Spaghetti Western Round-Up

One of my favorite subcategories of Western is the Spaghetti Western. These are films made in the Sixties and Seventies with Italian or European directors and international crews, shot somewhere in Italy or Spain. Spaghetti Westerns feature innovative filming, dark anti-heroes, an overall bleak feel, and plenty of stylized violence – along with memorable, sweeping soundtracks. As you might expect, some of these films don’t hold up today, but a large number of them do. They put the general clichés of the Wild West in a fantasy world, the vision of America that Italians have after they’ve been raised on countless Hollywood Westerns. They’ve influenced Quentin Tarantino’s entire body of work – particularly his latest, Django Unchained, along with countless other films from around the world. I like them because they’ve got an epic feel, even if they were filmed on the cheap, and always add an operatic flourish to tales of dusty gunslingers and revolvers.

Now, I don’t need to tell you to watch Sergio Leone’s Western movies (The Dollars trilogy, Once Upon a Time in The West). Those films, with their amazing cinematography, unbelievable action, sweeping Ennio Morricone scores, and surprisingly complex messages, are undeniable classics. I don’t need to tell you to see Django, either, since it’s probably the next Spaghetti Western that the general public is familiar with. But here’s some Spaghetti Westerns that are more obscure and well worth checking out. They may not quite reach the heights of Leone’s best, but they’re extremely good nonetheless.

Duck, You Sucker AKA A Fistful of Dynamite AKA Once Upon a Time…The Revolution (1971)
This is Sergio Leone, but it’s probably his most obscure film so I’m happy to recommend it here. Duck, You Sucker is part of the sub-subcategory of Spaghetti Westerns called Zapata Westerns – which are usually set during the Mexican Revolution of 1910, featuring a mismatched buddy comedy pairing, and plenty of action, and political themes. Duck, You Sucker tells the story about a former Irish revolutionary, played by James Coburn, and a gregarious bandit with a large family, played like an Uber-Tuco by Rod Steiger, as they try to make their fortune in the Mexican Revolution. Leone experienced Italian fascism and war in his youth, and this movie is doubtlessly a reaction to that. It’s a flawed, personal, and deeply cynical look at the cruelty of fascism and the horrors of revolution, with a bleak ending and an excellent, sad Morricone score. Watch the other Leone movies first, but don’t neglect this one.

The Big Gundown (1966)
Since Spaghetti Westerns were made in Italy during the heights of the turbulent Sixties, it’s no surprise that a lot of them have very radical ideals behind their gunplay (and probably why Tarantino chose to make Django Unchained a Spaghetti Western). The Big Gundown probably does this most gracefully. It’s a simple manhunt story, about a bounty hunter (played by Lee Van Cleef – Angel Eyes from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly) tracking down a supposed child murderer, a poor Mexican bandit played by Tomas Milan. The chase takes them across the Wild West, bumping into a variety of odd and violent situations, before a final showdown Mexico where the true culprits – a rich, white railroad tycoon and his family – are revealed. The final duel has the bandit facing off against the man who framed him and it’s seen as a minor revolutionary act, especially when the bandit refuses to take a revolver instead of his simple peasant’s knife. Great action and another incredible Morricone score make The Big Gundown a minor classic.

Companẽros (1970)
Another Zapata Western, Companẽros is the work of Sergio Corbucci, the mastermind behind Django and many other classic Spaghetti Westerns (I named a priest toting a coffin full of guns after him El Mosaico, Volume 3: Hellfire). It stars Franco Nero, Django himself, as a refined Swedish mercenary, who teams up with a rough-hewn Mexican bandit turned revolutionary, played by Tomas Milan. They have to travel across war-torn Mexico to enter the US and rescue a kidnapped professor who knows the combination to a safe full of treasure. The professor’s idealistic student revolutionaries get in their way, along with a colorful, wooden-handed mercenary played by Jack Palance and his freakish crew. Companẽros has some good stuff to say about violence and revolutions, but it’s also a damn fun movie. There’s dressing up as priests, whacky villains, and Nero frequently grabs a machine gun and mows down his foes. It’s a perfect mix of revolutionary spirit and rollicking adventure.

The Great Silence (1968)
This one’s also the work of Sergio Corbucci, but it is far from the wild fun of Companẽros. The Great Silence is about a completely mute gunslinger, played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, who is hired to protect a group of Mormon separatists sheltering in a snow-covered mountain. They are under attack by bounty hunters, led by the cruel Loco – played by the wild-eyed Klaus Kinski. The Great Silence breaks with convention all the time. The hero, instead of being a man of few words, is completely mute. Instead of the desert, this movie takes place entirely in the snow. And instead of a happy ending – well, you need to see the conclusion for yourself. The Great Silence is a dark Western Classic and one of the genre’s best.

Well, that’s enough Spaghetti Westerns for now. I’m sure there are plenty that I’m missing and will have to discover later. In the meantime, I can enjoy myself with the twanging sounds that guns make in Spaghetti Westerns – surely one of the best sound effects of all time.

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My Favorite Westerns: The History of Deadwood

Deadwood’s a historical show, with historical characters – but it always puts dramatic sense ahead of historical accuracy. The real Al Swearengen for instance, was an undeniably nasty fellow with no redeeming values, unlike the complex character in the show. But Seth Bullock really did become sheriff (and later friend to Theodore Roosevelt) and Sol Star really did become mayor of Deadwood, all of which are, somewhat, faithfully portrayed. While Deadwood isn’t historically accurate, it feels historically accurate. The appropriately ornate Western dialogue, the excellent costumes and amazingly detailed sets, and the general gray and brownness of it all go a large way to achieving that feel. But Milch and his writers also have something to say about history. Like The Wire, Deadwood is a show with a message (The Sopranos certainly had messages, but seemed more like a complex character study most of the time), and that message is about a part of America’s past that has been romanticized into a fantasy. Deadwood peels that fantasy away to show the rot within. Today, all be writing about three historical themes that run through Deadwood and show how the Wild West – or the Victorian Era – wasn’t exactly a nice place to be.

Corruption
When Deadwood starts out, there’s no law at all. The place is lawless, an illegal settlement existing on Indian land. Gradually, American law reaches out to take over Deadwood, but while lawlessness lead to violence and gives Swearengen time to run his swindles, the law isn’t exactly any better. The American government at this time, and for most of American history, was nothing more than a corrupt instrument of getting wealth for the people in power. Swearengen, who paid off the Chicago police after a murder, only to still have a warrant out for his arrest, knows this. During the trial of Jack McCall, his major fear is that the government will think Deadwood is trying to be independent and will divvy the town up to their ‘ne’er do well cousins and brothers-in-law.’ Bribing public officials for Swearengen is a matter of course. It needs to be done. When the government does actually show up, in the form of Commissioner Jarry, it’s just as eager for profit and to work with the villainous Wolcott and Hearst as Swearengen suspected. Swearengen tells Bullock about the warrants and Bullock replies simply ‘it doesn’t have to be like that,’ but the show constantly proves him wrong.

In many ways, this sort of corruption is historically accurate. While America was supposedly a democracy, political machines and bosses, of the Tweed and Prendergast variety, controlled everything. Bribery, nepotism, and general corruption were the order of the day, whatever the Founding Fathers happened to say in their documents. You rarely get a look at that in historical fiction – at least until Deadwood came along and changed how we look at the past.

Racism
Another part of the past we don’t like to talk about is how it was appallingly, undeniably racist. Deadwood captures that in the language alone, where racial slurs are bandied about with all the profanity. Deadwood is an ethnically diverse place, with Chinese, Black, and Jewish residents – and they all face difficulty in trying to fit in. A lesser look at the past might lump the persecution faced by these people into one category, but Deadwood provides a more nuanced look at the past and the effects of racism on the town’s residents. Sol Star may have his Jewish heritage mocked by Swearengen and others, but it doesn’t stop him from remaining optimistic and helpful, and eventually becoming mayor. An entirely different level of hate is directed at the Chinese and Black characters. When Mr. Wu, the leader of a local Tong and Swearengen’s ally, tries to go in through the front door, it outrages most of the guests. Chinese lives matter very little in Deadwood, and it’s pretty obvious why Mr. Wu and his people try to keep to themselves and look after each other, instead of dealing with treacherous and cruel white people. The show’s black characters, including the stableman Hostetler and Samuel ‘The Nigger General’ Fields, don’t have that luxury. They are frequently insulted and attacked, which leads to tragic consequences and some of the most harrowing parts of the whole show.

But Deadwood also shows hope for a kind of racial unity – even if it is formed from necessity and violence. Swearengen and Mr. Wu have a genuine alliance and friendship, even if they can’t speak the same language. They team up against a ruthless more Westernized Tong leader from San Francisco, who thinks nothing of importing Chinese slaves. Meanwhile, Calamity Jane and Samuel Fields strike up a friendship – a sewer-mouthed drunk woman is ostracized from society, just like Fields. And of course, Star and Bullock remain friends. There’s even a disabled character, the ‘Gimp’ sweeping up the Gem Saloon, who is insulted by Swearengen, but still protected by him, and in one of the most touching scenes, dances with Doc Cochran after he makes her a leg brace. Even though racial hatred is still there, it’s heartening to see Deadwood’s characters overcome it.

Capitalism
I said earlier that Deadwood is a show with a message and like The Wire, that message is rooted in capitalism being a destructive and exploitative force that brutalizes the poor in the name of profit. Wolcott and Hearst are icons of capitalism and Hearst is the bellicose avatar of evil – he cares only about ‘the color’ – getting his gold – and seems to like nobody apart from his cook, Aunt Lou, until he has her son murdered in the interests of profit. Hearst busting up unions, murdering Cornishmen who dare to organize, drive much of the plot in Season Two and Three. The Hearst Combine’s major foe is the prospector Ellsworth, perhaps the most decent character in town. Ellsworth, usually placid and kind, has a hatred of capitalism that comes not from political leanings, but from experience. He’s seen the greed behind the Hearst Combine, which led to sending miners into unsafe tunnels and to their deaths. Ellsworth battles against the Hearst Combine throughout the Third Season, which leads to his final death at the hands of Pinkerton goons.

Throughout Deadwood, capitalism is shown to be a cruel, destructive force. Hearst’s sins are many and varied, including the fact that he, like American capitalism, wins in the end. It seems a little odd that such two great critiques of capitalism, The Wire and Deadwood, both popped up at the same time, and appeared on the expensive HBO network, but it’s a welcome appearance of genuine social commentary in genre works. Through El Mosaico, I’ve tried to do the same. El Mosaico, Volume 3: Hellfire pits patchwork bounty hunter Clayton Cane – who has faced vampires and monsters – against a powerful corporation, the greatest foe that Cane has ever faced. It’s nowhere near as great as Deadwood, but I hope I did my best to tell an entertaining, and still insightful story.

That’s all I’ll say on Deadwood – for now. There’s tons more that I missed, including gender and the transition behind frontier and civilization, but there’s plenty other Westerns that need attention. Keep on a riding, partner. We’ve a ways to go yet.

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My Favorite Westerns: The Characters of Deadwood

There are many things that make a show great. We’re drawn in by the plots, by the action, and sometimes even by the production design or the ‘feel’ of the show. But more often than not, it’s the characters that hook us. They’re the faces that we relate to, the actors who we talk about, and it’s their dialogue that we repeat when we’re thinking back on the show. Thankfully, Deadwood has one of the better casts in TV. The characters are complex, flawed, humorous, often likeable and – above all – compelling. Quite a few of them – Seth Bullock, Sol Star, Calamity Jane, Wild Bill Hickok, Al Swearengen, and more – are based in reality, but they’ve been changed around to fit into the world of the show. Today, I’ll be writing about some of the ways that Deadwood make its cast so interesting. Oh, and this is regards to the writing more than the acting, which is probably also extremely responsible for Deadwood’s success and is universally amazing.

Sympathy

Oftentimes, particularly for modern shows, writers seem to think that readers will sympathize and care for characters just because the camera is running behind them and they do cool things every now and then. I suppose there’s an appeal to anti-heroes, but the writers often forget to make us sympathize with their flawed, morally dubious protagonists. Unless they can do that, unless they can make us care about flawed and complex people, than all the cool stuff doesn’t matter. Deadwood doesn’t have many real heroes, but all of its characters are sympathetic. The first character we meet, our viewpoint into the world of Deadwood, seems to be unambiguously good. Seth Bullock is a tough former marshal trying to make his way in a Western world, and in his first scene he stands up to a lynch mob – undeniably brave and heroic behavior. Bullock’s morality wavers during the course of the story, but we know that – deep down – he’s a good guy and that gives us someone to root for.

Another reason we like Bullock is because he’s got a friend, the amiable Sol Star. That concept of giving characters friends and making those friendships matter is another reason we sympathize with Deadwood’s characters. Bullock and Star appear to have a genuine friendship and while it’s tested throughout the show, you can see why it remains. The same is true is the morally dubious gang in the Gem Saloon. Al, back-stabbing and monstrous, is far from a good guy, and he’s quick to give his employees a verbal tongue-lashing or even the occasional physical beating (as he does to Trixie in the first episode). But he also cares for them, worries about their well-being, and brought them in from a cruel outside world. When Al gets kidney stones in Season Two, his friends rally around him and help him recover – a testament to how much they like the guy. Al is even contrasted with a nastier saloon keeper, Cy Tolliver, who treats his employees cruelly, and you can easily see the difference. When characters care about each other, we do as well. Even when it comes to simple politeness, something which we see with Bullock when he meets Wild Bill Hickok or the stricken minister, friendliness goes a long way.

What also goes a long way is giving each character a definite past – even if it’s only alluded to – which somewhat explains their behavior. The obvious example of this is Al. During his frequent profanity-ridden monologues to severed Indian heads or blow job-dispensing prostitutes, Al Swearengen reveals a harrowing past involving being abandoned in a hellish Chicago orphanage and seeing his mother sailing away after abandoning him. It shows that Swearengen may be cruel, but it’s the world that made him this way. Other characters have pasts that are unclear, but similarly harrowing. Jane reveals to Doc Cochran that she was abused, horribly, while she panics after being scared by Swearengen. Doc Cochran himself has a painful prayer to uncaring God, in which he relates his traumatizing experience as a surgeon in the Civil War. We don’t get the whole story here (and we never do with Jane or the Doc), but it’s enough. It explains their behavior and shows what drives them to their vices. It makes us care about even prickly and ornery characters like Al, Jane, and Doc Cochran and quickly turns them into our favorites.

Addiction

In an interesting coincidence, the three big HBO shows of the new Golden Age of Television (Deadwood, The Wire, and The Sopranos) all dealt with themes of addiction. Maybe it was something in the air during the early 2000s? The Wire, with its themes about drugs and drug addiction, probably does it best with its amazing storyline about a homeless police informer struggling on the streets and eventually conquering his demons, but Deadwood does a good job as well. Most of Deadwood’s characters are addicted to one thing or another. Jane has her alcohol, the Widow Garret had her laudanum, and opium fiends pop up from time to time. But an addiction to violence frequently appears as well. That’s what pushes Seth Bullock closer to the anti-hero spectrum and gives him complexity. It seems that he just likes beating on people, and maybe wears a badge and protects the innocent to restrain his instincts. The sheer depth of addiction drives the characters and gives them more depth – and provides a more realistic, harrowing look at what was probably a historical Wild West staple. The town drunk, after all, is an amusing bit of comic relief in most Westerns. That’s never true in Deadwood, which takes its cases of addiction seriously.

Good and Evil

Deadwood also takes Good and Evil seriously. While Seth Bullock is mostly good and Al Swearengen is fairly neutral (doing what he can to make money, which means protecting Deadwood from outside interests), evil characters do show up. In season one, there’s Jack McCall, a lowdown scumbag and all-around asshole. Season two gives us Francis Wolcott (he and Jack McCall are played by the same actor, Garret Dillahunt), who is well-dressed and seemingly polite, but also happens to be a complete psychopath. Season Three has George Hearst, a bombastic and ruthless tycoon. These villains are the driving force for a lot of the conflict, and all three are undeniably evil (Cy Tolliver probably is as well, and gets used as a pawn by Wolcott). They’re evil in different degrees, too. McCall’s just a jerk. Wolcott is actually a little sympathetic, in that he can’t control his urges and knows there’s evil. Hearst (which is suitable for being the last season’s villain) is something else. He’s a devotee of capitalism and has decided that he’s necessary to civilization, meaning that everything he does is right. These guys contrast greatly with Swearengen and make us root for a saloon-owner and crime boss. The different levels of morality, all on display on one show, add an additional complexity that makes Deadwood great.
Tomorrow, I’m talking about history in Deadwood – corruption, race, and capitalism! Keep in the saddle ’til then.

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My Favorite Westerns: The Western Subversion of Deadwood

It’s time for me to talk about Deadwood. I’m a bit hesitant to do so, as Deadwood is my favorite television show ever. I’ve watched through David Milch’s Western HBO opus quite a few times, and it just keeps getting better and better. It only got three seasons, compared to The Wire’s five and the Sopranos’ seven, but it’s still the best of those Golden Age HBO shows. I’m sure that a lot of this is personal opinion – I do love Westerns, after all – but I think that Deadwood is both darkly hilarious, amazingly entertaining, profoundly insightful about American history and has changed, forever, how Americans look at the past in their TV shows and movies.

Is that a tall order? Well, have a look at period shows before and after Deadwood. Before, there was often a kind of austere grandeur to the looks at the past – the costume drama and so on. Even Revisionist Westerns, like Unforgiven, had an epic scope to them. Deadwood changed that. It showed that the past was dirty, corrupt, racist, and brutal instead of epic. It gave history feet of clay and made the past feel like an actual place, instead of something to visit in museums. After Deadwood, historical TV shows, books, and movies have struggled to do the same to whatever historical era they’re portraying. However, a great many of them learn the wrong lesson, packing their shows with the three S’s – sex, swears, and scheming – instead of the compelling, sympathetic characters, insightful look at history, and narrative complexity that made Deadwood great.

One of the reasons Deadwood stands out from other Westerns is because it deliberately subverts almost everything that an audience expects to see in a Western. I’m going to write about how Deadwood does that in three ways. Tomorrow, I’ll probably talk about the characters of Deadwood and why it’s my favorite cast in modern television.

Language
The first thing most people notice about Deadwood is the language – and all the swears. ‘Cocksucker’ is a constant refrain, along with all the derivations of ‘fuck,’ ‘shit,’ and ‘son of a bitch.’ A viewer will be a little taken back by the swearing and probably ask ‘did they really talk like that?’ The answer is a complex one. Those words existed at the time and were probably used occasionally, though maybe not as often as they are in Deadwood. More importantly, those words are never used in previous Westerns. Milch and the Deadwood writers put the swears in the show for a reason – the religious oaths that might have been more popular at the time would sound too tame for a modern audience and not give them the proper idea about the wildness of this lawless frontier town and set Deadwood apart from other Westerns. But the words around the swearing are far more important. Characters in Deadwood talk in an ornate, circuitous rout. They use vocabulary words, antique phrases, and complex metaphors. In short, they sound like characters in Victorian literature. Did real people talk that way? Again, it’s hard to say – but the elaborate dialogue of Deadwood creates the illusion of historical reality as well as being insanely quotable, and that’s something very few other historical shows can acquire.
Other shows attempt this level of dialogue and rarely succeed. They’ll throw in one ten-dollar word now and then and rely on profanity to make up the rest, often with no regard to if those words are fitting. Black Sails has pirates talking about ‘getting laid,’ and Turn has colonial gentry saying ‘gonna,’ and those sounded anachronistic and tore me out of the show immediately. Deadwood’s frequent ‘cocksuckers’ always did the opposite. Other writers of historical fiction need to capture the ornate quality of old timey dialogue before they can get away with profanity. Ripper Street comes close, and True Grit captures it perfectly, but very few others can reach the quality of Deadwood’s dialogue.

Violence
Deadwood is undoubtedly a violent show – a spectacularly violent show – but it’s not violent in the way that we expect from Westerns. There’s only one high noon gun battle, put at the end of the very first episode to get it out of the way, and then violence takes the form of backstabbing and beat downs. There’s the occasionally gunfight, like the battle in the Gem with Hearst’s men, but it’s always the exception instead of the rule. This fits the overall plot of Deadwood, which is the scheming of various factions for control of revenue and the town’s survival. Scheming and plotting is something you rarely see in a Western, which are usually defined by big men and bold decisions, but Deadwood is set in a different kind of world. Big gestures and bold moves – “I’m calling you out!” – will only get you killed. A knife across the throat is much more effective. This contrasts with the Westerns we know, but is probably more in line with the corrupt Old West of history. When Deadwood does have a physical battle, such as the climactic showdown between Dan Dority and Captain Turner in season three, it’s an intense fight to the death involving lengths of wood, puddles of water, mud, biting, and eye-gouging. That fight is a clumsy, stupid, and ends with both fighters gasping for breath, crawling in the mud, and near collapse. It takes an extremely long time. Again, this isn’t how fights in Westerns are supposed to be. Deadwood provides a dose of realism to physical combat. There’s no honor and no grace. I still think this battle is the most harrowing and greatest bit of combat ever appearing on television. A few shows have come close, but Deadwood remains the king.

How the West was Lost
Deadwood was cancelled after three seasons and the show’s ending is a point of contention to many watchers (spoilers ahead). Swearengen and Hearst assemble their armies – outlaws versus Pinkertons – and the stage is set for a big, climactic battle. But that battle never happens. The Widow Garret makes a deal with Hearst, he rides away the victor, and there’s no need for bloodshed at all. The series then ends. This may seem like a bad ending, but it’s fitting for Deadwood’s overall tone. In language and violence, Deadwood subverts the Western and it does the same in its ending. In reality, there were no cinematic battles between the corporations that took over the West and the iconoclastic outsiders who dwelled there. Business just bought everyone out, turned frontier outposts into company towns, and that was the end of the Wild West. Civilization happened, and we’re all living with the result. It makes sense for Deadwood to close on such a subdued note – not with a bang, but with a whimper. Even if Milch had more plans for Deadwood that never came to fruition (fire hitting the town! Teddy Roosevelt! John D. Rockefeller’s ancestor as a snake oil salesman!), the ending is still the perfect close to a perfect show.

Next, I’ll be talking about Deadwood’s characters through the lenses of sympathy, addiction, and good and evil. Stay tuned!

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My Favorite Westerns: Streets of Glory

  Garth Ennis is probably my favorite comic book writer. He’s been criticized for being immature, overly violent, or too preachy in his stories and there’s a validity to those arguments. But when he wants to make serious, intense stories with a basis in reality, there’s no one better. You can see that level of care, seriousness, and respect by reading any story taking place in WWII, such as his War Stories and Battlefields series. You can see the same care whenever he tackles the Vietnam War, such as the scenes in Preacher about Jesse Custer’s father or the flashbacks in Punisher MAX. And, to the point of this story, you can see it when he tackles Westerns. Ennis is a huge Western fan. Preacher itself is a love-letter to Westerns, and he’s got Western stories in his long-running Punisher and Hitman series as well. But, as far as I know, he never attempted to do a straight Western – with no supernatural or modern elements – until 2009’s Streets of Glory and ably illustrated by Mike Wolfer.

  Streets of Glory gets overlooked in Ennis’s oeuvre. It’s short, with the entire story fitting in a single trade paperback. Plus, it’s from Avatar Press, a company that is known for specifying in stories with tons of violence. Streets of Glory has a ton of violence, but the violence is utilized for a purpose, and that involves telling a story about the End of the West, the coming of modernization, and the transition of Western gunfighters from men to legends. I consider Streets of Glory a Western masterpiece up there with Unforgiven, and I try to reread it whenever I can. 

  The story, told in flashback in a 1950s diner by an old man named Pete Lorrimer, is about the End of The West – a theme that resounds through many Westerns, such as The Wild Bunch. Pete tells a waitress the story of how he came to a small frontier town with his brother, only to be attacked by bandits. His brother is killed, but Pete is saved by an aging Civil War veteran, Indian fighter, and gunslinger named Colonel Joe Dunn. Pete and Dunn make it to town, just as a railroad baron from back east arrive, and then a psychopath Indian named Red Crow shows up and starts cutting up folks. Colonel Dunn goes after him. There are a few twists and turns about who hired Red Crow, but the story is mostly about Colonel Dunn realizing that he cannot exist in a modern world defined by greed and commerce. He tries to rekindle an old flame who lives in the town, fails, and chooses to make his end in a violent manner. Wolfer’s art perfectly captures every scene.

  Ennis fills Streets of Glory with nods to other Westerns – Red Crow seems like Blue Duck from Lonesome Dove and the end, with a wounded Dunn riding away from an act of violence while Pete calls to him, mimics the classic Shane – but paints the themes about the West’s End in a stark and unforgiving manner. The railroad baron clearly tells Dunn that soldiers and lawmen have pacified the West by removing Indian tribes and outlaws, so that he can bring in his kind of civilization. Of course, the harsh brand of capitalism the railroad baron brings is just as cruel as the uncivilized violence of the frontier, but hides itself in civility. Ennis also talks about how Dunn has become a legend in his own time, and how this legend will outlive him – but it might not add up to the truth. At the end of the story, the waitress tells the aging Pete that her husband would have loved his story. “He loved Westerns,” she explains. “He was always such a boy that way.”

  That’s what happened to the legends of the west like Joe Dunn. They got turned into heroes, their flaws and desires smoothed away and forgotten so they could star in dime novels, Republic serials, and B-movies – and that’s why America makes heroes out of cowboys today, even if the truth was far more complex. But revisionist westerns like Streets of Glory provide a look at the reality of the West and try to grapple with the genre’s meanings in all of their complexity. I can only hope that my El Mosaico books follow that tradition.

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My Favorite Westerns: Red Country

One of the great things about the Western is how easily it can adapted to different sorts of stories. Westerns include all stories taking place in the American West, which can be comedies with cowboys, musicals, mysteries, domestic dramas, or ultraviolent Spaghetti Westerns. But you can take the ideals behind the Western – a lawless frontier, the clash of civilization and wilderness, the cruelty of man – and plop that in any sort of story. You want a story set in the wild frontier of Australia in the 1880s? That’s probably a Western and it’s also probably The Proposition. What about a crime story set in the modern day with plenty of long shots of characters standing around in the desert squinting at each other? Well, that sums up Breaking Bad pretty well (it even has a character named Tuco!). What if you want to have swords instead of guns and a European setting instead of a North American one? Well, you can easily make a Fantasy Western, which other authors have already done. Some of the scenes in this season’s Game of Thrones have a Western Feel to them, with the Hound and Arya being a more belligerent version of Rooster Cogburn and Mattie Ross from True Grit. Throw revolvers and a Western saloon into the ‘every fucking chicken in this room’ scene from the first episode and it would be at home in a Clint Eastwood movie.

But no book demonstrates the malleability of the Western better than Joe Abercrombie’s Red Country. It’s a stand-alone book taking place in the same universe of Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, which is a kind of revisionist fantasy about how brutal a medieval fantasy world would be. You don’t need to read the First Law books to enjoy Red Country, but it helps with the identity of a particular character. Anyway, Abercrombie put tons of nods to classic and modern Western plots in Red Country, throwing them into a fantasy setting and approaching them with the same critical modern eye as he did with medieval elements. Basically, this Western is as tough, brutal, and insightful as any other, even though it has swords instead of revolvers.

Red Country plays like a Greatest Hits of Westerns. It starts out like The Searchers – in a lawless frontier adjoining the large fantasy kingdom of the trilogy, a former outlaw named Shy South finds her mother’s homestead destroyed and her two younger siblings kidnapped by a gang of slavers. She and a drifter who became her mother’s servant, a big, cowardly fellow named Lamb, go after the kids to rescue them. Soon, they join up with a wagon train riding West and the story becomes Red River, a journey with dangers from nature and the natives, a mix of Indians and Celts called the Ghosts. The wagon train brings them to a wild frontier town, and Red Country becomes Deadwood or a Fistful of Dollars, with two feuding gangs and saloon-based crime bosses. A gang of mercenaries arrive and become involved in the search to rescue the children, which takes Shy and Lamb up into the mountains. The resulting battle feels like the massacre of Indian depicted in Little Big Man, and leads to a brutal showdown that has to be a nod to the climax of The Wild Bunch. Through it all, Lamb realizes that he needs to put his peaceful ways aside and fall back into becoming a monstrous killer – a fantasy synthesis of Unforgiven. There’s even a writer following around the leader of the mercenaries like the dime novelist in that great revisionist Western, and a similar message about the lies behind every legend.

It may seem like Abercrombie’s being derivative with this remix of Westerns, but putting them all in a Fantasy setting, along with the way he combines them, makes them fresh. Furthermore, Abercrombie brings the kind of social commentary that all the great Westerns do. The finale of the story involves a crude gunpowder weapon being used. Gunpowder shows that modernization is coming to this fantasy world, just as civilization is coming to the West. Of course, the mercenaries who use it are a brutal, violent, greedy, and generally nasty group of killers. Along with the forces of government, they show that civilization is just as bad as the lawless frontier, but is cloaked with false civility. The corrupt robber baron villains and ruthless capitalism of many Westerns – and of American Western history – are cast from the same mold.

Great characters, a Deadwood-esque sense of humor, and plenty of brutal frontier violence make Red Country well worth picking up. It scratches the Revisionist Fantasy and Revisionist Western itch and does both genres proud, earning it a place on my list of favorite Westerns.

 

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My Favorite Westerns: Jonah Hex

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My latest book, El Mosaico, Volume 3: Hellfire is now available on Amazon! The ebook is out and you can get a physical copy too. Hellfire’s the third volume in the El Mosaico series, but I wrote it to be completely stand-alone. It’s about Clayton Cane, a patchwork gunslinger constructed from the body parts of dead Civil War soldiers, as he tries to go from being a ruthless bounty hunter to the sheriff of Hellfire, Texas – a small town in the shadow of a magical rock formation called Silver Mesa. You can snag it here: http://www.amazon.com/El-Mosaico-Hellfire-Michael-Panush-ebook/dp/B00JZVNCRS/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1398920529&sr=8-1&keywords=Michael+Panush

To celebrate the release of the El Mosaico, I’m going to be talking about examples of a genre that’s near and dear to my heart – the Western. El Mosaico is a Weird Western, which means a Western with supernatural, horror, or sci-fi elements, but I love an Old Fashioned ‘normal’ Western a lot as well. I’ve written about Westerns several times before on this site, about how much I love their ability to offer a lawless setting, roughly-hewn characters, and provide an insightful look at a dark and violent period of American History.
I will start with one of my favorite comic book characters – DC’s Jonah Hex. Like Clayton Cane, he’s a scarred bounty hunter – though he’s not a Confederate Frankenstein, like Cane. Instead, Hex is Clint Eastwood with a hole in his face, a wandering gunslinger anti-hero who was raised by Apache, and later scarred by them, and then fought for the Confederacy before becoming a bounty hunter. He’s been around for a while since his creation in 1971 by John Albano and Tony De Zuniga, but I don’t really want to talk about those old comics. He’s also appeared in movies and TV several times. I don’t want to talk about that either, but I will save that the movie is terrible and Jonah Hex’s appearance in the amazing Batman: The Brave and The Bold cartoon is amazing. Instead, I’ll talk about the three modern Jonah Hex stories, including the one going on right now. Saddle up, partner, and ride with a legend.

The Joe R. Landsdale and Timothy Truman Stories
I’m a huge Joe R. Landsdale fan, as his country-fried stories serve up horror and humor in equal measure and I sought out the trade paperback of Jonah Hex: Two-Gun Mojo just because it had his name on the cover. I wasn’t disappointed. Two-Gun Mojo’s a low down, mean sort of story about Jonah Hex being rescued by another bounty hunter, who is then killed by Doc ‘Cross’ Williams, a snake oil salesman guarded by a zombie Wild Bill Hickok. It’s extremely violent, darkly humorous, and gross – with Hex going to almost impossible lengths to survive and get his revenge. Two-Gun Mojo works on every level, especially thanks to Timothy Truman’s art. Slightly caricatured and off-kilter, he presents a whacky, dirty, and dusty version of the Old West where Hex isn’t only grotesque running around. The talkative, stuck-up Doc Williams is a great villain and Hex shows just enough care for his allies to be considered sympathetic.
Now, Truman and Landsdale did a few other stories, but then DC ended up getting sued by these albino country singers called the Winter Brothers because they were parodied as the evil Autumn Brothers in the comic. DC won the lawsuit, but I figured that Riders of the Worm and Such would never get collected. Then I wandered into a comic book store a few weeks ago and found a big, fat collection called Jonah Hex: Shadows West, which included Two-Gun Mojo, Riders of the Worm and Such, and a short called Shadows West. I snapped it up immediately. The other stories are good, and Truman’s art remains amazing, but Riders of the Worm and Such and Shadows West lean a little too much on humor. A lot of this winking, tongue-in-cheek humor creates chuckles, but it also ruins the suspension of disbelief. Still, the stories are good. Riders of the Worm and Such has Jonah Hex facing off against Lovecraftian worm-monsters and the Autumn Brothers (who got the Winter Brothers so upset), an inspired pair of inbred, violent freaks in the Wilbur Whately mold. Shadows West has Hex taking on an ersatz Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, but leans a little too heavily on the humor for my taste. Still, the art and Two-Gun Mojo alone mean that the collection is worth picking up.

The Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray Run

The next big Jonah Hex series is this long running series by Palmiotti and Gray. It ran from 2005 to 2011 and featured a novel approach – each issue had a stand-alone tale of Jonah Hex bounty hunting action, drawn by a different artist. That means you get great guests like Darwyn Cooke, Fiona Staples, and J.H. Williams III, along with the amazing Jordi Bernet spinning all manner of Old West tales. Palmiotti and Gray know their genre and you’ll get homage stories to Spaghetti Western classics like Cemetery Without Crosses and The Great Silence, along with well-told Western tales of violence, depravity, and Hex’s never-ending cussedness. They also managed to add in a wide supporting cast. Other DC Western heroes, like roguish gambler Bat Lash and supernatural avenger El Diablo made appearances, along with new creations like Tallulah Black, a one-eyed, scar-faced bounty hunter as ornery as Jonah Hex. They created a slight continuity, and had the occasional arc, but the anthology feel remained strong. You can probably pick up these issues on the cheap now, or snag the trade paperbacks. You get the occasional misfire, but they’ve got a high standard of quality overall.

All-Star Western

This was one the launch titles of the New 52 – that big, line-wide reboot DC Comics had a few years ago. Palmiotti and Gray are still writing, but they’re telling a long-form story now, starting with Jonah Hex teaming up with Dr. Amadeus Arkham (of Arkham Asylum) to solve crimes in a Victorian-Age Gotham City, and a consistent artist – Moritat. I’ve only got the first two trades of All-Star Western, and they’re pretty decent. Jonah Hex mixing things up in Gotham is a cool concept and he deals with other DC Universe concepts like the Court of Owls and the Crime Bible, who fit very well as Victorian Cults. There’s also trips under the sewers, mad scientists, Jonah Hex and Dr. Arkham’s buddy cop chemistry, and plenty of fun action.

However, I can only give the series a half-hearted approval for its unfortunate treatment of women, a subject in which the New 52 – and comics as a whole – are generally pretty terrible. Moritat’s art is great for smoky, Industrial Age Gotham City and the gritty Hex, but he draws every woman with a low-cut bodice, impossible features, and too much eye shadow. This may work for Victorian street walkers, but it’s completely inappropriate for society matrons such as Bruce Wayne’s maternal ancestor. Later, you get a scantily-dressed, nubile blonde assassin in a corset leaping around with knives. All-Star Western’s also an anthology series, so there’s back-up stories featuring other DC Comics characters and even original creations. These are generally pretty entertaining, but they’re hampered by the same problems as the main series. One of the new characters is the Barbary Ghost – a Chinese immigrant woman who battles San Francisco Tongs with fireworks. That sounds like an awesome character, until you realize she’s running around fighting crime with a super low-coat shirt that will doubtlessly lead to an unfortunate wardrobe malfunction in the heat of battle. I don’t remember Palmiotti and Gray’s earlier series doing this, so I have no idea why All-Star Western leans too close to cheesecake for comfort.
Well, that’s Jonah Hex for you. Like Clayton Cane (and countless gunslinger anti-heroes), he’s a mean bastard who is quick on the draw, but still has a heart. I’ll be talking about Westerns with similar themes in the coming days, so keep on a-riding down this road. Until then, happy trails.

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