Pretty much everything is better when it’s weirder, and HBO is bringing weird westerns back to TV in a big way. Based on the 1973 Michael Crichton film of the same name, Westworld tells the story of an artificial theme park made to resemble the American west, a plot that perfectly works classic science fiction questions in with the trappings and conventions of the old west. But while this might be fairly new territory for modern television, bending and breaking the western genre is nothing new to comic books.
Cowboys have been slapping leather in the pages of comic books for pretty much as long as there have been comic books. While the traditional western genre is largely diminished compared to the glory days of the ‘40s and ‘50s, its absence has given way to a more flexible genre: weird westerns.
Westerns as a whole — whether in print, television, or any other medium — crashed during the late ‘50s and early ‘60s due in part to their over-exposure, and also in part due to a more critical attitude toward American history thanks to the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement. The fantasized and whitewashed visions of simplistic cowboys and indians just wasn’t going to cut it anymore. So a new genre and approach emerged that both deconstructed the ideas of the traditional western and mixed it with elements of science fiction, fantasy, horror, or any other genre that could fit.
So now, with Westworld blowing up the Home Box Office, it seems like the perfect time to look back on some of the weirdest and wildest westerns to have blazed a four-color trail. Did we miss one of your favorites? Walk twenty paces and draw in the comments.
WEIRD WESTERN TALES
You can’t talk about weird westerns without mentioning 1972’s Weird Western Tales, a western series retitled from All-Star Western to act as a companion title to Weird War Tales. Not only was it probably the source of the genre’s name, it also chronicled the earliest adventures of the most iconic cowboy in comics: Jonah Hex. Hex’s mangled mug hides a mess of contradictions that was a more nuanced and cynical look back at the Wild West than was common. He was a man caught between duty and honor, between Union and Confederacy, and between white and Native life. Jonah Hex is a pillar of the western genre, and of the DC Universe, and Weird Western Tales is where it all started.
There have actually been two different characters to go by the name of Two-Gun Kid. The first was initially published by Marvel predecessor Timely Comics in 1948, and was a fairly run-of-the-mill gun-slinging hero. The second was introduced in 1962 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and he was definitely the weirder one.
Matt Hawk, the second Two-Gun Kid, was a lawyer in the old west who was inspired by the fictional adventures of the original Kid to take up his guns — and domino mask — in the name of justice. He went on to have a career battling all manner of strange, and occasionally extra-terrestrial, villains, before eventually being snapped up by the time-travelling Avengers and brought to the present day to join the team, where he became good friends with Hawkeye. He’s jumped back and forth between his own time and ours, but has become stuck here because of paradoxical complications.
THE SIXTH GUN
I recently raved about The Sixth Gun and lamented its passing in my list of October must-reads, and for good reason. There’s simply nothing else like this series.
Cullen Bunn and Brian Hurtt’s The Sixth Gun is the most impressive and expansive examples of weird western world-building that you’re likely to find. Spanning fifty issues and a number of spinoff series, The Sixth Gun weaved a sprawling mythology out of Wild West folklore, American superstition, and Native American legend centered around six immortal guns capable of bringing about the end times. The series was always firmly a western, but blended elements of horror, fantasy and adventure into the narrative to maximum effect, and became one of the great western sagas in comic books.
EAST OF WEST
There aren’t many genres that Image isn’t publishing these days, and so it should come as no surprise that one of the best modern twists on the western genre comes from their catalog. East of West is the brainchild of star writer Jonathan Hickman and his FF collaborator Nick Dragotta, who created a cyberpunk-infused vision of an America whose Civil War went on far longer than our own, and the warring nations that were born out of it. And also Death has gone rogue from the other Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and is searching desperately for his son. It’s bizarre, highly philosophical, and wildly entertaining, utilizing this most American of genres to say something — or a few things — about discourse, governance and religion in America. If you like your westerns with lasers, sleek technology, otherworldly robots, and terrifying creatures of the end times, then look no further than East of West, which returns with issue #30 in December.
SECRET WARS: 1872
In the spirit of Neil Gaiman’s Marvel 1602 — which set the birth of the Marvel Universe during the establishing of the earliest English colonies in the New World — 1872 was a 2015 miniseries by Gerry Duggan and Nik Virella that took the most iconic characters of the Marvel Universe and dropped them in the wild west. The story is set in the idyllic wild west town of Timely (named so for the original name of the publisher that became Marvel) where Sheriff Steve Rogers is doing his best to combat the corruption of Mayor Wilson Fisk, who he begins a violent conflict with when he stops Fisk’s men from hanging a Native American man named Red Wolf. Along the way, readers meet apothecary owner Bruce Banner, town drunk Tony Stark, grieving widow Natasha Romanoff, and many more fan-favorites. Anyone who wants a splash of the superheroic in their westerns will love 1872.
Wynonna Earp may have only recently rode her way into the public consciousness with her recent Syfy series, but she has already been thrilling comic book readers for 20 years. First published at Image and now at IDW, Wynonna Earp was created by Beau Smith with artist Joyce Chin as a modern-day descendant of the legendary Wyatt Earp. She uses her apparently hereditary gunslinging abilities in service of the Monster Squad unit of the United States Marshals, where she deals with all manner of supernatural nasties, from zombies, to mummies, to vampires, and everything in between. The combination of a female lead, horror elements and a modern day setting makes Wynonna Earp a truly unique western.
COW BOY: A BOY AND HIS HORSE
This wonderfully goofy and heartfelt graphic novel from writer Nate Cosby and artist Chris Eliopoulos is as hilarious and ridiculously cute version of a western as you’re likely to find. Boyd Linney, the eponymous Cow Boy, is a ten year old boy whose entire family is made up of notorious outlaws, every one of whom he’s determined to throw in jail — and collect the bounty on, of course. This is sort of like what you’d imagine would happen if Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes was cut loose in the wild west, and it’s every bit as crazy and entertaining as you’d expect. If you want smart humor and all-ages adventure in your westerns, Cow Boy is the best there is.
Weird westerns aren’t only found in print comics, they’ve spread to digital too! Back in 2007, DC Comics launched a webcomics imprint called Zuda that has since been done away with, but easily one of their most well-received titles was High Moon.
Starring a grim former Pinkerton Detective named Matthew MacGregor, High Moon sees the surly bounty hunter arrive in the down-trodden town of Blest, Texas, where he is tasked with taking care of the town’s werewolf problem. As the series went on it incorporated a variety of further horror and supernatural elements, as well as bits of steampunk and classic Victorian literature. This is a notable weird western because of its quality, digital and landscape format, and its careful mix of genre.
The newest weird western on the scene is Kingsway West. This recent launch from Dark Horse Comics is only a couple of issues in, but it has already created a fascinating vision of a fantastical Old West at war over magical resources. The story follows a Chinese former gunslinger and soldier named Kingsway West who wants nothing more than to leave violence in his past, but it has a way of finding him. The series is written by Planet Hulk’s Greg Pak and artist Mirko Colak, who he previously worked with on Red Skull, meaning not only is the story compelling, historically aware and character-driven, it’s also beautifully designed. The world of Kingsway West is an old west dripping with magic, and with a strong Asian influence, giving it a wholly different look than anything else on this list. If you want a high-quality and surprising weird western that you can get in on the ground floor with, Kingsway West is ready to ride with you.