Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Review: Gus & His Gang-Chris Blain

Although this book is claimed to be inspired in part by old Buster Keaton movies, it also belongs to a tradition of European comic artists and writers doing one of the many things they do best, that is turning a certain historical period on its head with amusing results. Think Rene Goscinny and Albert Uderzo's infamous handling of Roman rule in Asterix, and Maurice De Bevere's wild west historical parody Lucky Luke. This isn't even unfamiliar terrority to Blain who has tried his hand on a few other twists on what could be called genre fiction both in his solo work Isaac the pirate and in the multi-creator dungeons and dragons style fantasy series Dungeon with the likes of Lewis Trondhiem and Joann Sfar.

In Gus we follow a gang of outlaws and friends, but while the main focal point of most Western films might be the gun fights and the robberies these just act as a background to the gangs endless chasing of the fairer sex. What is refreshing is that instead of chiseled idealised outlaws who never break a sweat when it comes to women, these outlaws can be clumsy and hapless, often falling over elaborate stories made up to impress women or not knowing how to make desperate women loose their scent. Even Gus's large Pinnochio style conch is an especially nice feature, especially since he is the member of the trio who has the most bravado when it comes to women and yet probably has the least luck and the most trouble. In fact, Gus is the most visibly interesting and alive member of the trio, his frantic arm movements and the colourful energy that surrounds him when he is frantically weaving a tale are great comic devices.

Visually this little book is a real treat mixing comic book iconography (in which the bubbles are for much more than just speech) slapstick and a regular smorgasbord of colour. The range of different colours Blain uses to depict different times of day and different degrees of light are outstanding ,sometimes even outlandish (and yet always believable-Blain is a master craftsman). We get treated to a range of beautiful and fantastic landscapes that would not look out of place in Jodorowsky's surreal western El Topo and on a superficial level Blain does a great job of recreating the fashion of the era, to the point that he makes me wish I could get away with wearing the clothes that he depicts here.

The thing that strikes me most about Gus is the style of line. At the risk of making a sweeping generalisation, there is something distinctly European about the line and I'm sure I'd feel that way about it even if Blain wasn't French himself. Stylistically it is similar to artists like Blutch, Sfar, Trondhiem, and notably Kerascoet (especially his work on Miss Don't Touch Me, with its subtle nods to Argento's Susperia). This European line is looser, more energetic, free, and yet manages also to be elegant. All the characters here are more round, more fleshy as opposed to the dynamic, forceful, angular lines of American superhero comics. In my opinion this makes more sympathetic, more real. Of course American comics began to be influenced by Europe quite some time ago (Craig Thompson is a notable example, who was heavily influenced by Blutch) and I think that this style of line work really works better alongside the more alternative mode of comics, not just parody and pastiche, but stories where a serious point needs to be hammered home. I don't think that adopting a copy cat style for all alternative comics will work though, and experimentation (so long as it's not just for its own sake) is always welcome. Blain manages to be experimental while never letting that overshadow his lovable band of outlaws. This is the kind of a book that might get called a 'rip-roaring romp' Well worth a read!

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