Feb/Mar 2009

Gus & His Gang

Joe McCulloch


Should anyone doubt that the visual aspect of the comics form is its dominant narrative mechanism and the source of its idiosyncrasies, I can hardly imagine a more potent corrective than the works of French cartoonist Chris Blain. His command of the image—his lines, colors, and layouts; the moments and actions sliced and crunched and smeared across wide perspectives—drives his storytelling, while dialogue and narration traverse the mutable terrain of his grander world, his pages.

Gus & His Gang translates some of Blain’s newest work into English. It’s a pastiche of American cowboy fiction carried across thirteen chronological vignettes, following long-nosed Gus, oval-headed Gratt, and broccoli-haired Clem as they ride, shoot, and love their way across the Old West. Blain especially delights in the love; his frequent jest is to undercut his outlaws’ tough-guy attributes by blasting through their two-fisted exploits in narrative fragments and then lingering for pages on romantic anxiety—long trawls through dancehalls looking for dates, heated notes written to an indecisive fancy, and passionate frolics with a pretty mistress, accompanied by an imagined broccoli-haired cyclops looming on the horizon with a spotlight-beam eye of aching guilt.

Fragments of space and time populated by funny drawings—these are Blain’s concerns. Most of the chapters begin and end with a wide panel, as if to entrap the characters for our reading pleasure, but Blain mainly works with an eight-panel grid layout as his base, affording each of his frequent deviations some clear purpose. Long panels occasionally cut across a page to convey isolation, panel borders vanish in order to represent a mania or a memory, and the grid sometimes breaks off at the end of a conversation to hustle lovers off to the bedroom in clusters of frantic, smaller panels.

This precision is always coupled with play, as every panel is filled with Blain’s vivid doodles. Supersaturated colors heighten sensation, charging scenes with emotional power: crimson-colored lovemaking giving way to the flushed purple of anxious conversation and then to a single panel of cooling blue sleep. It’s a pity that colorists Alexandre Chenet and “Walter” are uncredited here and that the book’s dimensions are considerably smaller than the album format its visuals were clearly composed for, leaving, for instance, the desert expanses noticeably cramped.

But some changes from the original prove interesting. This edition is a compilation of Blain’s first two Gus albums; a third has since been released in French. The work is served well by collection, considering that its chapters already function as anecdotal fragments of characters’ lives. The later stories depart from the antics and angst of romantic manners, as Blain recasts his western tropes into metaphors for a more varied, seething desire. Gus himself vanishes from the work, becoming an implicit, free-floating idea of freedom as Clem visits his adventurous lover in El Dorado—sexual liberation as solid gold!—and quietly dotes on his wife, an artist of frustration with a capacity, like her husband, for vivid joy through misbehavior.

The characterizations are, of course, incomplete; the story is not finished. But this pairing of volumes teases out a deeper restlessness, a shared longing behind the earlier comical hungers. Even as Blain casts ecstatic moments of criminal action as mere blips, he seems to believe that everyone would be better off as an outlaw, since the villains are so often the fun of cowboy fiction.

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