Cover detail from Lucky Luke v77: A Cowboy in High Cotton, drawn by Achde
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Lucky Luke v77: “A Cowboy in High Cotton”

Lucky Luke inherits a plantation and wants nothing to do with it. His naïveté shows through, as he plans to give the plantation back to the slaves working on it.

It seems like such a simple solution, but things are never that simple.

Lucky Luke meets a cotton plantation

This is the recent publication (titled “Un Cow-Boy Dans le Coton” in French) that merited coverage from such places as The New York Times. In this day and age, having a western that never touches on race is considered anathema, so the Lucky Luke creative team of Jul and Achde take on the challenge for the good of the franchise. (They’re the same creative team behind the previous volume, “A Cowboy In Paris“.)

What they come up with is pretty good, particularly given the potential for cringe-worthy mistakes or perceived slights from any number of angles.

In the end, my biggest problem with the book is a structural issue with the plotting, which we’ll get to. The part where Lucky Luke interacts with the slaves is well handled in the context of this series. It takes the turn that it should, but still surprises me (in a good way).

Fast Shooting Credits

Cover to Lucky Luke v77: A Cowboy in High Cotton, drawn by Achde
Writers: Jul
Artist: Achde
Colors: Mel Acryl’ink
Letterer: Cromatik Ltd.
Translator: Jerome Saincantin
Published by: Cinebook
Number of Pages: 50
Original Publication: 2020

Timeliness and Timelessness

The timeline of the Lucky Luke series is completely nebulous. There are relatively few hard and fast dates you can infer for when the series takes place. (“The Oklahoma Land Rush” can point you to 1889.) Given the historical figures Lucky Luke comes across in different books, you can see adventures that would have to be spread across nearly 50 years in the 19th century.

But you know what? It doesn’t matter. It’s a fun series and whatever serves the story is what Rene Goscinny and Morris used. These are not meant to be books where continuity conquers all. That only helps propel series forward, rather than being dragged down by their pasts. (Hello, North American superhero comics…)

Still, it’s a western book, and in today’s atmosphere, that means slavery needs to be an issue. Since the series is generally a light-hearted one, that’s never happened until now.

Can Jul succeed in telling a fun and fanciful story while touching the third rail of American history here?

What Did Jul Get Right?

I was nervous for Jul going into this. You can guarantee that there are some people who will not be happy no matter what he does, in either direction.

I came into the story hoping he’d avoid the major pitfalls and tell a good story. And that, I believe, he did.

Obviously, the biggest pitfall to avoid is the story of the white savior — Lucky Luke comes in, takes possession of the plantation, gives it back to the slaves, everyone is happy, and he rides off into the sunset. Maybe a Dalton brother causes some trouble along the way for some comedic tension.

Nope, Jul drives the story right into the ugliest parts you might imagine. He personalizes the attitudes of the slaves quickly by introducing Socrates Pinkwater, who is effectively Luke’s host for the book. As you can see above, the smallest, most human things that Lucky Luke takes for granted are things that the slaves would never be used to.

This book is not a deep examination of race relations or a keen analysis of power dynamics between the free and the enslaved. I wouldn’t expect it to be, nor want it to be. There are other places you can go for a serious academic discussion. This is still a Lucky Luke book, and so there’s a certain angle I’d expect it to cover such subjects from.

It’s very surface level, yet it’s also touching on some very serious matters. Lucky Luke isn’t exactly warmly welcomed by one and all, from either side. Obviously, the other plantation owners see him as a threat to their continued existence. Some of the slaves on the plantation are wary of his generosity. (One, a school teacher, represents the position most vocally. Again, this is Jul taking a much larger issue and allowing a relationship between Jul and a character to show it.)

What reason would the slaves have to believe that Luke is such a kind and generous soul, given their entire lives’ worth of experience with the plantation’s previous owners? There’s a well-reasoned, perfectly logical and very emotional lifetime of distrust that can’t be broken overnight.

Lucky Luke learns more about the poor treatment of slaves in "A Cowboy in High Cotton"

And Jul doesn’t candy coat it. He specifically references lynchings and brandings and other dehumanizing norms of the day.

Lucky Luke as Superman?

The reason this all works, though, is that Lucky Luke remains in character. He’s a bit of a big blue boy scout. He’s the Superman character of the Old West — friendly, sincere, helpful, and slightly naive to some of the ways of the world. He goes into every situation with the best of intentions and gets quickly flummoxed at the “strange” behaviors of people who don’t think like he does.

He’s also usually smart enough to see what’s going on, eventually, and craft a clever and satisfying response to the problem. They all live happily every after and Luke and Jumper sing their way into the sunset.

Lucky Luke is infuriated by the plight of the slaves

The situation here, though, is overwhelming to Lucky Luke, who can’t believe this is happening and feels helpless to fix it at one point. (Great staging and body language from Achde in that last panel.)

Most the time, his quick draw can save him in the worst of circumstances, but the problems in this book are too big for that. The social issues from both sides means that a simple gunfight — no matter how clever — would never solve anything.

Lucky Luke has to do his best to show the slaves on one side that he really is a decent guy, while fending off the neighboring plantation owners who assume he’s “one of us” and expect him to blindly continue with their system. When he shudders at that thought, they fight a dirty fight, with crowds, pitchforks, lots of flames, and some white hoods. You can see it right there on the cover.

Local Flavor and Bass Reeves

Jul’s script throws in as many local references as he can get, including local creoles and their French-ish language, the little black kids whose names and aspirations might sound familiar to the modern reader, and Bass Reeves.

Lucky Luke reunites with his old pal, Bass Reeves, at a bar.

That last one threw me off for a second when he was first introduced at the top of the book. I was worried Jul was about to work too hard to make Lucky Luke look like the most pure human being in the world. Not only was he about to give a plantation away to its slaves, but he also suddenly has a good friend who is not just a black sheriff, but one who is almost more super human than he is at shooting?

Jul doesn’t push it too far, though, and Reeves is based on a real person, so this isn’t Jul making stuff up to make Luke look good. He’s incorporating part of the history of the place and time, which is a piece of what makes the Lucky Luke series so much fun.

It also helps establish up front just how color blind Lucky Luke is. It’s always justice above all for him. Again, this is another case of Jul showing an attitude by personalizing it for Lucky Luke to act against. It’s good storytelling.

By the way, there’s another comic book series featuring Bass Reeves available today, from the Breitweiser family’s publishing empire, Allegiance Arts.

The Big Problem(s), In Which I Spoil the Ending

If there’s one issue I have with the book, it’s the grand finale. The situation gets crazy quickly. Lucky Luke is tied to a stake and the KKK has gathered to burn him. He seems calm, cool, and collected, but things look pretty grim for him. How will he get out?

First, it’s through no action of his own. Bass Reeves shows up. The slaves revolt. The numbers that so overwhelmed Lucky Luke are suddenly equaled, and a large scale fight begins.

So, yes, the ending is a big fight scene which is sure to cure none of the long-term problems in the area or the South of the time, as a whole. That might have been asking a bit too much of a Lucky Luke book, though. Set your expectations accordingly.

If there is a plot hole in this book, it’s the thought that just because the closest neighbors are taken care of, that doesn’t mean everything past that distance won’t have much the same attitude and determination to take care of the same “problem.” At the end of this book, is anyone really any safer? Or is this a temporary solution against overwhelming odds?

As I’ve said before, this is just an isolated Lucky Luke story. Let’s take the small victory and the satisfying conclusion to the story and not project past that. Don’t expect a sequel to delve into this issue, either, as that would be repetitive.

There’s a bigger plot issue, however, that I’m thinking about.

Spoiler alert (again): A hurricane sweeps in. This might just be the biggest deus ex machina I’ve read in a long time. Luke doesn’t get out with his smarts or with his super fast gun. He’s saved by a sudden massive storm that somehow rolls in unexpectedly and without notice. There’s no wind or rain until two panels before the storm hits with its full fury. Suddenly, everyone is flying up into a funnel cloud like a tornado is striking.

I’m torn between “They don’t have hurricanes in France, so how would he know?” and “It’s a silly comic book, why are you looking for accurate weather representation?” here.

Mostly, I’m upset that a story that was told so well for 40 pages suddenly wraps up through no agency of the main character. Bass Reeves shows up to save him, and then a weather event cures the rest of the ills. That just feels like a bit of a cheat.

That said, they do get hurricanes in the South, so it’s not entirely out of character for that location. And this story is set in Louisiana, so Jul likely had Katrina in mind. Maybe a little bit of foreshadowing would have helped? Maybe even a light rain fall or a little wind shown for a page or two before everyone is suddenly running for cover?

Post-Spoiler

It’s only maddening because it seems like such an unforced error. Jul does so much that’s right with this story. He had to thread his way through through a million possible subject-based landmines, any of which would have gotten the Twitter masses carrying pitchforks to his account. (It would be the first time most of them discovered that the French make comics, but that’s another story.)

He’s a smart writer who balances the humor with the reality, and adds in a dash of optimism and hope.

The ending is a letdown, but the rest of the book is strong.

Achde Fits In

“Civilisation.” Yup, it’s a British translation of a French work set in America.

Achde’s art is not a direct clone of Morris’. It’s in a similar enough style to maintain consistency, but it’s his own thing.

It feels to me like Achde’s line has a little more variation in the ink widths, and his characters often feel a bit more animated. Even simple things like the handshake of old friends reuniting has extra bounce to it.

But the basic character designs — right down to the hands and the folds in Luke’s clothes — are consistent with Morris’ style.

There’s always a question of putting new artists on legacy characters and how close they should come to the original art style. For example, there are people who think Didier Conrad goes too far with his Asterix, or that he’s not on model enough. I disagree, though I can see the differences, for sure.

Just as Albert Uderzo drew Asterix books across 40+ years, Morris worked in parallel on Lucky Luke. (For a few years, they even appeared together in the pages of Pilote Journal.) There were changes in both of their styles as the years progressed. It’s natural for an artist’s work to change over time. Achde has picked the best of the best from Morris to use as his core here, and I think what he adds to it is all positive.

The coloring scheme is still there with the solid background colors amidst the full color panels. It hints towards tradition without being overwhelmed by it. It even gets used in such subtle ways sometimes — like with a single background character — that I don’t notice it too much on first reading.

I have to be honest — while distinctive, that coloring scheme has never been my favorite part of the series. I’m happy to see it de-emphasized as far as they can take it, though I understand why many find it charming and a big part of the original series’ character.

Recommended?

Cover to Lucky Luke v77: A Cowboy in High Cotton, drawn by Achde

Yes, the climax is a bit of a disappointment, but everything around that is fun and/or interesting. It’s not quite at the Goscinny level of writing, of course, but it follows that playbook in a good way. Jul handles the subject matter well and pulls off the tricky task of including humor that shouldn’t cause trouble.

Yet, it doesn’t ruin the book for me at all. There’s a lot in here on the other 40+ pages of the story to recommend it. Jul’s story handles a serious issue well, includes all the necessary humor, helps define the character at the center of it, and doesn’t fall for numerous possible traps.

It’s still “A Very Special Episode” in the series, but it’s not overtaken by that. It’s a good story with characters you want to cheer for or boo off the page every time they appear. The humor is there, and the art is great.

“A Cow-Boy in High Cotton” is one of those rare things — a “Lucky Luke” book not by Goscinny and Morris that I like.

Buy It Now

The paperback edition is not available yet in the States, but I’m including the link for an Amazon pre-order. The other links are digital:

What do YOU think? (First time commenters' posts may be held for moderation.)

11 Comments

  1. I have very mixed feelings about this book, and your review puts the finger on it exactly. We had this discussion about Jul last time regarding the jewish stuff, but LL is such a book that it will sell itself well regardless of the actual story or the writing skills of whoever’s at the helm these days.
    Back when Goscinny was writing it, Luke never had a strong personality, he was always a fairly bland character, like Spirou or Tintin, perfect vehicle through which you can tell many types of shenanigans he’s just in the middle of or reacting to. Whatever Zeitgeist topic he was touching, RG was always subtle about it, it was always in the background, never getting in the way of the “proper” story. Except once, in Mansion of the Gods, where I first realized the nuts and bolts of what he was doing. So it could either either be because I was too young to notice before, in either of the many titles he was writing. Only rereading these books as a teenager and more later as an adult, I still discover how multilayered and rich they were in complexity.
    Jul here is not subtle, he’s superficial and heavy-handed at the same time, on the social commentary. But I have to admit that times have changed since RG, subtlety is long gone. And most LL readers would miss it anyway.
    I’d probably be more forgiving than you about the deux ex machina, which is just the mark of mediocre writing skills. Also maybe one way for Jul to fall back on his feet with a somersault that says ” It’s just funny stuff for kids, people. Don’t think too hard about it”.
    Having read the french version myself, I’d be interested to hear from Jerome about the difficulties of adapting this particular story for an american audience. How would they take this in the deep south, I’m curious.
    I would like to reiterate the popular demand for a Lucky Luke agenda, since this time you would have a very particular angle, your perspective on the american setup for these stories, which would make your reviews truly insightful on this very aspect. I mean on top of what you already did spectacularly for Asterix. Just sayin’.

  2. What do you the next Lucky Luke book will be about? Wild Bill Hickok or the 1st Kentucky Derby in 1875 possibly?

  3. You accidentally spelled Boss Reeves instead of Bass Reeves in the article when you mentioned the other comic book about Bass Reeves.

  4. Actually, Albert Uderzo drew Asterix for 52 years, from 1959 until his retirement in 2011 at the ripe old age of 84 years old.

  5. You mistakenly spelled Boss Reeves instead of Bass Reeves when you talked about the other comic book about Bass Reeves that came out in the Summer of last year in 2020.