Rugged land and dusky skies are familiar images in the heart of our cultural imagination. Guns of Shadow Valley is a webcomic with artwork by Dave Wachter that is so well colored, detailed, and stylized that the atmosphere feels as cinematic as a Western ﬁlm.
The tall tale starts out conventionally enough: a drunken sharpshooter staggers into town and escapes trouble with lucky shot. Frank catches Sheriff Dawson’s eye and is recruited into a team of ﬁghters who seek to protect a secret power source connected to an ore of green gemstones in Shadow Valley. The simplicity of the plot makes room for a diverse cast of interesting characters with mysterious abilities. Our drifter is a man who must stay drunk in order move slow enough to have human speed, there’s a kind-hearted Chinese railroad worker who has the mastered the art of his chi as well as his mighty strength, a blacksmith who builds in steampunk complexities and an acrobatic female outlaw. The villain is a mad colonel who speaks in biblical quotes, toting around an obese ﬁre-breather and has a four-armed psychopath in his employ. They kidnap a mysterious boy impervious to ﬂames and injury, believing he can lead them to untold power. Shadow Valley itself is a land seeped in magic, watched over by a ghostly band of skin-changing Indians.
What makes this comic most enjoyable for me is seeing the way different cultures are portrayed as they interact with each other in the frontier. Westerns are not known for their political correctness, but this comic’s stereotypes are more layered than expected. Diminutive but powerful Master Feng and giant Shoushan endure racist remarks and condescension from white Americans for their looks and language. There is no sugarcoating the attitudes of either the heroic ﬁgures or antagonists. Stereotyped Chinese magic does have legitimate bases in wuxia, and the relationship of respect between student and master is believable even when the characters are at odds. The ﬁctionalized Neci tribe does bear the sins of the Western genre: they give off the impression of being a dying race. Everything in their backstory is relevant to the plot, and it is explained with all the strength of an oral tradition. Science-ﬁction translates well into the folklore format of its telling.
Guns of Shadow Valley is a beautiful representation of the wild west blooming with science and the supernatural. I would not be the ﬁrst to compare the special abilities of these characters with X-Men mutants. This comic is worth a read.