Words an’ Pictures: How the West Was Won – A Review of “Peppy in the Wild West”

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Greetings comic fanatics! For this week, I wanted to bring you a review of a new English translation of Peppy in the Wild West, a 1934 story from the infamous pen of Hergé.

For those unfamiliar, Georges Remi, better known as Hergé, was an extremely influential Belgian cartoonist best known for his long running series, The Adventures of Tintin. While The Adventures of Tintin was a childhood favorite of mine, I have not had the opportunity to read much of Hergé’s other work, so I was very excited to learn of this new translation (the first in English since 1969).

Peppy in the Wild West is a standard adventure story that seems intended primarily for children. The plot follows an anthropomorphic bear, Peppy, who packs up his hat-selling business and leaves his home with his wife Virginny and steed Bluebell, seeking the greener economic pastures of America. Upon arriving in the States, they face an angry tribe of Native Americans, a ruthless bulldog outlaw, and the harsh frontier elements with exciting and often hilarious results. While Peppy in the Wild West does benefit from Hergé’s considerable skill, the plot is ultimately not very interesting, and this certainly should not be counted among his best works. I would still highly recommend this story to die-hard Hergé fans, though, for several reasons.

Firstly, while the plot leaves a bit to be desired, its artwork certainly does not, and it is particularly interesting to see Hergé delve into the world of funny-animal comics. I believe this is especially true if, like me, you are mostly used to his work with Tintin, which has a relatively realistic style. The artwork here bears many similarities to Tintin, especially in the posture and mannerisms of Peppy, who seems to be the talking bear version of Tintin’s titular character. The individual gags in this story are also executed very well, echoing the humor found in the early installments of Tintin.

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What I found most interesting about this story, though, was in examining its historical context. Peppy in the Wild West was first serialized in 1934, a tumultuous and pivotal time for Hergé and Europe in general. Hergé had just finished Cigars of the Pharaoh, and was about to begin The Blue Lotus, two Tintin installments that featured a significant increase in political awareness and realism that remained with the series until its conclusion. Peppy, on the other hand, features more of an element of escapism.

While Tintin journeys on adventures with the intention of righting some kind of injustice, Peppy just wants to get away and sell his hats in peace. The vision of America on display in Peppy in the Wild West is one that is dreamy and fantastic, full of wide green plains and majestic purple mountains. It should be noted that no specific geographical location is mentioned in the story — Peppy and Virginny are simply going “out west” — adding to the element of fantasy. In her introduction to this newly reprinted edition, Cynthia Rose notes that Hergé was a fan of several works of Western film and literature as a child, which may explain his choice of destination for Peppy’s escape. When viewed in this light, Peppy’s troubles, particularly in the first half of the story, seem especially tragic.

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The peace that Peppy enjoys with his Native American neighbors is soon broken by distrust bred from trade and corrupt leadership, resulting in a war between Peppy and the entire tribe. While Hergé’s portrayal of this fictional tribe seems far from accurate (a general problem that he faced in other works, particularly Tintin in America), they are an important element in analyzing the work’s connection to the time and place in which it was made. With the stirrings of war already being felt in Belgium, Hergé may have felt very similar to the character he was busy writing, desperate to get away but cynical that things could really be better, even in his idealized vision of America.

Peppy in the Wild West is ultimately not a great story and certainly should not be used as an introduction to Hergé’s work, I do believe that it is worth reading if you are already familiar with his work, and interested in a snapshot of his evolution as an artist. Or, you may enjoy it simply as Hergé may have enjoyed it, as a way of escaping an increasingly hostile world.

— Quinn Stratton, Comics Blogger

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