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I’ve always loved the Wild West setting. It’s a world of arid landscapes with rocky canyons and flat horizons, where small communities composed of a few people are isolated from the comforts of an urban society. Interaction with fellow humans runs through the barest lines of transportation and communication, and they’re easily severed by bandits and the unforgiving forces of nature. The lack of electricity means pitch-black nights sometimes illuminated by the flickering glow of a campfire. The atmosphere is dominated by a sense of loneliness.
And despite how it’s typically depicted in old Hollywood movies, its population is also quite diverse. The native population still maintained a presence, settlers with European backgrounds are newly arrived to the area, resulting in a mix of people with Hispanic, African and Caucasian heritages. Chinese laborers have been brought in to lay down railroad tracks.
David Wachter’s Eisner- and Harvey-nominated webcomic The Guns of Shadow Valley gets the mood just right, strikingly so on a visual level. The earth-tone palette — soaked in faded sepia that flattens the distinction between leathers and skin, man and beast — recalls a time when everything seemed to be coated in a layer of dust. The wooden planks on storefronts and the metal parts on guns feel suitably weathered. while the wilderness is filled with lovely depictions of brambles and fauna and jagged rock faces. Wachter also does a fantastic job playing around with perspective, which gives The Guns of Shadow Valley a highly cinematic feel.
It’s almost a shame this wasn’t played up as a regular Western. The Guns of Shadow Valley is set in a world where cowboys have superpowers … or extraordinary abilities, at least. It’s not the first Western comic to do so; I’m pretty sure Jonah Hex was always running into weirdness in the Old West, and there were others before him. The origin stories for Shadow Valley feel organic to the setting, however: Chinese migrant workers import mysticism along with labor; shape-shifting Native Americans have their powers codified in tradition (which may, in turn, be rooted in the extraterrestrial); the Industrial Age means advanced technology for the settlers, which leads to super-guns for some and robot arms for others. (Blessedly, Shadow Valley doesn’t go overboard on the steampunk elements.)
Among this potential bouillabaisse of superhero origins arises a posse of specially gifted individuals: an indestructible Chinese colossus, a slinky bandit, an ageless lawman, a drunken drifter with lightning fast-reflexes. At the center of it all is Shadow Valley, which seems to be the focal point for a lot of the supernatural events in the area.
The Guns of Shadow Valley contains some great action pieces, such as a thrilling sequence with a runaway stagecoach. However, the downtime in between isn’t the easiest to follow. One issue I have: There just isn’t much chemistry between the heroes. They seem to be thrown together for the mere fact that they all exist in the same space. This may be by design; commentary between the distrust of strangers in this world, perhaps? At one point, the lawman warns the drunk to stay off the alcohol, but it’s hard to read the intent. Is this friendly advice, or is the lawman a strict teetotaler, or does he know something about the drunk’s powers that he’s not telling him? Without any team chemistry, he comes off as a little scolding, and I’m not sure that was the intent.
I have other issues. While I do like the art, the rather monochromatic look leads to some odd pacing. There’s a scene where, from seemingly out of nowhere, all our heroes are surrounded by armed gunmen. The previous panels had given little indication that anything was going to happen; it was kind of confusing.
Thanks to a successful Kickstarter that raised $48,000, The Guns of Shadow Valley will be published by Dark Horse. A hardcover will be available August of this year. Before you buy, though, check out the webcomic. While I do have my qualms, Wachter nails to atmosphere of utter desolation from a time long past.