Lucky Luke by Morris
Lucky Luke - Sur la piste des Dalton (1962)

The Belgian author Morris is best known for his humorous cowboy series 'Lucky Luke' (1946), whose adventures he has drawn for nearly his entire career. Together with René Goscinny he made a funny satire of the western genre, particularly every Hollywood cliché. The franchise spawned unforgettable characters like Luke's wisecracking horse Jolly Jumper, the mind boggingly stupid prison dog Ratanplan and the crooked Dalton gang. Morris used a simple, but effective drawing style. He applied dynamic cinematographic techniques and atmospheric colours in his lay-out. He also did a lot of research to give the backgrounds a historically accurate look, combined with cameos of Wild West legends. All these efforts gave 'Lucky Luke' the look and feel of a genuine cowboy movie.'Lucky Luke' inspired films (both animated as well as live-action), TV series, songs and  video games. Even Morris' death hasn't kept the "poor lonesome cowboy" from riding, with new albums still being produced by his successors. It made the series a global success on par with Hergé's 'Tintin' and René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo's 'Astérix". Last but not least, it was Morris who once called comics an art form, more specifically the "Ninth Art", a nickname which has stuck ever since. 

Lucky Luke, by Morris

Early life and career
He was born as Maurice De Bevere in Kortrijk in 1923, and his father was head of a pipe factory. Morris was Flemish and spoke Dutch as a result, but is usually not regarded as a Flemish comics artist, because 'Lucky Luke' was published in French and in collaboration with French-speaking scriptwriters and publishers. As a child, Morris bought magazines such as Robinson, Hop-là and Mickey Mouse Weekly and was strongly influenced by Hergé, Walt Disney, Floyd Gottfredson, Harold Knerr and Elzie Segar. Another influence on Morris' later work was the painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

While he studied at St. Joseph college in Aalst, he spent most of the lessons caricaturing his Jesuit teachers in his notebooks. They were understandbly not amused and predicted that he would never amount to anything in life. As an act of revenge, Morris later modelled the faces of the gravediggers and undertakers in 'Lucky Luke' after those of his former educators. Another major influence was film. Morris enjoyed going to the cinema, particularly westerns. He owned a film projector and made flip books for his friends.

Lucky Luke by Morris
Lucky Luke - Calamity Jane (1967)

While Morris studied rights at the University of Leuven, he actually wanted to become an animator. During World War II, he came into contact with Belgian animator Jules Luycks. In 1944 he worked as a cel inker for the Belgian animation studio Compagnie Belge d'Actualités (CBA), where he met Eddy Paape, André Franquin and Peyo. After the war, Morris made illustrations and cartoons for the Flemish newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws, and for the weekly magazine Le Moustique, for which he created various cover illustrations. The Dutch version of Le Moustique, Humoradio (later Humo), also published his work.

Cover for Humoradio (Le Moustique), by Morris (1949)Cover for Humoradio (Le Moustique), by Morris (1949)

Lucky Luke at Spirou (1947-1968)
By the end of the 1940s, Morris became one of the driving forces behind Spirou magazine, and together with his colleagues Jijé, Franquin and Will he established the so-called "School of Marcinelle", a comical style of drawing and storytelling that characterized Spirou during its heyday. These four artists would be referred to as "The Gang of Four", as they all worked in Jijé's home studio in Waterloo at that time. While Franquin and Will took over Jijé's 'Spirou et Fantasio' and Fernand Dineur's 'Tif et Tondu', Morris created a comic strip of his own. On 7 December 1946, he launched the first Belgian western comic series, 'Lucky Luke', which was published in L'Almanach Spirou. It was an immediate success and became one of Spirou's most popular features. At the time Hergé's 'Tim l'Écureuil' (1931) and 'Popol et Virginie' (1934) had been the earliest Belgian western comics, but remained one-shots. Cowboy comics were nevertheless very popular among Belgian readers, but most titles were imported from the U.S. In Spirou itself Fred Harman's 'Red Ryder' had ran for years with tremendous popularity and many of the early 'Lucky Luke' stories still echo its influence.

Lucky Luke by Morris
Lucky Luke - La mine d’or de Dig Digger (Spirou/Robbedoes, 1947)

Other notable differences about the early stories were the minimal cast and different graphic style. Luke and his trusty horse Jolly Jumper were the only recurring characters. The drawings were also specifically designed to make them fit for animation. Not only were the characters more roundish: they even had four fingers on each hand. In 1948 he, Franquin and Jijé travelled to the U.S.A. and Mexico. Officially, they wanted to find inspiration for new stories, particularly Morris, who made a lot of photographs and sketches of prairie and desert backgrounds. But Morris also secretly hoped to meet Disney and convince him to turn his comic strip into an animated cartoon.

Puffy Plays Baseball
While Disney showed no interest, Morris did encounter several people who would push his style into a different, more versatile direction. During his six year stay in the U.S. he met Jack Davis and Harvey Kurtzman and assisted them with the foundation of their satirical publication Mad Magazine at EC Comics. The nervous, caricatural and energetic parody style of Mad would have tremendous influence on 'Lucky Luke'. While in the States, Morris provided the illustrations for 'Puffy Plays Baseball' (1954, text by Mary Taylor). It was a children's book in the series Little Owl Books, the answer of New York-based Cross Publications to the popular Little Golden Books by Simon & Shuster.

Puffy Plays Baseball
Puffy Plays Baseball

René Goscinny (1955-1977)
Another important person whom Morris met was French scriptwriter René Goscinny, who was also travelling the States to try and get into animation. Goscinny shared Morris' love for Mad Magazine and the animated cartoons of Walt Disney and Tex Avery. Back in Europe, he would become scriptwriter for 'Lucky Luke', although anonymously at first. Between 1955 and 1977, 35 albums were scripted by him. This period is often seen as Lucky Luke's golden age.

The Daltons, Rataplan and other character developments
For starters, the characters became more fleshed out. Luke was transformed into an inhumanly fast gunslinger, "able to shoot quicker than his own shadow". Jolly Jumper gave sarcastic comments on the events around him. The Daltons, a real-life 19th century gang of outlaws who made their debut in 1951 but were all murdered by Luke, returned to the franchise in the guise of their identical cousins. They quickly became Luke's nemeses. Each brother received his own characteristic individual behaviour. Dwarf-sized Joe is the gang's aggressive and hot-tempered leader. Jack and William, each a head higher, act as the voice of reason. Averell, the tallest of the four, is also the stupidest and most hungry. In 1960 another popular character made its debut: prison dog Ratanplan, whose name was a parody of the famous film dog Rin Tin Tin. Ratanplan is arguably the dumbest dog of the Far West, unable to ever realize what is going on around him and utterly loathed by Jolly Jumper.

Lucky Luke by Morris
Lucky Luke - La Guérison des Dalton (1975)

Western atmosphere
Morris and Goscinny studied the history of the Wild West and spent more time in the theater watching westerns. This allowed Morris to draw everything with more eye for historical accuracy. It also inspired new plots. Luke becomes a participant during the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, the Pony Express and the first railway line through the West. He also met several historical characters, including Billy The Kid, Jesse James, Calamity Jane, Belle Starr, Abraham Lincoln, Roy Bean, Mark Twain, Joshua Norton, Buffalo Bill and Sarah Bernhardt. Morris also elevated his drawings by using a lay-out inspired by cinematographic techniques. Different kinds of perspective and camera view points gave 'Lucky Luke' a more dynamic look that reminded readers of a typical Hollywood western. 

Joss Jamon by Morris
Inventive storytelling in Lucky Luke contre Joss Jamon (1958)

Colour work
But also Morris' colouring was remarkable. Morris would regularly colour entire characters or backgrounds red, blue or yellow, giving his panels depth and focus, just like Marie Severin did in her colouring for EC Comics. Accompanied by his stylized and schematic drawing style, the 'Lucky Luke' pages are very orderly and legible. This also comes to blossom in the cover designs of the albums, which stand out for their simplicity, often featuring just one or two characters with backgrounds in a spot colour.

Billy the Kid cover by MorrisCalamity Jane cover by Morris
Simple but effective covers for Billy the Kid (1962) and Calamity Jane (1967)

Still, it never got too artsy or serious. Morris often gave characters the visual appearance of famous movie stars. The phlegmatic western actor Gary Cooper stood model for the later rendition of Luke himself. Other caricatured actors were Jack Palance ('Lucky Luke contre Phil Defer', 1956), James Coburn ('En remontant le Mississippi', 1961), Randolph Scott ('Le Vingtième de Cavalerie', 1965), David Niven ('Calamity Jane', 1967), Wallace Beery, Alfred Hitchcock ('La Diligence', 1968), Mae West ('Dalton City', 'Western Circus' and 'Sarah Bernhardt' from 1969, 1970 and 1982), Lee Van Cleef ('Chasseur de Primes', 1972), W.C. Fields ('Western Circus', 1970) and  Louis de Funés ('Le Bandit Manchot', 1981). He sometimes even gave his colleagues a cameo, such as René Goscinny (Pete in 'Lucky Luke contre Joss Jamon', 1958), Victor Hubinon (Barry Blunt in 'À l'ombre des derricks', 1962) and Albert Uderzo (Tenderfoot in 'Le Pied-Tendre', 1968).

Lucky Luke by Morris
Lee Van Cleef as bounty hunter Elliot Belt in 'Chasseur de Primes' (1972)

Parody elements
Goscinny also transformed 'Lucky Luke' into a clever parody of the western genre. Every stock character is there: ultra-fast sharpshooters, careless gamblers who are frequently tarred and feathered, grouchy old-timers, lynch-happy mobs, morbid caretakers, monosyllabic Native Americans who make spelling mistakes while sending smoke signals, Chinese laundry owners, African-American laborers, siesta-holding Mexicans, overly feared outlaws and the cavalry riding in to save the day. The song which Luke sings at the end of each story ("I'm a poor lonesome cowboy, and a long way from home") was lifted from the western movie 'Along Came Jones' (1945), which starred Gary Cooper. Morris was never fond of the westerns made after 1970, when many of the ancient stereotypes were removed out of political correctness, realism and a more historically accurate approach of the Wild West. He kept referring to older westerns, even though younger audiences have often never seen these pictures and are therefore less bound to recognize the clichés once associated with the genre.

Hors la loi by Morris
The end of 'Hors-la-loi' as it appeared in Spirou/Robbedoes and the official album publication in 1954...

As popular as 'Lucky Luke' was, it still often met with censorship. Publishers felt that the series was too violent for young readers. In some of the earliest stories Luke actually murders some of his opponents in cold blood, such as Phil Defer in 'Lucky Luke contre Phil Defer' (1956) and Bob Dalton in 'Hors-la-loi' (1954). These segments were softened before their publication in Spirou, or for their album publications. It got to the point that the owners of Dupuis felt that revolvers ought to be used as little as possible, which is kind of impossible in a western strip.

Hors la loi by Morris
...and the original version, which did end up in a pocketbook in the collection 'Gags de Poche'.

Lucky Luke at Dargaud (1968-....)
By 1968, Morris and Goscinny left Dupuis and Spirou and joined Dargaud, where 'Lucky Luke' enjoyed new adventures in Goscinny's own magazine Pilote. With more creative freedom, gunfights became more prominent again. Another new element were the somewhat sexually risqué female dancers in the saloons. Twelve issues of a shortlived Lucky Luke monthly magazine were published by Dargaud from March 1974 to February 1975.

Spirou cover by MorrisPilote cover by Morris

Lucky Luke after Goscinny's death
Sadly enough Goscinny died in 1977. Morris continued 'Lucky Luke' with many writers in the following decades, like Bob de Groot, Vicq, the duo Xavier Fauche/Jean Léturgie, Guy Vidal, Lo Hartog van Banda and others. From 1989, the books were published through Lucky Productions, and their rights were transferred to Lucky Comics, a joint venture between Morris and Dargaud, in 1999. Morris also participated in the launch of spin-off series like 'Rantanplan' (together with Michel Janvier, Jean Léturgie, Bob de Groot and Vittorio Leonardo) in 1987 and 'Kid Lucky' (with Conrad, Yann and Léturgie) in 1995. After Morris' death in 2001, 'Lucky Luke' was continued by Achdé and Gerra in a new series of albums published by Lucky Comics.

Lucky Luke - La Diligence, by Morris (1968)
Lucky Luke - La Diligence (1968)

Film and TV adaptations
During the 1970s and 1980s, Morris finally saw his dream of adapting 'Lucky Luke' into animation come true. He and Goscinny made two humoristic animated feature films based on 'Lucky Luke', namely 'Daisy Town' (1971) and 'La Ballade des Dalton' ('The Ballad of the Daltons', 1978), both animated by the same company that made 'Les 12 Travaux d'Astérix' in 1976. In 1983, Hanna-Barbera also adapted some of the albums into a TV cartoon series in co-production with France 3 and Gaumont. Since the series was aimed at children and under politically correct pressure, several elements of the comic were not featured on the show, including racial stereotypes, the caretakers and Luke's smoking habit. Morris also made Luke a non-smoker in the comics from then on, for which he was awarded a medal from the World Health Organization in 1988. In 1991 a new animated TV series based on 'Lucky Luke' was produced by IDDH, followed by yet another one a decade later by Xilam.

Fingers by Morris
Lucky Luke replaces his trademark cigarette for a straw, in 'Fingers' (1983), an album written by Dutch writer Lo Hartog van Banda

Where his colleague Franquin has clearly inspired a wide range of artists, it is more difficult to pinpoint Morris' direct followers. Influences of Morris' style can be found in the work of Didier Conrad (for instance in his 'Donito' series), Marcel RemacleMazelConz and even Jacques Tardi, while Morris' method of coloring also appears in the Dutch 'Elsje' strip by Gerben Valkema. Artist Henk Albers and writer Jan van Gelderen were allowed to make 'De Wereld van Lucky Luke' ('Lucky Luke's World'), an educational series about the Wild West, for the Dutch comics magazine Pep. Albers also worked with scriptwriter Yvan Delporte on four reworkings of fairy tales with characters from 'Lucky Luke' for the Lucky Luke monthly magazine in 1974.

The Ninth Art
Another part of Morris' legacy is the term "The Ninth Art", a prestigious way to refer to the comics medium. Between 1964 and 1967, Morris and Pierre Vankeer made a section for Spirou magazine called 'Le Neuvième Art', in which they presented the world of American comics. Although the phrase had appeared in an article by Claude Beylie for La Vie Médicale eight months prior to Morris and Vankeer's first article, its creation is generally attributed to Morris. The number "nine" refers to the other eight previously numbered art forms: architecture (1), sculpture (2), painting (3), dance (4), music (5), poetry (6), cinema (7) and television (8).

Universal best-seller and recognition
'Lucky Luke' is one of the best-selling European comics in the world, sharing the honorary stage with Hergé's 'Tintin' and Goscinny and Uderzo's 'Astérix'. The adventures of the "poor lonesome cowboy" have been translated in Dutch, English, Welsh, German, Spanish, Catalan, Portuguese, Italian, Greek, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish, Estonian, Icelandic, Polish, Hungarian, Czech, Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian, Slovene, Arabic, Turkish, Hebrew, Bengali, Tamil, Vietnamese, Indonesian and Afrikaans. Morris won the Grand Prix Saint-Michel in 1972. In 1980 Morris was one of many Belgian comics artists to make a graphic contribution to the book 'Il était une fois... les Belges'/'Er waren eens Belgen' (1980), a collection of columns and one-page comics, published at the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Belgium. In 1992 'Lucky Luke' was honored at the Festival of Angoulême with a big exhibition, receiving the Grand Prix Spécial at the same time. The same year Morris was knighted in the Order of Leopold II. In June 1993 a comic book wall was dedicated to 'Lucky Luke' in the Rue de la Buanderie (Washuisstraat) in Brussels, as part of the Brussels' Comic Book Route.  In 1994 he and Jolly Jumper received a statue in the Parc Reine Astrid in Charleroi and In 2000 another one in Middelkerke. Morris became a honorary citizen of Waterloo in 1996. The Dutch city of Almere named two streets after respectively Lucky Luke and Ratanplan in 2003, as part of their 'Comics Heroes District'. In 2005 Morris ended at the 79th place in the Walloon edition of "Les Plus Grandes Belges" ("The Greatest Belgians"), ending at the 79th place. In the Flemish version of that same contest he ended at nr. 360. On 16 November 2016 Lucky Luke also received a comics wall in the Populierlaan in Middelkerke. 

Lucky Luke - Les Dalton se rachètent, by Morris (1965)
Lucky Luke - Les Dalton se rachètent (1965)

Parodies of Lucky Luke
Naturally the series wasn't safe for parody. This led to predictable porn spoofs like 'De Sex Avonturen van Lucky Luke' (1982) by Ger Rijff and Paul Schuurmans and 'La Vie Sexuelle de Lucky Luke' (1993) by Jan Bucquoy, for which Bucquoy was even sued. Far more interesting were the spoofs by professional artists. In December 1971 Gotlib reimagined 'Lucky Luke' as a spaghetti western and also spoofed the final panel of each 'Luke' story from a different silly perspective. while Claire Bretécher made a feminist satire: 'Lucky Lite.' Jean Giraud took a page from the Lucky Luke album 'Le Pied-Tendre' ('Tenderfoot') and redrew it in his own realistic style. Morris returned the favour by redrawing a page from Giraud's 'Blueberry' story 'La Mine de L'Allemand Perdu'. In 1985 various French and Belgian comics artists paid tribute to Morris with the collective parody comic book 'Rocky Luke' (1985).

Homage comics series
Since 2016 other authors are invited to make their own rendition of 'Lucky Luke'. The first to create an hommage was Matthieu Bonhomme, who gained much praise with his album 'L'Homme qui tua Lucky Luke' (2016). He was followed by Guillaume Bouzard, who gave a more satirical look on the series in 'Jolly Jumper ne répond plus' (2017).

For those interested in Morris' life and career Stephane Beaujean's 'L'Art de Morris' (Dargaud, 2015) is highly recommended.

Series and books by Morris in stock in the Lambiek Webshop:


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