Review by Frank Plowright
Considering Jean Giraud ranks among the foremost comic creators under either his own name or his Moebius alias, it’s astonishing how little of his work is available in English. Work that’s remained in print since its original publication in Europe decades ago hasn’t been seen in English since the early 1990s. Why is that? The Blueberry Westerns are an example. Most work originally produced from 1966 to 1986 was collected in eight album sized editions of either Blueberry or Lieutenant Blueberry, co-published by Epic and Titan Books in 1989-1990, but these have long drifted out of print. It could be suggested that as a genre Westerns have retained a popularity in Europe that’s evaporated elsewhere, but the Moebius material remains equally elusive.
This collects to the title story along with the awkwardly titled ‘The Half-a-Million Dollar Man’ (literally translated from the French title as ‘The Man Worth $500,000’). As originally serialised in France, Blueberry’s career progressed with each new adventure, and writer Jean-Michel Charlier was fond of setting his stories around real people or events. By the time this book opens he’s a US Army Lieutenant, in 1867 assigned to Fort Navajo. The early pages supply a good indication of Blueberry’s personality. A sure shot and loyal to his principles, he has less respect for army hierarchy and can be drunken and uncontrollable on leave.
The two stories are connected, with the US authorities keen to locate half a million dollars they fear could be used to revive Confederate hopes of re-igniting the US Civil War. The only person with a clue to where the funds may be hidden is in a Mexican jail awaiting execution, but the US authorities don’t have a location, let alone a name. Blueberry is co-opted into acting as their agent. Key to the plan is that Blueberry is painted as a wanted man with a price on his head, with only one other person aware of the truth.
Anyone knowing Giraud’s work only as Moebius will surely be surprised by the art. Whereas Moebius’ work emphasises space and serenity, this is kinetic and busy, crowded panels packed with detail, defining the times well. Almost everyone has stubble-covered faces that show their hard pasts, Blueberry’s healed broken nose being his calling card, and each other person in a large cast is distinctive. The sheer amount of people and objects in some panels is astounding, and eight, nine or ten panels to a page is the norm. Blueberry is an incredibly work intensive strip.
A similar density characterises Charlier’s plots, and he makes maximum use of both location and Western genre standbys, but twists and complicates the story from straightforward beginnings. The character is provided not just by Blueberry’s well defined personality, but from the archetypes Charlier throws in to prop him up: his drunken old buddy; diehard confederate villains; a bounty hunter; a dangerous Mexican general; a slimy US equivalent and a corrupt sheriff. That’s even before we reach the halfway point of the first story. The reality is further enforced by several small tricks representing Western lore and knowledge. At one point Blueberry suspects he’s being herded toward an ambush, so pulls tightly on the reins of his horse, which neighs. An answering neigh from a horse concealed in the hills provides an answer.
Chihuahua Pearl combines two French albums, but they’re just a fifth of the story begun over the opening pages. The consequences of what Blueberry agreed to in those extends into Ballad for a Coffin and well beyond for an epic that took fourteen years to complete.