Gérald Forton, Tall in the Saddle All the Way!

« Horse sense is the instinct that keeps horses from betting on men. » — Josephine Tey

While ‘academic’ realism has never been my thing in comics, I’ve always had a soft spot for Gérald Forton (Apr. 10, 1931 – Dec. 18 2021), who left us late last year, and who would be turning 91 today. He’s certainly my favourite Bob Morane artist (1962-67), but that’s not saying much, and besides, not his best work.

And just what is his best work? Ah, that’s easy: Teddy Ted. Just like his forebears, including his grandfather, the legendary Louis Forton (1879-1934), creator of Les Pieds Nickelés and Bibi Fricotin, grew up with an undying passion for horses. The Forton clan bred, raised, sold and raced horses, so it wasn’t a mere case of the banal and stereotypical European passion for the American ‘Far West’ and its Cowboys and Indians.

In 1964, Forton and ace scripter Roger Lécureux (Les pionniers de l’Espérance, Rahan) picked up the reins of a series launched by Jacques Kamb and Francisco Hidalgo and abandoned after three episodes. The new team revamped Teddy Ted, turning the protagonist from a boy to a man and instilling Lécureux’s humanist worldview* into the proceedings.

Teddy Ted and Forton reached their peak soon after the artist left Belgium, and the Bob Morane series, to raise horses in the South of France, a direct source of inspiration and documentation!

Without further ado, here’s my pick: Tim le lâche, from Pif Gadget no. 42 (Dec. 1969, Vaillant). It’s the tale of a craven back-shooting sneak against whom no-one has been able to garner any evidence, given the lack of survivors or witnesses. Given that Teddy’s close friend Pecos has been ambushed and taken out of commission by Craven Tim Galaways, Teddy and the town drunk (also its doctor!) set a dangerous trap with Teddy as bait and human target.

I’ve long had an aversion to ‘realistic’ European westerns, and that’s largely because of the absurd density of useless detail, the pages so busy and darkly-coloured as to buckle and collapse under the weight of the ink. Forton, by contrast, aside from being a master at spotting blacks, is just as bold in leaving white space where it’s needed, where the reader’s eye needs it. And here, unlike a lot of the technically-challenging genre strips (by which I mean, for instance, aviation, war or car racing, where one all-too-often encounters perfectly depicted machinery and stiff, generic human figures), Forton lavishes attention and care to every single thing, so we don’t wind up with beautiful horses and cardboard everything else. Which brings me around again to my point of Forton’s exceptionalism among the ‘realists’: the verisimilitude of his art is the result of observation, not soulless photo documentation.

After Teddy Ted was dropped from Pif Gadget, circa 1975, by its less-enlightened new management, Forton was picked to illustrate an adaptation of TV’s The Wild, Wild West (“Les mystères de l’Ouest”), which ironically made for the most realistic version of that colourful, but painfully stagey show, thanks to Forton’s excellence at capturing likenesses and conveying wide open spaces and details of period and setting.

By the early 1980s, Forton had moved to the US, where he tentatively freelanced in comic books, where he proved a poor fit. Though the French deemed him one of the most ‘American’ of Franco-Belgian cartoonists, he stood out like a sore thumb in the 1980’s mainstream, likely since his influences hailed not from comic books but rather comic strips, and those of an earlier generation at that (Alex Raymond, Frank Robbins, Milton Caniff… and his idol, Fred Harman).

He then heeded Horace Greeley’s legendary bit of advice and headed to California, bought himself a ranch in Apple Valley and, like many an overqualified but outmoded veteran cartoonist, toiled in mediocre animated shows.

Ah, but he still had plenty of life in him: moving to more fertile and rewarding soil, he smartly shifted to film storyboards (here are some samples!). Among his more notable credits: the original Toy Story, The Prince of Egypt, Coyote Ugly, Starship Troopers, Ali**

Retiring from the film industry at age 75, he then devoted his time to painting, playing the guitar, riding horses, and burnishing his œuvre for posterity by providing new artwork for reprint collections of his past works, in the midst of a resurgence in Europe.

Humble, active and alert to the very end, Forton finally and peacefully rode into the sunset, at the most venerable age of 90. For more Forton art, check out this lovingly assembled gallery.

-RG

*I’m inclined to draw parallels between Lécureux’s view of the West on Teddy Ted to Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry‘s approach on Have Gun, Will Travel: compassion, but with a hard edge.

**wherein Will Smith doled out punches rather than slaps

7 thoughts on “Gérald Forton, Tall in the Saddle All the Way!

  1. nealumphred May 13, 2022 / 12:01

    If non-humorous comic strip art can be broken up into three primary schools, they would probably be the Alex Raymond school, the Milton Caniff school, and the Chester Gould school. Forton is a gorgeous exemplar of the Raymond school. Thanks for introducing him to me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • gasp65 May 13, 2022 / 12:17

      My only quibble is that the Milton Caniff school would more accurately bear the name of Noel Sickles, though of course Caniff is the more famous of the two. Otherwise, amen. And you’re most welcome, Neal!

      Like

      • nealumphred May 13, 2022 / 14:17

        I agree: Sickles was amazing—nobody ever topped his use of Zipatone! But Caniff got SO BLOODY BIG, especially during the war years, that Sickles is usually only known to people like you and me.

        Like

      • gasp65 May 14, 2022 / 16:02

        Yeah, that’s a fact. Perhaps Sickles was too versatile for mass appeal.

        As far as Zip-a-tone goes (and it goes lots of places!), my idol and great inspiration has to be Roy Crane. The first time I had my mind blown by a display of Ben-Day mastery, it was by Johnny Craig’s opening splash for Vault of Horror no.29’s ‘The Mausoleum’.

        See for yourself, if you’re not familiar with it: https://readcomiconline.li/Comic/The-Vault-of-Horror-1950/Issue-29?id=59115#3

        Like

      • nealumphred May 15, 2022 / 11:10

        Dang—I forgot Roy Crane! Getting older every day …

        Like

  2. mandrake75 June 24, 2022 / 15:33

    Thanks for this heartfelt hommage !
    Gerald was a friend, whom I miss a lot. I’ll be sharing archives and vidéos with/about him later in the year. (Hopefully)
    Meanwhile, you may want to check this page of my blog, with pictures of him and info about his work that haven’t been shared elswhere, I think :
    http://vaillant-film.blogspot.com/2021/12/gerald-forton-ladieu-au-cow-boy.html

    All the best, and, as Gerald used to write at the end of his emails : “happy trails” !
    Jean-Luc

    Liked by 1 person

    • gasp65 July 2, 2022 / 17:59

      Bonjour Jean-Luc! Votre message m’a fait bien chaud au cœur… c’est réconfortant d’entendre d’un proche du sujet que l’objectif de l’hommage a été atteint. J’ai bien sûr consulté votre blog lors de mes recherches, et grâce à vos témoignages, j’en ai beaucoup appris sur ce personnage singulièrement attachant qu’a dû être Gérald Forton.

      Et “Happy trails to you, until we meet again”, comme dirait l’autre!

      Bien vôtre, Richard

      Like

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