COMIC REVIEW: Western (Cinebook Review #7)

This is the last of my current series of reviews covering the less well-publicised milieu of French and Belgian comics, courtesy of the terrific translators and publishers Cinebook.   Here we’ll take a look at Western, one of Cinebook’s ‘Expresso’ collection – so called because of their brevity and strength.  This is no ongoing series with multiple strands, reboots, alternate realities and back up stories; it’s a straightforward tale and it’s told damned well.

There’s a reason that I kept this book until last.  You take a look at that front cover, stark but beatifully detailed – reminiscent of an ancient photograph, with its sepia tint and carefully posed air.  You flick through the volume and catch glimpses of the startlingly well drawn characters, haunted and full of depth.  You pause on one of those gorgeously atmospheric, fully painted splash pages and you soak it all in.  This book is quality (Capital Q) and like all consumables of high value it deserves to be savoured.

I was very pleased to see Jean Van Hamme on the creative team.  His writing was tight on Largo Winch and proves no less so, here.  Stylistically though, this is a very different book from his boardroom-Bond, wrapped as it is in the filthy fabric of America’s Wild-West.  The story starts with a skin game, a con to grab a reward on offer for information leading to the return of a missing boy, believed captured by Sioux indians.  It goes badly wrong, and the violence that ensues sets the tone perfectly for a book unafraid to depict consequences.  How many children would idolise murderers and thieves, or play with guns if they saw the damage they actually do?  Think Unforgiven rather than Rio Bravo.  It’s a mature book then, in almost every sense of the word, and it carries a real weight and a sorrow at it’s heart.

Jess Chisum is morally complex protagonist, likeable and flawed without ever feeling like a stereotype.  He is both narrator and protagonist for the majority of the story, and the translator does a great job in giving us a sense of the man’s accent and character through his choice of words and idiom.  The narrative plays with our expectations, hinting at familiar stories though never falling into the trap of following them.  In this way Van Hamme pays tribute to and encompases Western mythology whilst crafting his own biography of a simple man trying to just live his life in difficult times.  It’s a fine line to walk, but the resonances are kept subtle and the situations never feel forced.

Grzegorz Rosinski’s artwork is simply superb, combining skillful figurework and a sharp eye for expression with well composed backgrounds that ooze life without overwhelming us with detail.  The use of watercolours gives the pictures a nicely washed out feel which lends a certain sense of griminess to this hardworn world.  The lighting is naturalistic, but he never reaches for the spectacular widescreen sunsets, preferring to keep his images low-key in keeping with the emotional tone.  The only criticism I can level is that the colours can feel just a little too drab at times.  Whilst it helps give that pleasingly historical sepia feel, it sucks some of the vibrancy from the read.  To counter this, his action pieces truly shine.  He has a fine grasp of posture and composition that give an incredible sense of movement to the scenes.  The best examples of this are during the bank robbery on pages 28 and 31.  Great stuff!

The clothing and architecture are impeccable, filled with the kind of detail that bespeaks craftsmanship and passion (though whether for history or cinema I am unqualified to state).  It is a highly textured environment we are presented with.  The town is full of rough bricks and bare wooden floor-boards, the residents swatched in heavy clothing, hard-wearing and properly varied.  Further out we get properly wild grassy areas, all bumps and rocks, whilst a stroll in the wooded areas might require a good machette and a hunting rifle, just in case.

Before I wrap up, I have to put in a word about the splash pages.  There are five of these beauties laying in wait for you and they are wonderful.  They are a different style to rest of the book, fully painted rather than drawn and coloured.  They give depth to the mood and bring the countryside to life.  The snow scene particularly stands out.  The only piece in town, it paints a vivid image of real life in a time gone by.  The folks are recognisable, grinning in that New Year excitement, throwing snowballs, out for a walk or simply enjoying a smoke in the cold night air.  There is no narrative need for these images but they really enrich the book, enhancing our appreciation of The West as a land worth pioneering, despite its hardships and heartaches.

The ending is unexpected and did leave me with a slight twinge of disappointment.  Played out in conjunction with a prologue (or expanded a little further) the coda could have been really satisying, but it’s brevity and harshness felt like a slap in the face.  On balance I think it adds more than it takes away, giving the piece a last bitter taste and making the tale that much more memorable, but for me there was something a little too pat about it.  It’s a minor concern all told and probably says more about my tastes than then story-telling – which was strong throughout.  For the purposes of my review though it nudges it just under the line.

Now go’wan there, git.  T’aint nothin’ more ta see here, folks.  Just you go an’ buy a copy an’ judge fer yer good-selves.

4/5

GS Reviewer: Dion Winton-Polak
You can hear me blather about books on Scrolls, the podcast for literary geekdom here on the Geek Syndicate Network.
Follow me on Twitter @Dion_Scrolls too if you like.

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