Starting with a College Flashback
I saw “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” in the one film class I took in college. It’s a great western movie starring John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart.
Having not seen it in twenty years, I had to look on-line for a plot summary to remind myself of what else happened besides the twist at the end of the movie.
In “The Man Who Shot Lucky Luke,” Matthieu Bonhomme does a great job with his homage to a classic film, incorporating many elements from Lucky Luke’s history along the way. This is Lucky Luke as you’ve never seen him before, but wouldn’t mind seeing him again.
What If — Lucky Luke Was a Straight-Up Western?
Unlike Morris’ series (most popularly with René Goscinny’s scripts), this new book is a serious western that happens to star Lucky Luke, the cowboy who shoots faster than his own shadow. Creator Matthieu Bonhomme borrows Luke and his mythology to tell a story about a town gone mad after the gold rush. It’s a town with an incompetent sheriff whose older brother plays the puppet master, whose father is a crazy old coot, and whose tobacco supply has run short.
Lucky Luke rides into town looking for a place to hole up for a bit, and gets caught up in the investigation of a recent incident where a stage coach got robbed, and its driver killed by a shadowy Indian figure. You don’t have to be a genius to see right through that story from the get-go, but let’s just go with it for now…
It’s Lucky Luke; when he arrives in town, he can’t help but help, often using the shortest and most confident possible sentences. He’s a little off his game as the book begins, owing to a shortage of tobacco, which is something I’ll get to in a little bit.
Bonhomme crafts an intriguing western story, filled with colorful characters, hard challenges for Lucky Luke, and a mystery with its share of twists and turns. It’s a great story to play along with, trying to guess who’s telling the truth and who has something to hide. It’s a story that lacks many heroes, and perhaps has a couple too many villains. The gray area this book resides in is fascinating to me, and the bittersweet ending is wonderful.
Bonhomie’s love for the series is obvious. Even as he recasts so many elements from the series, he namechecks more. He plays with these pieces without making fun of them or turning them into grim details. He’s having fun with this book, by all appearances, and doesn’t let the fact that he’s telling a story get lost in the framework of telling a standalone “Lucky Luke” book.
It all works well.
The Man, The Myth, The Legend
Thematically, this book borrows elements from its namesake movie in the way it deals explicitly with how legends are made in the west, how they might grow, and how they’re impossible to change.
Lucky Luke rides into this new town as a legend. All the townspeople come out to see him, pointing and whispering his name. They want to see his legend in action, or ask him about the tall tales they’ve heard of his exploits that might not have been all that tall.
The local Sherriff immediately challenges him in the bar, because someone has to do that when Lucky Luke comes into town.
A new character, Doc Wednesday, becomes Luke’s sounding board and mirror. He’s got something of a shady past, but the years of carousing are catching up to him. He’s the Yoda to Luke’s Luke. Doc guesses that it’s tough to be a legend, where everyone wants to challenge you just to say they did. Maybe, just maybe, they could be the one to beat you.
It’s like the way a comics fan might call out Mark Waid in a Superman trivia question. It’s a fool’s errand, but imagine the glory if you did stump him?
Doc also functions to be the Ghost of Christmas Future for Luke, showing him what his smoking might do to him in the future. (Yes, I’m still going to get to that. Promise.)
Coloring: Keeping It Simple, Classic
Bonhomme colors this book himself, using a style that’s inspired by the original works. It’s a very flat color scheme, almost in parody of the classic style.
Look at any crowd scene in Morris’ works (bar fights, especially), and you’ll see every character painted with the same color. Bonhomme continues that tradition here.
He’s not afraid to paint large swaths of panels with the same brush. He does, however, pick much richer and vibrant colors than they probably had available to them in the 50s and 60s during the series’ hey day. It’s the best of both worlds, that way.
I read the first chapter of this story when it was originally published in the weekly “Spirou” magazine, so I can compare the French lettering with the English lettering (credited to Calix Ltd).
I definitely prefer the font used in the original French version. Let’s look at a couple of comparisons:
The French lettering looks tighter. There are occasional spacing issues (“quel nom”), but I think they pack together nicely. I also like the way they used the extra line for the ellipses in Luke’s line in the second panel here.
The font used in the English edition here is far weaker. The spacing issues are all over the place. Maybe this was on purpose to make it fit the available balloon space as much as possible, but to me it just looks unbalanced.
The French font also has a bounce to it that looks more forced and doesn’t really work in the English edition.
There’s also a crossbar-I issue. In places where it shouldn’t be used, they have a lowercase “i”. I’ve seen that done before, but it’s usually because the font doesn’t have a straight line capital I without the crossbars. Comicraft gets around this, as I recall, by mapping that letter to the pipe (“|”) character.
The Smoking Thing
When Joe Quesada declared that Marvel heroes shouldn’t smoke 15 years ago, he was actually twenty years behind the times. Lucky Luke went through the same issue in the early 1980s. Morris had drawn him with a cigarette in his mouth all the time before then. He often rolled his own smokes in the pages of the stories.
In the 1980s, smoking became less acceptable from certain corners, and Morris stopped drawing Luke with cigarettes, despite its authenticity with the era the stories were set in. He would be seen with straw in his mouth, instead.
This book, if one were to insert it into the “continuity” of Lucky Luke stories, takes place between those two eras. When Luke arrives in town, there’s a tobacco shortage. It becomes a running thing throughout the story that there’s no tobacco in town and no chance of getting a fresh supply. Whenever he gets close, fate conspires against him to keep it away from him. His famous sharp-shooting hands begin to shake.
Playing explicitly with this part of the legend of Lucky Luke is a brave thing, I think. Not that it’s a topic up for much debate anymore, but it seems like something of a sore point for Morris at the time, and, I’m sure, from old school fans who appreciated more of that authenticity than the sudden switch to modern thought pushed on the character.
The Two-Time Angouleme Award Winning “The Man Who Shot Lucky Luke”
This past weekend, at FIBD 2017 in Angouleme, France, Matthieu Bonhomme won two awards for this book.
The first is the “Prix Goncourt des Lyceens,” which is a literary prize given by high school students, who study and discuss 12 albums before voting for a winner. Here he is accepting the award:
— Editions Dargaud (@EditionsDargaud) January 28, 2017
That’s him on the right in the hoodie.
The second is the “Prix du Public Cultura,” which as I understand it is the popular vote that’s done during the show, itself, on the internet. It had a lot of popular and critically acclaimed books nominated alongside it.
You might be seeing news about this in the days ahead. There might be new promotions for the book. That’s why I want to get this review out now before that all starts.
Unexpectedly Popular Original Art
Slightly related: Here’s a short video of Bonhomme drawing Lucky Luke.
Yes, especially for Lucky Luke fans.
This book works well on its own as a western, even if you don’t know anything about Lucky Luke, or have never read any of those books before. If you are a Lucky Luke fan, though, you’ll recognize some familiar situations and recurring gags. You’ll recognize a couple of names that pop up, including one character who guest stars in this book from a previous “Lucky Luke” story that I didn’t mention at all above.
Bonhomme’s art is inviting and deep. He stages his panels and his scenes well, working the color scheme as element in his storytelling style. He stays true to the spirit of “Lucky Luke” without imitating it or belittling it.
And he picks a smart film to reference for the framework for this story.
“Who Shot Lucky Luke” is as enjoyable an album to read as any of the classic Goscinny/Morris outings, just in a different way. Lucky Luke is proving to be a malleable character, one who can withstand changing into different formats and different styles without losing who he is or what makes him special.
In honor of the character’s 70th anniversary last year, they announced two other books would be coming to experiment with Lucky Luke in different styles. I think it’s a great idea, and can’t wait to read the next one, from artist Guillaume Bouzard, which just debuted at Angouleme, and is already available on Izneo.com. I hope we see an English translation of it soon. It looks like a much more light-hearted take.
(This is Pipeline BD 100 review #14 of 100 for 2017.)
But, Wait! There’s More!
Here are a few other Lucky Luke reviews: