Here’s a first for The Jade Sphinx, a review of a graphic novel, and it’s a humdinger, Law of the Desert Born, adapted from a Louis L’Amour (1908-1988) short story of the same name by Charles Santino (working off a script by Beau L’Amour and Katherine Nolan), and illustrated by Thomas Yeates. Even if you have never been the ‘type’ to try a graphic novel (i.e., novel in comic book form), you should try this one. Not only is it a model of the craft, it is a spectacular Western, as well.
The late Gary Cooper (1901-1961) used to opine that he loved Westerns because, when they were good, “there was an honesty about them.” Though they sometimes devolved into simple stories about white hats vs black hats, more usually there were shadings of complexity and subtlety. Great (and even really good) Westerns are only ‘plot driven’ in the same manner as great literature: we are the sum of our motives and the consequences they drive us to.
Law of the Desert Born takes place in New Mexico, 1887, during the worst drought that anyone can remember. Rancher Tom Forrester has his access to the Pecos River cut off by the son of his old partner, and he convinces his foreman, Shad Marone, to rustle cattle on his land.
Shad squeezes his poor employee, Jesus Lopez, a half-Mexican, half-Apache on the run from the Fort Marion prison in Florida, to do his dirty work. Lopez, a scout and tracker for the army, helped relocate the Chihenne and Chiricahua Apaches for the government, and was repaid for his loyalty with a one-way trip to the same gulag.
When the rustling is discovered, Lopez takes the fall. Tensions escalate, and Forrester is fatally injured by his enemy; Shad kills the rival rancher in revenge and goes on the run.
Now, the sheriff must release Lopez from jail and allow him to use his skills as a tracker to lead the posse to Shad. Lopez guides them through miles of trackless badlands, into a crucible to test their courage and skill. But, as the story continues, the question becomes: what are Lopez’s real motives?
This is great stuff. Both Shad and Lopez are equal parts hero and villain, and the sheriff is both compassionate man of justice and unthinking hardcase. The townsfolk that make up the posse are like most humanity – neither hero nor rogue, just simply people trying to get along.
L’Amour also dispenses with many of the tropes that would degrade the core integrity of the tale: there are no deadeye gunslingers, or rancher’s daughters to provide love interest – nor even any clear indication of whether either side was right or wrong in the issue of water rights. What it all is … is very complicated. Much like life.
The book comes with a wonderful coda from Beau L’Amour on the differences between this adaptation and his father’s original pulp story, and details his efforts to get the story made into a film. It also has some valuable biographical data on his father, and notes to put the whole story in historical perspective.
Now, a graphic novel lives or dies on its illustrations, and I’m delighted to report that Yeates’ pages are wonderful. Rendered in stark black and white, Yeates has created a pen-and-ink wash world of stark landscapes, wide vistas and intense close-ups. He creates his pages with a cinematic flair; if anyone ever did make a movie of this, they could simply tear the pages out and stuff them into the camera.
Yeates’ anatomy does sometimes seem to be slightly off, but any slight failures of draughtsmanship are more than made up by his genius for composition. His pages are not a static series of regiment panels, but, rather, a dynamic expression of motion and story on the page. It’s a textbook lesson on how the form is done.
This oversize hardcover is a great addition to the library of any Western or comic fan, or, indeed, anyone who likes a good story.