COMIC REVIEW: Buck Danny Vol. 3, Ghost Squadron (Cinebook Reviews #26)

Buck Danny Ghost SquadronBonjour, and welcome back to my series of reviews exploring French and Belgian comics, as translated by Cinebook.  Already?  Well yeah, the ‘year of getting organised’ hasn’t exactly gone to plan so far, but there’s still time to catch up.  With that in mind, let’s cut the preamble and get straight on to Buck Danny, aviator extraordinaire.

 

 

 

This is another one of these titles which I’m embarrassed to say I’d never heard of until Cinebook sent it winging my way.  These comics have been around more or less continuously from 1947, bringing the character from his original WWII escapades right up to date in the modern era.  He’s a regular Nick Fury, but one who stayed in the military instead of poncing off to do spy stuff and mess around with the men in tights.  It seems that Cinebook are publishing this series out-of-order because we find Buck and his cohorts here flying F16s through Sarajevo rather than Spitfires or Lancaster bombers over Germany.  This publishing decision pitches Danny as a much more relevant character for newbs like myself, whilst the machinery and politics of modern warfare offer the reader a very different flavour to the rest of Cinebook’s catalogue.  The series walks a fine line between straight up adventure strip and a broad-strokes look at military history and, judging by this volume,  it does so with reasonable aplomb.

It was quite a gutsy move for writer/artist Francis Bergese to write about the Bosnian Conflict  a mere year after it ended, and bolder still to use a long-established military comic to criticise the UN and NATO.  I’m no expert, so I can’t really comment further on the politics of the piece, but it’s clear from the beginning that the plot of Ghost Squadron stems from real outrage and frustration.  Contrary to expectations, the focal character is not Buck Danny but Sonny Tuckson, a side-kick who seems more cut out for comic relief than heroic protagonist.  His youth and hot-headedness make him the ideal character to voice dissent against the prevailing political strategy, though.  Enraged after a potshot attack, Tuckson takes out a missile base – a risky move in a time of peace negotiations.  Back at base he’s cautioned for it, but his defensive outburst is heartfelt and powerful.  Bergese has him shout directly at the reader in one chilling panel, challenging our own morality and what we are prepared to accept in the name of peace.  This brings him to the attention of a member of the CIA who taps him for a secret mission – where overt force is unacceptable, covert tactics are required.  Tuckson is to become a part of Ghost Squadron, a group of crack pilots operating below the radar.

Tonally it’s a real mixed bag.  As the plot unfolds we meet some old friends, discover a similar force working for the enemy, a traitor in the ranks, and the lengths to which a pug dog will go to annoy someone.  Yeah.  I guess when you have a character that’s been clearly defined as a comedic role it’s pretty hard to break out of it completely.  While the tension runs high elsewhere, the between-mission stuff gives us plenty of ‘laughs’ at the canine shenanigans.  Comedy can be a useful tool in story-telling, giving a welcome release at moments of stress or simply helping to pace the tale out.  It’s one of the hardest things to translate though, as different cultures find different things amusing.

There’s a clownishness to Tuckson which is so at odds with his youthful rage that I found it tough to reconcile the two.  This odd blend soured the comic for me, belittling the real drama of the piece.  Also, scattered among the panels are a horrendous amount of jargon-busting notes from the writer.  They were occasionally helpful but most formed a serious impediment to the flow of reading.  I think it would be far less intrusive to have such things in a glossary at the front or back of the book – perhaps something to be considered for future volumes.  Where the story soars is in the combat sections.  Its very existence a secret, Ghost Squadron becomes a target for both sides and, in the confusion, death could come from any direction.  Bergese never lets us forget what the mission is and expertly describes the flow of battle across miles of sky.  It’s taut stuff and the penalty of failure is ramped up by the expediences of remaining covert.

One of the toughest challenges Bergese faces as an artist here is in capturing the sense of extreme movement.  F16 are ruddy big hunks of metal that shift at incredible speeds.  He uses one or two familiar tricks, like speed lines from the wings and crazy missile contrails, but his most effective technique is the simple placement of the jets in relation to their pursuers.  Your brain just creates the movement and speed based on these snapshots and the whole thing comes to life.  It’s no Star Wars for visual flare, but the battle tension is palpable throughout.  The military hardware is meticulously drawn, from the smallest jeep to the mightiest plane, and the sparse landscapes flit by convincingly enough.  His people are less impressive though, exhibiting an awkward stiffness to face and body.  Buck Danny himself seems a mannequin archetype, devoid of character or charm.  Tuckson is the only person who really shows a range of emotion throughout but he suffers from an inconsistent portrayal.  Sometimes he appears childlike in build, his freckles come and go and on occasion his laughter lines age him terribly.  The colour-work is by Frederic Bergese, son of the author.  He gives a workmanlike effort, but displays no particular flare.  Everything looks exactly as you would expect but he fails to bring it to life with his light, shade or colour.  Indeed detail is actually lost in some panels because the palette is simply not varied enough.  Shame, really.

Overall, it’s a decent enough comic.  The pace is rapid, the adventure is gripping and the dialogue doesn’t make you want to shove it in the bin.  I confess I wasn’t actually expecting to be engaged by it as much as I was, which is a credit to the story-telling and a triumph over taste prejudice.  I found it a little annoying that the Americans are portrayed as effectively coming in to sort out problems that we Europeans couldn’t possibly resolve alone – a trope we see too often in popular culture as it is – but not to the degree that it bothered me throughout.  In some ways I even find it interesting when French comics take on American characters like Buck and Sonny because it illuminates something of the international perspective, overlaid with the culture of origin.  Both characters are recognisable to us but neither really feel true to life.

What does feel true are the military aspects and Bergese’s feelings about the way the UN and NATO handled the Bosnian conflict (thinly filtered through Sonny).  They lend the book a sense of depth and personal conviction it would otherwise lack.  “The Seven Dwarves” soars above this in terms of character and emotion, so if you’re going to try just one wartime Cinebook you should get that one.  I haven’t seen enough here to make me seek out the further adventures of Buck Danny, but if you like the taste of war comics you could do a heck of a lot worse.

 

Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Dion Winton-Polak

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