In these four selections from the long-running Lucky Luke comics, Lucky Luke, “The man who shoots faster than his own shadow,” rides calmly through a wild variety of Western adventures. Newcomers to the series will easily pick up on the main characters; the larcenous but unlucky Dalton brothers, Lucky Luke’s snarky horse, and dim dog Rin Tin Can.
No. 10, Tortillas for the Daltons, features the Dalton brothers who range in size and temper from short and irascible Joe to lanky and dimwitted Averell. After being accidentally kidnapped, they team up with bandits in Mexico and Lucky Luke reluctantly travels over the border to collect and return them to jail in the US. No. 31, Lucky Luke versus the Pinkertons, mixes in a lot of historical information as Allan Pinkerton and his detectives try to take over the law with their scientific methods, forcing Lucky Luke into retirement and even trying to frame him. In the end, Luke takes down their secret operations and saves the day for President Lincoln. No. 32, Rails on the Prairie, pits Lucky Luke against railroad sabotage as the villain tries to stop the advance of the transcontinental railroad. Luke deals with recalcitrant townspeople, high finance villains, local feuds, Indians, ranchers, and more, in order to complete the railroad. No. 33, The One-Armed Bandit, has Luke acting as bodyguard to a couple of inventors who have just created the first slot machine and are taking it on the road for a test run. Other than the occasional bandit, most of Luke’s time is spent convincing the people in various towns to try out the machine – and then helping the brothers escape from the gambling fever that immediately ensues.
This series is written and illustrated by a variety of artists, although the original concept and stories were created by Maurice de Bevere, “Morris.” Additional volumes were created by Rene Goscinny (creator of Asterix) and other artists and writers. Morris began the comics in the late 1940s and they continue to be produced today. Along with Asterix and Tintin, they are highly popular in Europe and have been made into animated and live action movies as well as video games.
Readers familiar with the Asterix comics will recognize the same historical parodies and mixture of modern jokes in a familiar historical setting. In this case, it’s the stereotypical American West, as depicted in the 1950s, with plenty of racial stereotypes and overall caricatures. Even Lucky Luke isn’t always taken seriously, as he argues with his horse and generally gets stuck with the problems of everyone from jailers and jailbirds to high financiers and inventors.
The art moves smoothly from illustrator to illustrator without a break. The comics are constructed in simple strip format and the uniform caricatures and conventions make it easy to recognize the various characters and their actions and responses in each adventure. The layout is expertly done, moving the story briskly from panel to panel and page to page. The action is easy to follow with simple lines and backgrounds, but includes plenty of details to hold interest for a more lengthy perusal. The lettering is an odd, loopy font that’s a little like cursive but not quite, making it sometimes difficult to read.
Despite being set in the American West of the late 1800s, these comics are solidly European, as can be seen in their continued popularity and publication. Modern American readers will wince at the racial stereotypes and jokes, both in the art and text, and be bewildered by the sometimes odd perspective on American history. Mexicans are dirty and obsessed with their fiestas and siestas (except for the noble Spanish landowner) and a variety of people of color are drawn with distorted faces and figures. Native Americans have painfully caricatured dialogue, “Villainous palefaces! You de-feathered two of my braves! We demand vengeance! Frightful Vulture has spoken.” To be fair, pretty much every character but Lucky Luke is portrayed as stupid, both white and non-white. There’s frequent drinking and smoking and plenty of firearms in evidence as well.
I’ve noticed in a number of European titles for children an odd obsession with the stereotyped American West and Lucky Luke seems to be the height of this interest. It’s one thing to discuss similar features in Asterix or Tintin as products of their time, but the Lucky Luke series continues to publish new comics with these stereotypes. As a historical curiosity or for collectors, these comics may be amusing, but unless you’re looking for something that will universally offend your readers I wouldn’t add them to an American public library and certainly not to a school library. There are plenty of funny comics available without the troublesome aspects of these titles and, at least in my own experience, the Wild West seems to be of little interest to American kids.
vol. 10 Tortillas for the Daltons
by Morris, Goscinny
vol. 32 Rails on the prairie
by Morris and Goscinny
vol. 33 The One-Armed Bandit
by Morris, De Groot
Cinebook, 2008, 2011