I feel I should start by saying that I’m a big fan of the western. And when I say I’m a fan, I mean it. I’ve seen more American westerns than your grandpa, more Italian westerns than Quentin Tarantino, and more Turkish westerns than you realized existed before reading this sentence. I firmly believe that I would have been a cowboy, were it not for this damned horse allergy.
Of course I like John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, and Sam Elliott. Who doesn’t? But my favorites are those that stretch the usual tropes and confines of the genre. My favorite western actor? A Cuban-American working for Italian directors playing a string of Marxist Mexican outlaws who use knives instead of guns. My favorite high noon showdown? Ends with a landlocked whaler dragging a harpoon to the gunfight. My favorite western? Finds its climax with Carroll O’Connor and a truck full of toilets. My love of genre-bending westerns is one of the reasons that I was excited when Greg and Rick first shared Drake and Drum with me, and it’s also the thing that draws me to David Wachter and James Andrew Clark’s The Guns of Shadow Valley.
In Shadow Valley, Wachter and Clark give us a west that’s familiar, but strangely foreign. Were it not for an offhand comment made by the pointy-eared villain Scorpion Shaw in chapter three, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you for certain that the comic was set on Earth. From as early as the second strip, readers know that this stagecoach ride is veering into the realm of the fantastic, the supernatural. But this isn’t typical Weird West stuff either (though Wachter worked with Joe Lansdale on That Hellbound Train earlier this year). As writers, Clark and Wachter are injecting a myriad of ideas from other genres–there’s a little sci-fi, some Southern Gothic, a bit of epic fantasy, and even a dash of super-heroics–into the western milieu to create something fresh and unexpected.
Here’s the story as it’s been told so far: Shadow Valley is a place that exists somewhere other than normal (“Heard say the sun don’t shine there.”). Sheriff Bill Dawson is assembling a crew of specialists to head to the valley for as-of-yet unknown reasons. Among his party is Franklin “Breakneck” Kelley, a quick-on-the-draw alcoholic with an uncanny ability to disable firearms; Shoushan, a Chinese mountain of a man whose empathy led him to break away from his job laying rails, and his diminutive sifu; and Pearl, a clever outlaw wrenched from the clutches of Pinkerton detectives in a thrilling chapter-long attack on a stagecoach.
Also heading to Shadow Valley is an army led by the religious zealot Colonel Thaddeus Bale, who seeks the power of a mysterious glowing mineral found only in the valley. The two groups are headed for a collision like trains in an antiquated word problem. Each installment of the strip builds anticipation of this inevitable meeting, and raises more questions as to the nature of the valley, the people that wish to enter it, and the mysterious figures that currently inhabit it. I haven’t even mentioned the continually-present crow, the catatonic boy who survived a fire unscathed, or the enigmatic villain who issues his commands via an otherworldly flame. The world of Guns of Shadow Valley is rich and fertile with ideas that I look forward to seeing Clark and Wacther bring to fruit.
That world is made richer by the gorgeous artwork of Wachter, whose brushstrokes create a style at once clean, and yet rugged. Wachter takes on the webcomic format assuredly, playing with borderless panels, dynamic compositions, and storytelling sequences that are breathtaking to behold. The characters are unique and expressive. The colors are muted to perfect effect, establishing the proper mood for muddy towns, wide expanses of prairie, or dawn-lit canyons. I believe that Wachter is working digitally here, but the look of his art is suitably organic.
As Lady Sabre & The Pirates of the Ineffable Aether‘s web designer, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the great work that went into the design of the Shadow Valley site itself. Their site utilizes appropriate textures and colors to support the world created by the comic to great effect, in a manner that I attempted for our own comic’s site. I’m not sure who was responsible for this, but kudos from one WP designer to another!
The biggest problem with The Guns of Shadow Valley is the same as its biggest strength: I am desperate to see more. So far, we’ve only seen glimpses of characters’ motivations, but these glimpses have proved enough to make me yearn for answers. Wachter and Clark have subverted enough of my western-knowledgeable expectations so far that I don’t feel capable of guessing what’s going to happen next. Give the comic a read, and I’m sure you’ll agree: it’s the good stuff.