Goshdarnit, it’s difficult to even think of – let alone create – a new type of Western. The genre has been around so long, and passed through so many hands in so many different media, that even subversions of its tropes now feel like tropes themselves. The revisionists have revised and revised to the point that there are few revisions still to be made.
To some extent, this is a problem that “The Smell of Starving Boys” runs into. Frederik Peeters and Loo Hui Phang’s Western, which was first published in France in 2016 and has now been translated into English by SelfMadeHero, certainly tries to be more than a standard Cowboys and Indians tale. But what is standard these days? Its basic story, of men bringing ‘civilisation’ to lands populated by Native Americans who are both taciturn and mystical, all while being chased by a mysterious man in black, is almost as familiar as John Wayne’s drawl. This is ground that has been trammeled by Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995) and Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series, among many other examples.
And yet, despite all that, “The Smell of Starving Boys” does manage to be new, or at least unusual. Its two heroes, two members of a survey group sent to map the unmapped parts of Texas, are a gay photographer, Oscar Forrest, fleeing the prejudices of his time, and a boy, Milton, who may not be a boy at all. The third member of the group, the geologist Stingley, has some – let’s say – unenlightened views about women. Through their relationships with each other, this becomes a Western about love, sexuality and gender. It has things to say.
Written by Loo Hui Phang
Illustrated and colored by Frederik Peeters
Texas, 1872. With the Civil War over, exploration has resumed in the territories to the west of the Mississippi, and geologist Stingley is looking to capitalise. Together with photographer Oscar Forrest, who catalogues the terrain, and their young assistant Milton, Stingley strikes out into territory that might one day support a new civilisation.
But this is no virgin land. As the frontiersmen move west, it becomes clear that the expedition won’t go unchallenged. Stingley has led them into a hostile region: the native Comanches’ last bastion of resistance. In a spectacular landscape, under the looming threat of attack, the boundaries between the civilised and natural worlds dissolve. As social conventions disappear and personal inhibitions go into retreat, an intimate relationship develops between Oscar and Milton.
An intense Western, The Smell of Starving Boys explores the clash between two worlds: one defined by rationality and technology, the other by shamanism and nature.
What are those things? I’m pleased to say that I’m not entirely sure. The most successful parts of “The Smell of Starving Boys” are those that are left ambiguous. Whenever the story leaves itself open to interpretation, it feels as expansive as its Texan landscape. Whenever it deals in certainty, it feels much smaller. The revelation that the man in black is actually a horse-sucking vampire – to take one example – simply acts as a rein against the reader’s imagination. We’re turned away from a land of mystery, and into the land of so many other comics.
Happily, writer Phang delivers far more ambiguity than certainty throughout the course of the book. Her arguments about gender and sex defy summary. The fate of the main characters defies summary too. It is never really explained why symbols drawn on cave walls start reappearing in the clouds and in Oscar’s photographs.
In fact, it almost seems to be part of Phang’s politics that this be the case. As Oscar says at one point: “Whose dream are we in right now? Probably some lunatic’s.” The unspoken point, you suspect, is that we should be free to dream for ourselves, to make our own minds up.
Phang also demonstrates one of the most underappreciated skills in comics: knowing when not to write. She allows entire pages to pass without dialogue, which not only gives us more space for our own thoughts, it also gives more space to Peeters’ art.Continued below
If you’ve read any of Peeters’ previous books, such as “Pachyderme” or the “Aama” series, then you’ll already know what a diversely talented artist he is. In “The Smell of Starving Boys”, those diverse talents are put to the test – and pass with honours. Peeters does the zoomed-in work of suggesting, though a thousand subtle facial expressions, the three main characters’ complicated attitudes towards each other. He also does the zoomed-out work of drawing landscapes for those characters to explore. At times, he even goes far out into weird, new territory. One double-page spread, of what can only be described as a whirlwind of wild horses, is as surprising as it is exhilarating.
And the colour! Oh, the colour! Peeters sticks to a limited palette in each panel and on each page, but then switches palettes for every scene. We’re in the Texan wildlands under the midday sun: ochre, rust, moss, sky blue. We’re by a campfire at night: sapphire, crimson. We’re in a dream: powder, grey, plum. Honestly, it’s difficult to stop listing the different shades, as they are all so crucial to the book’s effect. They do such a good job of evoking mood and setting that it’s practically a form a synaesthesia.
And what do all these moods, colours, dreams and interpretations come to? The book’s final panel is a simple image of one of Oscar’s cameras, upright in the grass, looking straight at the reader. Much like a photographic portrait – or, dare I say it, a selfie? – a large part of “The Smell of Starving Boys” is about what you bring to it yourself. Perhaps that’s the best way to create a new type of Western nowadays.