Friday, March 30, 2012

World´s Greatest Comics : Blueberry

Since Today is the 100th anniversary of Karl May´s death I thought it appropiate to start the next Moebius post and write about one of the greatest western comics ever : Blueberry. Or LEUTNANT BLUEBERRY how it was called in Germany.


For those readers who don´t know who Karl May was, he wrote Germany´s most famous western books about Winnetou, Old Shatterhand and Old Surehand. He also wrote books about the Orient and the Middle East starring Kara Ben Nemsi Effendi and his faithful sidekick Hadschi Halef Omar ( full name Hadschi Halef Omar Ben Hadschi Abul Abbas Ibn Hadschi Dawuhd al Gossarah, which you had to know by memory in my school and even after all this years I didn´t have to look it up ) and althoug he never went farther than Buffalo his descriptions of foreign countries are unbelievably accurate.

In Germany you don´t have to explain who he is and to give you an idea how popular his works still are : his anniversary was mentioned on german tv. The death of Moebius wasn´t. When I was a kid the WINNETOU movies were a big deal and I especially remember UNTER GEIERN ( Among Vultures )

which besides having Pierce Brice as Winnetou and Steward Granger as Old Surehand ( instead of Winnetou's usual sidekick Old Shatterhand played by Lex Barker )

also had three other famous actors : Goetz George, who later became most famous for the Schimanski crime series,

Terrence Hill, who later became famous as one half of the Bud Spencer / Terrence Hill duo that starred in over a dozen movies that included some westerns

and Elke Sommer. Elke Sommer did a gazillion movies but she is probably best know in the United States for her roles in the Pink Panther movie A SHOT IN THE DARK, the spy movie DEADLIER THAN THE MALE, THE PRIZE and THE PRISONER OF ZENDA. Or maybe from her appearance on THE MUPPET SHOW. Who knows ?

In UNTER GEIERN Elke mostly wore a very plain outfit which was basically a shirt and a long skirt but she also was in underwear in many scenes. And there was one scene in which she has to distract the bad guys and showed a lot of cleavage which made a big impression on young Subzero.

Yes, western movies were a big deal back then and westerns were kind of everywhere. There were western books like the ones by Karl May, western tv series like Bonanza, Shiloh Ranch, Bret Maverick and Gunsmoke ( called Rauchende Colts in Germany ) and western comics like BESSY, SILBERPFEIL, LASSO, BUFFALO BILL, LUCKY LUKE, COMANCHE and BLUEBERRY.


Moebius was still working under the name Jean Giraud when he did those and if you have read my other Moebius posts this month you know that this is the part where I really discovered him for the first time.

Blueberry was created by writer Jean - Michel Charlier and it chronicles the adventures of Mike Blueberry on his travels through the American Old West. Blueberry is an atypical western hero; he is not a wandering lawman who brings evil - doers to justice, nor a handsome cowboy who rides into town, saves the ranch, becomes the new sheriff and marries the schoolmarm.

The story follows Michael Steven Donovan, nicknamed " Blueberry ", a name he chose when fleeing from his Southern enemies ( which was inspired when he looked at a blueberry bush ), starting with his adventures as a lieutenant in the United States Cavalry shortly after the American Civil War. He is accompanied in many tales by his hard - drinking deputy, Jimmy McClure, and later also by Red Woolley, a rugged pioneer.

Donovan is the son of a rich Southern farmer and started as a dedicated racist. He was framed for a murder he did not commit, had to flee and was saved by an African - American. He became an enemy of discrimination of all kinds, fought against the Confederates ( although he was a Southerner himself ), and tried to protect the rights of Native Americans.

Blueberry has its roots in Giraud's earlier Western - themed works such as Frank et Jeremie, which was drawn for Far West magazine when he was only 18, and his collaboration on Jijé's Jerry Spring in 1961, which appeared in the Belgian comics magazine Spirou. Around 1961 / 1962 Jean Giraud asked Jean - Michel Charlier, whether he wanted to write scripts for a new western series for Pilote. Charlier refused at first, since he never felt much empathy for the genre. In 1963 the magazine sent Charlier on a reporting assignment to Edwards Airforce Base in the Mojave Desert, California. He took the opportunity to discover the American West, returning to France with a strong urge to write a western. First he asked Jijé to draw the series, but Jijé thought there would be a conflict of interest, since he was a regular artist at Spirou, a competing comic magazine.Therefore Jijé proposed his protégé Giraud as the artist.

Blueberry was first published in the 31st of October 1963 issue of the comics magazine Pilote. Initially titled " Fort Navajo ", the story grew into 46 pages over the following issues.

In this series Blueberry - whose physical appearance was inspired by French actor Jean - Paul Belmondo - was only one of many protagonists.

Charlier came up with the name during his American trip: " When I was traveling throughout the West, I was accompanied by a fellow journalist who was just in love with blueberry jam, so much in love, in fact, that I had nicknamed him Blueberry. When I began to create the new series, and everything started to fall into place, I decided to reuse my friend's nickname, because I liked it and thought it was funny. I had no idea that he would prove so popular that he would eventually take over the entire series, and later we would be stuck with that silly name! "

Charlier and Giraud continued to add to the legend of Mike Blueberry in Pilote and other titles even into the 1990s. During that time Giraud´s style has varied greatly, much as with his other works. In the same volume, sweeping landscapes will contrast sharply with hard - edged action scenes and the art matches the changing mood of the story quite well. Like much of the Western genre, Blueberry touches on the constant conflict between violence and tranquility, nature and civilization, and the obligation of the strong to protect the weak.

Now like I said, since it has been a few decades since I read my last Blueberry story I got the KLASSIKER DER COMICLITERATUR - BLUEBERRY pocketbook and I have read about 80 percent of it.

The pocketbook contains five albums that build one big saga that begins in CHIHUHUA PEARL harmessly enough with Blueberry coming across a mysterious rider who´s persecuted by mexican federales. Blueberry gets himself involved in this unknowingly unleashing a chain of events that start with him going undercover into mexican territory ( he poses as a deserteur and murderer with a real bounty on his head ) to find half a million of confederate gold and end up with him as a scapegoat for a sinister plot on the highest level of US politics.

The story takes more unexpected twists than a fox on a foxhunt and just when you think Blueberry is in the biggest mess so far they put another brick on it. There are secret plots, enemies becoming allies going back to being enemies, trustworthy gangsters and deceitful gentlemen and everybody backstabbing everybody on a hunt for gold. Of course you get all the usual trappings of a western like train robberies, seedy saloons, beautiful saloon girls with a gun in the garter and corrupt soldiers. It´s one grand adventure and you get the same feeling from it like from watching a great western movie. Or five great western movies that tell one big story. Think Sergio Leone but as a comic.

I didn´t say " It´s like watching a great western movie. " because it´s not. Comics are different than movies and while the feeling and experience of both may be similar it´s different in many aspects like for instance with the comic you can read it again. Anyway, it´s got all the grandeur of big westerns and it´s really a larger than life comic.

And to show that I´m not the only one thinking that this is a comic masterpiege here´s part of THE COMIC WATCHER´s review of it :


American audiences haven’t given this masterpiece the attention it deserves and this visionary, the credit that is due to him.

When you approach this series, please leave behind all pre - conceived ideas you may have of what to expect of a western. The US, the mother of the genre per se, underwent a process of trivialization in an attempt to make comics more child - friendly, and this happened courtesy of the Comic Code Authority, and thus, westerns lost all veracity, all rawness, and in general failed to display all the rough and toughness of the times they were set in; they became little more than Disney versions of the genre.

So, I guess it was up to the French to show us how westerns were supposed to be done.

The main reason why this collection has to be treated as a masterpiece is because of the equal degree of masterful treatment in which the script and the art worked. The absolutely engaging scripts that Jean Charlier threads has so many layers and depth, and creates such a rich tapestry of personalities that they could be considered wonderful adventure books on their own right. Ulyses Grant, Chihuaha Pearl, and Angel Face are just some of the characters that populate these tales, and each one of them has gained a spot on the history books of comics.

The team of Charlier and Moebius became legendary partially due to the meticulous research that the pair did for their stories; the writer in order to portray a veritable and historically accurate western, and the artists going over myriad of obscure visual references for the vignettes.

And the result shows in spades. The towns are full of mud, and dirt, and smoke. The people are dirty and dusty. The saddle looks at times like works of art. The native americans wear different paints depending on the tribe they belong to, and the mood they are in. The revolvers have different lengths and the barrels and drums match the brands of the manufacturer. You can learn more about the west during the period narrated here than in ALL the western comics published between 1955 and 1990 in the US. The rites of the native american tribes are represented in so much detail and faithfulness that it looks like the script was research through an anthropology text - book.

But here is the most admirable part: A good story never takes second place to realism. Charlier always blended an amazing caper full of double - crossings, intrigues, greed and lust, and the realistic details on the story only served to lend more veracity to the tale.

Moebius took to illustrating these westerns like the pro he is, but used these series to experiment and perfect his already masterful craft.

One factor that is never highlighted enough, is the clear dominance of the european page format over the american page size. Usually in the US, comics are drawn in 11x14 sheets, while in europe they used a bigger size, that facilitates more vignettes per page, and makes for a more dynamic read on the hands of a master such as Moebius. So this is the type of professionalism you get in this collection out of Jean Giraud ( Moebius ), his attempt at showing his best stuff. Like I said, if you don’t want to get it for the amazing art, you may want to get it for the amazing stories. Never before has history interwoven such a grand soap opera tale in the world of comics !

Characters change attitudes, people are flawed, heroes are tragic, and villains are sympathetic.

And you can read the full review here


Growing up as a comic reading child in Germany during the 70s I got my fix of francobelgian / french / european BDs where everybody else at that time got it : in the pages of ZACK. I´m not sure if this was before I discovered the german editions of Marvel Comics by Williams Verlag or if I read them at the same time but I know there was a huge pile of ZACK comics I must have read. Looking back I wonder how I ever found time to do anything else than read comics because I have read such an incredible amount of them and from the most diverse comic genres. But on the other hand it´s not like I was a kid that spent a lot of time outside.

We always had to come home straight from school and since I was indoors most of the time a lot of that time was spent with reading, drawing or thinking about comics.

Well, now that I think about it most of what I read in school weren´t school books but rather the newest issues of ZACK, or later YPS ( which I won´t explain right now because that is enough material for another post or two ), WASTL, FIX & FOXI, TARZAN, RAHAN, DAS PHANTOM, KALARI, FELIX or FEUERWERK.

But you had to be careful because if the teacher caught you he took away your comic. They always said they would return the comic at the end of the school year but they never did.

I know one time I was so pissed off that a teacher took away one of my favorite comics that I really did work up the courage to claim my comics at the end of the school year only to find out that he threw them away. He never thought some pupil would really reclaim such garbage. Now this was a lesson that should have taught me something that would have come in handy in my future troubles with teachers and their prejudices, especially literature teachers. At least it would have prevented my confrontations with one teacher in particular during my formation as a car mechanic who was absolutely convinced that there is nothing of worth told in comics and that even reading the worst book is less of a waste of time than reading the best comic.

Even if he was no expert in the field and had no scientific proof. I remember that he gave me the assignment to prove that reading comics was better than books ( which is logical since in comics you not only have the literate aspect but also the art aspect ) by bringing him a good comic. Well, the one I picked was the german edition of the X - MEN : GOD LOVES MAN KILLS graphic novel by Chris Claremont and Brent Anderson for which I wrote a five page essay about the series, the main characters and what´s it all about.

My teacher DID read the comic, he didn´t say it was garbage BUT he said that I had not proven my point since it was not a real comic. It had a bigger format, more pages and was written and drawn better than normal comics.

He gave me a good grade for my essay but he was still convinced he was right. And I think that was the point where I stopped trying to convert comic muggels. From this point on whenever somebody told me that comics were rubbish I only said " Oh yeah ? " and let it slide. Okay, sometimes I thought about people like my stubborn literature teacher but only with pity keeping in mind that those poor devils went to their grave without ever having experienced the majesty of a really good comic like WATCHMEN or the likes.

Reading comics as a kid in the 60s you had to be constantly on alert because like I said if some teacher caught you with a comic they took it away, threw it in the garbage or just burned it. At those times comics were officially the main cause of juvenile deliquency and reading comics made you into some kind of rebel. Which may be one of the ingredients comics nowadays are missing to succeed. Yes, comic readers were feared and hated but they also had that maverick flair, the outsider vibe Today´s youth is missing. In these times everybody is reading the political correct graphic novels and watching the newest comic movie adaption ( in some cases without knowing it ) but it´s just too mainstream. Who reads comics under the blankets when the parents think they are sleeping nowadays ?

One last thing about BLUEBERRY : most people in Germany probably read them in the selftitled collections or in DARGAUD PRÄSENTIERT - DIE GROSSEN EDELWESTERN, a series that also published other western comics. I think the earliest albums I saw was when ZACK ALBUM had some Blueberry issues.

In Germany there were various editions by various publishers throughout the years and in some cases the covers were basically the same.

In other cases not so much.

Despite that BLUEBERRY has always been available in some sort or the other since it was first published in Germany and you can find it in any second hand section or in the half price section at german comic conventions. Although that may change now.

As usual here are some of the indispensable research pages without this post would not have been possible. Because of the subject some of them are in german, sorry non - german speaking reader :

jean giraud on lambiek / blueberry on wikipedia

bud spencer and terence hill quiz

das waren noch zeiten - german comics of the 60s

a list of german comics of the 60s

histories about german comics of the 70s and early 80s

So this was the big BLUEBERRY post and I hope it wasn´t too boring but I thought since there haven´t been too many of the comics published in America and they aren´t exactly very cheap most of my readers in America might not know too much about it. It´s a really great series and it´s about time some US publisher got interested in it.

My next Moebius post will be about the INCAL series and since I still have to re - read all 11 volumes it will take a while. So there may be another post inbetween. Wow, this month I managed to do six posts which is the same amount as January and February combined. Let´s see if I can keep the momentum next month in which we also have this blog´s big 6 year anniversary.

Like in my last Moebius post I´m posting a video about Blueberry and it´s not from the movie adaption trainwreck they called THE RENEGADE in America. Instead here´s an animated clip made from panels from the BLUEBERRY comic that gives you a good impression of how cool the series is.

New to the blog ? Everything you need to know about TALES FROM THE KRYPTONIAN : top ten posts / more posts of interest

1 comment:

Terry Hooper-Scharf said...

Yay! Winnetou The Warrior and Old Shatterhand. I loved this as a kid BUT I never knew Stewart Grainger was in a Winnetou film -though I'd probably have watched it for...sigh...Elke Sommer. Another great article and I'm pointing CBO readers in this direction!