The Belgian author Morris is best known for his humorous cowboy series 'Lucky Luke', 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.
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.
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.
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, 'Lucky Luke', which was published in L'Almanach Spirou. It was an immediate success and became one of Spirou's most popular features.
The early stories were notably different, though. In terms of style they echoed the influence of Fred Harman's 'Red Ryder', that also ran in Spirou. 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.
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'.
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.
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.
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.
But also Morris' coloring was remarkable. Morris would regularly color entire characters or backgrounds red, blue or yellow, giving his panels depth and focus, just like Marie Severin did in her coloring 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 color.
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).
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.
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.
...and the original version, that did end up in a pocketbook in the collection 'Gags de Poche'.
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.
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.
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.
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 Remacle, Mazel, Conz 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.
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).
'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. Walls and street names dedicated to Lucky Luke can be found in Brussels, Belgium, while the cities of Charleroi and Middelkerke have statues based on the characters. In 1992 'Lucky Luke' was honored at the festival of Angoulême with a big exhibition. In 2005 Morris was a nominee in the Walloon edition of "Les Plus Grandes Belges" ("The Greatest Belgians"), ending at the 79th place.