Four years ago, Matthieu Bonhomme brought us “The Man Who Shot Lucky Luke“, a fantastic single album adventure that put Lucky Luke through his paces in a more serious Western setting. It included nods and winks to the character’s history while standing well on its own.
Bonhomme is back now with “Wanted Lucky Luke.” Can lightning strike twice?
(Spoiler: Yes, it most certainly can. In fact, this book may even be the better of the two.)
Wanted: Credits for Less Than $5,000
Artist: Matthieu Bonhomme
Colors: Matthieu Bonhomme
Letterer: Design Amorandi
Translator: Jerome Saincantin
Published by: Cinebook
Number of Pages: 70
Original Publication: 2021
Wanted Posters, Herds, and Special Guest Stars
“Wanted Lucky Luke” starts as “Wanted” posters are popping up offering $5,000 for Lucky Luke, alive. That kind of money will bring out the guns quickly. In fact, the first shot is fired at the bottom of page 1.
That first encounter leads Luke to befriend three sisters who are driving their herd through Apache territory to sell them in the next town, Liberty. Lucky Luke offers to help out because he is, after all, the Belgian equivalent of a Big Blue Boy Scout. Along the way, the sisters fight over which one of them will make him their man, all the while fighting off the desert sun, the threat of Apache attacks, and whoever that mysterious person was at the beginning who took that first shot.
That’s just the set-up. Things remain tense and action-packed for the remainder of the book. The attempt to usher the herd through the flats under the hot sun with nowhere to hide is the biggest worry, but what they find at the other side is even worse. People are coming out of the woodwork to take out the lone cowboy, and that leads to some desperate maneuvers to stay one step ahead. When they get to Liberty, all hell breaks loose in an even scarier way, and it’s Luke against some overwhelming odds.
Bonhomme deftly handles all the plot threads and ties them up securely in the end, and he adds several twists and surprises along the way. One of the twists is easy to guess from the start, but that one isn’t entirely what you think it is, either.
A couple of the surprises are characters from much earlier volumes making an appearance. I haven’t read every Lucky Luke book yet. I do recognize the names, but I haven’t read any of their original stories. I enjoy having that homework to do next.
That said, Bonhomme does a good job rewarding long-time fans of Lucky Luke while not losing new fans, or those without an encyclopedic memory. He quickly sums up each character as they arrive with a single line of dialogue before moving on with the story. The past is established, the reader gets the implications, and the plot keeps steaming forward. A lot of writers could learn a lot from how quickly he handles this and continues the story.
This story runs 66 pages, and every one of them is tense. You know how a really good comic will get you to eagerly turn the page by giving you something to drive you forward at the bottom of every page? Bonhomme does a masterful job of that here. I just flipped back through the book, and the percentage of pages that end with a tease or a cliffhanger or a surprise twist has to be at least 90%. There might be a couple quieter moments in this book, but they don’t last long, and they always set something up for later.
Lucky Luke is portrayed as a flawed character in this book. His addiction to tobacco is still referenced, but we’ll talk about that a bit later. At the beginning of the story, he plays a bit too much into the Big Strong Cowboy Here to Save the Pretty Little Girls.
They disabuse him of that notion pretty quickly. He also reads a couple of people wrong and gets into a couple of tight spots that he needs help getting out of. He has his heroic moments, particularly at the very beginning and end of the book, but there’s a lot of good intentions going wrong in the middle.
So, yeah, it fits neatly into the Lucky Luke story structure, but just with a slightly less farcical take. Bonhomme doesn’t play every panel for a joke. He’s building a story, first and foremost.
He even adheres to the classic Rene Goscinny script style where the third act culminates in an almost ludicrous series of events that raise the stakes super high before the final conclusion. Let’s just say that the reward on Luke’s head brings everyone out at the same time, and suddenly everyone is fighting everyone else and Luke is being pulled in every direction at the same time and — I’ll spoil no more.
As with “A Cowboy in High Cotton,” Luke is saved by outside forces at the end (and in one particularly dire moment in the middle) of the story. I gave Jul grief for that part of his story in “High Cotton,” but I’m beginning to think it’s more of a trope than a cheat. I need to read more Lucky Luke books to see how prevalent this issue is. Maybe I need to ease up on it and just enjoy the crazy ways Lucky Luke authors wrap up their stories? Maybe that small “cheat” is what you accept to get the larger ending?
Character Work, or: Wait, Is Lucky Luke Gay Now?!? (No)
Who is Lucky Luke?
He’s a dedicated cowboy, because that’s what the stories that Morris (and Goscinny, most prominently) were telling. Every album is a funny western adventure that takes advantage of a new location and a new antagonist character. Lucky Luke didn’t need to be anything else. He’s just a dedicated cowboy who can shoot faster than his own shadow and is married to his job. He remains focused on that.
That does, however, leave some room for others to come in and explore his character. He is, in many ways, a blank slate. I believe that Bonhomme sees that, as well, and is working in these two books towards better defining who Lucky Luke is.
That includes Lucky Luke’s lack of romantic life, which might be the most obvious angle to take on the character. I had to laugh when Lucky Luke met the three sisters in this book because it suddenly felt like an Archie comic. Bonhomme lays out one of each “type” for Luke — does he like blondes, brunettes, or redheads? Is Luke (not Archie) a big fan of Betty, Veronica, or Cheryl Blossom? (One of the sisters is named Cherry, but it’s not the redhead. The other two are Angie and Bonnie. Bonhomme likes the ABCs.)
Everything Luke could possible be attracted to is right there under that stagecoach when they first meet. Certainly, sparks are going to fly, right?
OK, maybe not.
Are we being led to think that Lucky Luke is gay?
I am sure some will read that into this. I don’t think Bonhomme is going that far, but if Luke were a popular character in America, I have no doubt we’d see Yet Another Twitter Hashtag campaign trying to suggest how “obvious” that reading is and why it needs to be made canon right now. We’d see stanners and shippers and who knows what else. (Oh, no, please no Dalton Brothers/Lucky Luke slash fic… I’m not Googling for that, either. I’m sure it’s out there. This is the internet, after all.)
Side note: DO NOT do a search for “Is Lucky Luke Gay” on google. The results are NSFW. Just trust me on this. I’m here to take the hits for you.
I think the final pages of the book, though, point more towards Luke as being a loner who belongs only to the wide open spaces of the west and the justice he can make out there. You can’t tie him down.
In the very last panel, as with every book, Lucky Luke serenades the reader with “Poor Lonesome Cowboy.” In this book, however, Bonhomme specifically uses the extended version of the song as sung by Pat Woods in the “Daisy Town” movie that directly refers to Luke’s thoughts on women and being “tied down.” (It’s a doubly useful lyric given how often he gets tied up in this book.)
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Bonhomme used those lyrics from that version, beyond being an Easter egg of sorts for knowledgeable readers. The final stanza says:
I’m a poor lonesome cowboy
But it doesn’t bother me
‘Cause this poor lonesome cowboy
Prefers a horse for company
Got nothing against women
But I wave them all goodbye
My horse and me keep riding
We don’t like being tied
You could argue that his single-minded determination to be such a perfect cowboy has lead him to being, in many ways, an immature man. You could argue he lives in a state of arrested development. He wouldn’t even know how to handle a romantic relationship, if one slapped him across the face.
He’s the romantic ideal of the cowboy in that way, which is very much in line with the way Morris pictured cowboys 50 years ago. Morris had a notion of them shaped by Hollywood movies which were much more popular at the time than they are now. Those movies usually took a very narrow angle on what it meant to be a cowboy.
The other thing about the book that raises this question is the way other characters raise it subtextually. The sisters don’t understand how their flirtatious ways don’t sway him, since they work on every other guy. And one or two of the antagonists of the issue raise the question of what kind of cowboy doesn’t smoke tobacco? You can’t be a real man if you can’t handle a hand-rolled bit of tobacco, can you?
But take these insinuations from whence they come. The antagonists who are calling Luke wimpy for quitting smoking are, to put it in modern parlance, fine examples of toxic masculinity — the types who think that if you don’t drink a six pack after a hard day of manual labor while cursing a blue streak, shoot your gun at every small animal in sight, and scoop up the first cute woman you see and taking her upstairs at the saloon, you’re not a man.
(I feel like spitting a piece of tobacco chew into the saloon’s spittoon after writing that.)
We’ve all seen this type of character. I mean, we all went through high school, right? They attempt to put others down to feel more manly, themselves.
The sisters come from a world where every man who comes through town is looking for a fling. They have to think that every man they meet at this point is just sizing them up, pre-judging them (as Luke does, himself, at the beginning of the story) and trying to show them a good time at the saloon that night. Lucky Luke is, instead, a perfect gentleman who is offering them safe(r) passage and a helping hand, not a leer and a grope.
Yes, that must be strange to see from their point of view, as well.
Or, you could realize this is a book about a cowboy who shoots faster than his own shadow having silly adventures in the American Old West, and why do we need to justify every piece of his personality? He is the way he is so that funny stories could be told. I very much doubt Goscinny sat around thinking about Luke’s childhood, his first girlfriend, or why his bandana is red — unless it was a plot point for that particular story, after which it would be promptly forgotten.
(We can actually answer that bandana question, though: Lucky Luke’s clothes’ colors are the same as the Belgian flag’s.)
Having said all of that:
I it was recently announced that the next such Lucky Luke book is being done by the German cartoonist, Ralf Konig, who is best known for his gay-themed comics. It will feature Luke being “confronted with advances of a completely different kind”, and there’s a quote from Konig saying the book is a very personal tribute to Morris.
So, you know, it’s still possible someone might go in that direction…
I don’t think that’s where Bonhomme was going, though. I think these thoughts show us more about the characters thinking them than it does Lucky Luke. He is a somewhat mysterious figure and an outlier in every community he enters. Of course he could be the topic of some level of gossip or innuendo. People will make things up to fit their own narrative.
OK, let’s get back to other things specifically in this book, because there’s more to talk about!
The Smoking Thing
Bonhomme hasn’t forgotten about Luke’s smoking issue. In the previous book. Luke was forced to quit his cigarette habit, much as Morris replaced Luke’s cigarette habit for a wisp of straw in the 80s.
He continues that story arc here. Lucky Luke is still off the tobacco, but word has gotten around that he’s done it. Some others don’t have a charitable view of this lifestyle choice. It’s not helped by the people around him who cast aspersions on his strength for giving up smoking. It’s such a crazy choice for a character in the latter half of the 1800s to make. Of course it’s the talk of the town.
Those small character moments are also reminders to Luke of how much he misses the tobacco. It serves a plot purpose in how it mentally plays with Luke’s strength in continuing to fight his cigarette addiction. He can always outdraw a villain at high noon, but can he beat his own cravings? This is a good example of Bonhomme piling on his lead character to make his life as difficult as possible so his eventual victory will be even sweeter.
There is also part of me picturing Bonhomme returning in four years for his final book in this trilogy, and it being set up as an Iron Man “Demon In a Bottle” type of storyline.
The Brush Strokes of Bonhomme
Bonhomme’s art is magnificent. He has a very tight control of his ink brush, with just the right mix of thin and thick lines to make things interesting and consistent.
His art and style are solid and I can talk about those at length, too, but it’s his finished ink line that works best for me. It reminds me a bit of Jeff Smith’s style, mixed with a bit of Mark Farmer’s. It’s super smooth and precise. He doesn’t waste a lot of ink with crosshatching or anything fancy.
For the most part, his line work leaves the page open for the colors to control the mood. Since Bonhomme also colors the book, it all comes together seamlessly.
But Bonhomme can still break out the tricks and add some feathering when he needs to for the textures on the mountains or the careful silhouettes of bushes on the ground. The rest of the time, he’s using it for lighting purposes. Picture the back of a leather boot when it’s backlit, or the shadows created by a campfire or sunset. That’s when he can get heavier with his inks and really mix things up.
To give you the most simple example I could think of to show how controlled Bonhomme’s line work is, I’d point you to the wisp of straw he draws in Luke’s mouth. It’s so basic, but that’s what makes it dangerous. Miss a line there and it starts to look like Luke has something strange hanging out of his mouth. Bonhomme adds it to the corner of Luke’s mouth with confidence and single, smooth lines pieced together.
As much as I love something as over-rendered and overwrought as Scott Williams’ work on Jim Lee or Sandra Hope on Andy Kubert, this smooth ink line brings me back closer to the likes of Carl Barks, Alan Davis, Jeff Smith, and even Darwyn Cooke. Cooke was a little more stylistic than this, but I’m sure he could modify his style to match thing anytime he would have wanted to.
It’s not quite Ligne Claire, but it has definite influences.
Technically, he has the chops to draw the pages, but it’s his compositions and storytelling toolkits that make the book such a joy to read. The panel compositions are the kinds of things movies could be storyboarded off of. They make seeing the story just that easy.
Bonhomme doesn’t try to ape Morris’ style. That’s the purpose of this line of Lucky Luke “Inspired By” books — to give others a chance to interpret the character in their own styles. Bonhomme’s art is still cartoony in its own way, but it’s not as simple as Morris’ style. He draws more realistic people and less the caricatures of people like Morris did.
That’s part of the fun of the book — seeing how he interprets Morris’ characters with his own style. Morris was good at giving his villain distinctive features. That worked in the original series’ favor, but it also helps to give Bonhomme something slightly askew to draw in his own style. Again, that challenge makes the book more interesting.
There’s one other department where Bonhomme follows Morris’ lead:
The Colors of Lucky Luke
Bonhomme colors the book, himself. He’s clearly borrowing techniques from the work on Morris’ original stories, but using them in a different way.
The 1960s-era Lucky Luke is well known for its flat coloring style, that go so far as to color an entire crowd scene filled with people with one flat yellow. It’s a style that served the original material well — busy panels printed on cheap paper in weekly magazines, even at a larger size, could still make a mushy mess of things. Those solid flat colors were good for the technology at the time as well as the printers’ capabilities.
But the style has become so synonymous with the series that it’s stuck around to this day. It’s part of the look of things. Bonhomme limits himself to a very small number of colors in this book. Most of the first half is set out in the desert and in high sunlight. Bonhomme bathes the book in warm colors — oranges, reds, and yellows. Even the blue sky is often a very light color, often with a gradient down to something closer to white. The greenery is limited, and heavily tinted with yellow.
When the action in town near the end is set at night, Bonhomme continues the limited color set, but uses blues to fill every page. Still, they’re rather warm blues, particularly in the focal spots of the panels. The darker blues are used more sparingly to create silhouettes or to emphasize the depth of an object in the panel.
The action inside the buildings of the town remain orange and yellow, due to the light source being the warm glow of early light bulbs. He does a great job in mixing the two, too. Check out this panel set just outside the saloon:
I love the way he spills the orange light out into the blue night here. It’s a basic gradient, but it fits the style of the book, remaining somewhat realistic while keeping things simple. That’s no easy trick to pull off.
Lucky Luke’s Lettering
I know I compared the French and English editions of the book with my last Bonhomme review, but it bears repeating.
The French edition is hand lettered. It’s wonderful to see a book with such… imperfect lettering again. It’s a completely lost art in North America now.
Sure, the letters don’t all land on the same baseline. No two letters are exactly alike. Just look at the variety in the “S” shapes. The “U” form is ridiculously thin, especially next to the wide “O”s that almost look like rounded rectangles. The lettering bunches up sometimes in the middle, both in the spacing between letters/words and the spacing between lines.
It’s glorious, isn’t it? There’s something organic about it that pairs so well with the hand drawn art it sits atop.
The English lettering is fine. It sticks with the classic Lucky Luke style. It has its own style and is easy to read. I have no complaints about it, other than that it isn’t hand lettered like the original. It skips the crossbar-I question all together by never using it. Even the single letter personal pronoun “I” is used without the crossbars throughout the book.
The big drawback with the French lettering is that it’s in French. I haven’t finished my DuoLingo French education yet, so that’s a real tough hump to get over.
Strongly, yes. Even for non-Lucky Luke aficionados, this is a tight western tale with lots of adventure and action, some fun character work, and the amazing line and color work of Matthieu Bonhomme.
If you already are a Lucky Luke fan, you’ll enjoy the callbacks to earlier books and the different angle that Bonhomme takes to explore the character.
Buy It Now
The digital edition is available today. A print edition is coming by year’s end.