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

Tentacle Tuesday: Rahan to the Rescue

« Rahan n’a plus peur de la nuit, ni du feu, ni du tonnerre du ciel, ni des fleuves sans fin… »

(Rahan no longer fears the night, nor fire, nor the sky’s thunder, nor endless rivers…)

Even non-European readers will probably have some familiarity with handsome troglodyte Rahan, one of the heroes of the Franco-Belgian bande dessinée.

In 1969, Rahan made, to general acclaim, his début in the inaugural issue of Pif Gadget: apparently his escapades appealed to both male and female audiences. The series was created by writer Roger Lécureux and artist André Chéret, both seasoned comic pros by then. His adventures spanned years upon years of publication and spawned legions of rabid fans. To give you an idea of what “many years” implies, the last album – with new material! – came out in 2012; the collected series, which gathers material between 1969 and 1999 (30 years of the Lécureux – Chéret team), took up 26 handsomely-printed hard-cover volumes.

The following sequence is from La flèche blanche, originally published in Pif Gadget no. 90 (Nov. 1970), and reprinted in colour in Rahan no. 7 (Oct. 1973).

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I first encountered Rahan on his home turf, which is to say in some old issues of Pif Gadget. I am not a big fan of the prehistoric genre, as it demands a more momentous suspension of disbelief on my part than I can provide. (The endless parade of clean-shaven blonde hunks accompanied by female nubile savages is a little too much for me.) Besides, Pif Gadget offered far more fascinating strips to focus on, so I happily skipped over the adventures of Rahan, just as I would gleefully ignore Les pionniers de l’espérance (same writer as Rahan) or the boringly handsome Docteur Justice (not the Marvel one).

However, I have to (grudgingly) avow that Rahan doubtlessly had great things going for it. Its strengths are also what seems to provoke some modern readers into dismissing Rahan with a patronizing hand-wave: aligning itself with the communist nature of Pif Gadget, Rahan espoused such values as justice and equality. He was also an immensely curious young man with a scientific mindset, which led him to discovering/creating useful tools, helped him to solve problems and shielded him from the superstitious nonsense others believed. One doesn’t often run into a caveman whose leitmotif is Humanism.

I did not grow up with Rahan, having only come to Pif Gadget in the last ten years or so (through the influence of co-admin RG), but these values are well known to me from growing up on Soviet science-fiction (Russian has a nicer word, fantastika, which is much more encompassing and also includes any forays into fantasy, prehistoric or otherwise). That, too, often gets thrown under the train of « childish, naive and simplistic », the holy trinity of a jaded cynic that’s currently en vogue as a role-model.

This seems especially unfair given that the series did not shield its mostly young readers from some harsh truths about life. Death and violence accompanied our hero wherever he went, and a lot of characters he encountered were, frankly, colossal assholes, as disinterested in fairness or egalitarianism as some modern poo-pooing readers. Not to mention Rahan’s curse of solitude – orphaned twice, he is never really accepted by the tribes he bumps into during his travels. He’s either rejected as an intruder… or venerated as a sort of a god, once he creatively extricates himself (and frequently the tribe) from some predicament. Oh, and this being a French comic, there are also bare-breasted women like it’s no big deal (and even some breast-feeding).

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Original cover art from Rahan – L’intégrale Tome 16 (2019, Soleil).

Today’s post is dedicated to André Chéret, who died less than a month ago, on March 5th. He was 82.

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A self-portrait of the artist, which originally saw print in Pif Gadget no. 81 (Sept. 1970).

You can read some Rahan stories here.

∼ ds