Review by Frank Plowright
Patagonia presents the joy of discovering an absolute master artist that you’re unlikely to have heard of. Pasquale Frisenda’s Italian career began in 1992, and no other work has been translated into English, and yet Patagonia presents page after page of sheer accomplished beauty. The purpose of the sample page is the conversation between Tex and his son on the deck of a boat, but Frisenda puts in such effort. The variety of viewpoints keeps the conversation interesting, but Frisenda looks well beyond that to classic illustration. That sailor in the second panel could have escaped from a Howard Pyle painting, and the couple leading to the next page on the final panel aren’t too far removed from Charles Dana Gibson’s work. There are 235 pages, each of them so remarkably composed and beautifully drawn it’s almost irrelevant what the story is, which is just as well.
Experienced writer Mauro Boselli has a track record even longer than Frisenda’s, while Tex himself has a longer career than either, an American cowboy in Italian comics since the 1940s, known for his distinctive yellow shirt and his unambiguous moral outlook. Very few of his stories over the years have taken place outside the USA, so when issued in Italy his trip to Argentina was big news.
Having noted many pages of sumptuous art, it’s disappointing to discover them serving a poorly paced story, much of which could be cut had Boselli supplied a few explanatory captions. Tex and his son Kit are in Argentina as advisors because a vindictive native tribe’s actions have stirred up hatred among settlers toward the entire tribal population. If the aggressive tribe can be captured in time, peace may prevail. Without captions everything has to be explained in dialogue, leading to several overly dry conversations. There is a complexity to the set up, but Boselli continues an extremely languid pace, and Tex finally arrives at his destination by page 60, prompting an understanding why Patagonia is 223 pages. Boselli aims to imitate the cinema Westerns of the 1950s, but dialogue able to be spoken in five screen seconds occupies multiple panels again and again, meaning the set up drags interminably. It’s a shame, because drilling down to the basics there’s a good plot of Tex accompanying an Argentinian general on a mission of peace, while most senior subordinates see genocide as the answer. Ingrained attitudes and cultural clash provide constant tension, but the going is slow until the real action starts around the halfway point.
In almost any other graphic novel this would be a fatal flaw, but here it means more of Frisenda’s amazing art. There’s barely an ordinary panel. The composition is meticulous, the viewpoints also cinematic, but with even greater detail, and the creation of the cast is masterful. Frisenda inherited Tex’s deliberately bland and clean cut look, but he creates a wonderful selection of distinctive people to surround him, sensitive to cultural differences.
Once there’s a clash between the Argentine forces and native people Boselli picks up the pace considerably, twisting the plot into uncomfortable territory, and two characters who seemed to have been throwaways to make points are reintroduced for pivotal roles. Boselli exploits small minded ignorance and prejudice, and ignore much of the first 150 pages and the remainder provides the first rate Western action expected from the start. By the end he’s set up a possibly fatal conclusion. We know Tex will survive, but that certainty doesn’t apply beyond him. Frisenda impresses throughout and Boselli more selectively, but Patagonia is definitely a book for art enthusiasts.