It’s no secret that I love westerns. Whether in film or comic book form, there’s something about the aesthetic of the wild west that I find absolutely compelling, and while the genre is as burdened with overused clichés as any other, it has also proven to be a uniquely versatile backdrop against which any number of original stories can be told.
This week the comic book stands held three western issues from three different publishers: The Lone Ranger #23 from Dynamite Entertainment, Pale Horse #3 from Boom Studios, and The Sixth Gun #3 from Oni Press.
Dynamite’s The Lone Ranger ongoing series has been of consistently high quality from the beginning, but recently that quality has started to slip a bit. The ongoing story of the Lone Ranger’s quest to bring his brother’s murderer to justice has dragged on for a bit too long, the hero’s final confrontation with cartoonish psycho killer Cavendish having been postponed month after month while the Ranger worries over his brother’s beautiful widow and son, and Cavendish commits more and more brutal acts of cruelty just to prove what a villain he is. I applaud writer Brett Matthews for attempting such a long and ambitious story, but at the same time I think the formula of the original Lone Ranger radio and television series worked the best, with the Ranger and Tonto travelling from town to town righting wrongs for no other reason than the fact that no one else would.
That said, the book has its fair share of originality to it, mostly centered around the character of Tonto, who is far from the agreeable sidekick, adopting an almost antagonistic relationship to the Ranger and even getting the girl for a change as he carries on a romance with the aforementioned beautiful widow.
I had high hopes for Boom Studios’ Pale Horse. I have thoroughly enjoyed their Fall of Cthulhu, an excellent series that evokes the work of H. P. Lovecraft without being too derivative. Pale Horse is cowritten by Fall of Cthulhu scribe Michael Alan Nelson, but unfortunately it exhibits none of the same originality, instead falling back on every overused cliché in the book. When his Native American wife is brutally murdered, stone faced killing machine Cole goes on the revenge trail, dispatching her killers with cold efficiency and of course becoming a wanted man in the process. Pale Horse even makes use of the western genre’s time honored tradition of swiping ideas from Japanese samurai epics, in this case Lone Wolf and Cub, as Cole’s only companion is his dead wife’s son, a silent young child.
Oni Press introduced The Sixth Gun as one of this year’s Free Comic Book Day books, and apparently the book was so sought after that they were forced to reprint the first issue last month when #2 was published. I can certainly see why, as the book is an eye-catching treat. Artist Brian Hurtt has mastered a semi-cartoony drawing style reminiscent of Bruce Timm’s, fluid enough for the characters to have exaggerated, expressive faces and body language, but not so much that the reader can’t take the story seriously, and colored subtly enough to add depth without being overbearing.
The story, by Cullen Bunn, can only be described as a heroic fantasy tale that just happens to take place in the old west instead of Middle Earth or Cimmeria, and it proves my point about the versatility of the western setting. It is far enough in the past that magic and the supernatural don’t seem terribly out of place, yet near enough that the appearance and language of the characters aren’t so archaic as to be hard for modern readers to relate to.
More importantly, The Sixth Gun really embraces the idea that the American West was the last great frontier, a vast, unexplored, lawless land where anything might be possible.
— Jefferson Powers