with Papercutz’s recent reprinting of the series.
Obviously, the first reaction that jumps to many minds is, “This book is racist, shouldn’t exist, and must never be seen again.” And as bad as the depictions of the Chinese characters in this book are, I’m never a big fan of that. The book is, in some ways, a product of its time. To throw everything out for the small portion of the book that deals directly with the Chinese characters, would be a waste.
Cinebook prefaces the book with an editorial that explains why they waited so long to publish this book, what the issues with it are, and why it’s available now. It’s an explanation of Franco-Belgian society at the time of the book’s creation and an acknowledgement of what is wrong in the book – both then and now. It is presented in its proper historical context, and we can finally judge it for ourselves.
Yes, the caricatures and the attitudes shown in the book go too far. They’re not even necessary. There are minor rewrites that could have been done at the time to tell the same story without those tropes. The colors are easily fixed. The art, at the time, could have been toned down.
In fact, I’m surprised Cinebook presented the book as faithfully as they did. At the very least, I’d have thought they’d recolor the yellow skin of the Chinese characters, and maybe rewrite that one Dalton Brothers line of dialogue I showed above. It would take a little extra work, but it’s a lot more possible than redrawing every Chinese character, and could tone things down while still presenting the historical context. (Similarly, the Asterix reprints tone down the lip color on the African characters to help downplay them. It helps a tiny bit…)
It’s possible that the licensor wouldn’t allow that, or that profit margins on the books are so thin that even the relatively minor work of recoloring a bunch of pages would push the book into the red. I don’t know.
It’s an unfortunate situation that ruins an otherwise funny book, if you can set aside the obvious issues. I’m just glad it’s available for people to judge for themselves now.
The Art of Morris
Having said all that, I wanted to end this review on a bit of a more positive note:
Morris is an amazing artist. He would have been about 50 years old when he drew this book, featuring a character he created when he was 25. He had put the reps in at this point. He knew what he was doing.
What kept hitting me over and over again in this book was his storytelling, and the way he could compose a panel to make his point so seemingly effortlessly.
There’s one point in the story where Lucky Luke walks into his hotel room to discover that Rin Tin Can wasn’t there. Morris uses the untouched room service lunch as the clue that nobody’s there, and composes the panel to lead your eye to Luke while featuring the lunch.
The situation repeats itself a short time later with the Dalton Brothers, and he makes the same point again using the same cues, but from a different angle.
Going back to the Lucky Luke panel above, it’s followed by a tier of panels which shows Luke reversing directions to go after Rin Tin Can. Morris’ has Luke literally turn around, from looking left in the first panel to heading down and finally looking right on the far right panel. I love the way that works, guiding the eye and putting the idea into the reader’s mind that Luke is literally changing directions.
There’s also a sequence that follows all of that with Rin Tin Can wandering off on his own, lost in a very desolate area. It runs four pages, but it’s four fun pages of Morris doing a funny animal comic. I could do without the half page where he eats some mushrooms and trips out, but I imagine that was very timely humor in 1973. From here, it looks like a bad Dumbo-esque sequence. Or, as a personal preference, I just don’t get those sequences….
But to see Morris doing mostly dog pantomime for a few pages is a lot of fun, and a real highlight of the book, especially so since there are no other larger issues weighing it down…
Yes. Maybe not for the kids, unless you’re planning on sitting down with them and having a talk about it. It is, from a 2020 perspective, quite frustrating. This is a great book that would be very acceptable in modern times with a few changes, many of them quite subtle and easy. But that’s not how things happened in the 1970s. Dammit.
I’m sure there’s more of this to consider, of course. “Lucky Luke” is a book set in the 1800s. I’m sure every album depicting an American Indian would likely be placed under a similar microscope for its views and images.
One Last Thing….
Lucky Luke is still smoking cigarettes in this book! Morris wouldn’t remove that from the seres for another decade or more…. I still laugh, though, when the content warnings of a television show including “smoking.”
From a character point of view, I also love this panel. You can see how sure of himself the Dalton Brother is, and how amused Lucky Luke is by the whole situation. You can tell Luke is just going through the motions, knowing how inept the Daltons are and how easily he’ll be able to turn the tables. With that smile, Luke looks like he’s just having fun with the whole thing.
And so are we.