It’s always easily assumed that, when it comes to Spaghetti Western comics, the U.S. has the genre on lock. For a while, most markedly before WWII, I’d say that that was a fair assumption that nothing excited comic readers, regardless of age, as much as the combination of cowboys, life on the open trail, and some harassment of Native Americans.
The Comics Code Authority — implemented in 1954, supposedly to make comics more child-friendly, but made nearly null-and-void by the late 1980s, as more and more publishers declined to offer their material for review — managed to strip much of the action, rawness, and excitement from the idea of most Westerns in comic books, however; turning them, instead, into lighthearted, diet versions of what readers had come to expect when they wanted to sit in the saddle, so to speak.
Across the water in the Franco-Belgian world of comics, though, the Comics Code Authority could go kick rocks. As a result, it was up to the French to show the rest of the western comics world what the nitty-gritty action of the open prairies still had to offer the genre with Lieutenant Blueberry — a series debuting in 1963, recounting the adventures, missions, and mishaps of Sheriff Blueberry on the dusty trails of the wild frontier.
Luckily for readers, the people to bring Western comics back into the sphere of memorable pop culture were the duo of Jean-Michel Charlier and, of course, the luminous Jean Giraud — but you may know him better as Moebius.
There’s tons to be said for the writing behind Lieutenant Blueberry — Charlier was, after all, a much beloved Belgian screenwriter with a penchant for adventure and co-founder of Franco-Belgian comic book publisher Pilote — but few comics compare visually with what Moebius offered to the project; showing off his decades-long honed skills through deftly balanced swift line-work and detail.
The visual detail of the graphic novels are bolstered even further by the easy-flowing and eye-catching European formatting in which the pages are constructed, drawing the eye across a landscape of panels whose colors blend in and out of frame as if the reader is watching a film; acting more as a vignette over the course of the entire page rather than blocks of separate pictures.
iraud’s landscapes are clearly one of the biggest items at play when it comes to taking in the pages of Lieutenant Blueberry, with overwhelming attention paid to natural textures and the color pallets mimicking the kinds of blending one can only really see in the wild. This is, of course, in thanks to Giarud’s undeniable gift for gouache painting, a technique that he brought to the table for nearly every project over his known career.
With Blueberry, however, the colors in particular were truly what makes the story; saddles that look dusty, trails that look gentle worn, Native Americans with striking war paint colors, and faces — so many faces — whose shading and line work tell an entirely different, untold story of the American Western.
More than anything — with Giraud’s immense willingness to harness adventure and atmosphere on the page and Charlier’s penchant for vibrant storytelling — the Lieutenant Blueberry series is something that brings back the wonder of the Western genre.