Rikke Villadsen's graphic fiction, Cowboy, is an aggressively peculiar take on an already aggressively peculiar genre.
As a US citizen, I find it disconcerting when the uniquely US genre of the Western ends up in the hands of a non-US author. It's like blinking into a funhouse mirror and trying to understand what you look like through the distortions.
Since the western is already a massive distortion, the warpage can be a kind of corrective, especially in the artful hands of Danish artist Rikke Villadsen. Cowboy is her second English-language graphic novel, a kind of thematic sequel to last year's The Sea, also published by Fantagraphics. I'm already looking forward to whatever new Villadsen book they publish next.
Though so many US pop culture hero types cry for feminist revision, the pseudo-historical and hyper-masculine gun-slinger is at the top of my list. Since the western is probably best known through films, comics are an apt medium for re-exploring the genre as they are equally visual but are also fantastically unbound by physical reality.
Lisa Hanawalt's 2018 Coyote Doggirl offered a useful gender-flip (with a dog-headed cast) while maintaining a love for landscape and horses, while Frederik Peeters and Loo Hui Phang's 2017 The Smell of Starving Boys scrambled sexuality with a muddled mystic take on Native culture. Villadsen's approach is something entirely different.
Even though the novel opens with a "Starring" page of six seemingly archetypal characters including "The Sheriff", "The Whore," and "The Coward", don't expect a plot. How archetypal is "The Smoker"? And I paused over "The Window", wondering if such a glaring translation typo could have snuck through production. Villadsen, however, both means and doesn't mean the "Widow".
That sort of intentional disconnect describes Villadsen's overall aesthetic. Readers can never be entirely certain if they're in the right story or not. Or I should say viewers, since Cowboy is predominately a visual experience of Villadsen's entertainingly idiosyncratic style. Her lines are entirely black and blue with a looseness and sometimes sketchy incompleteness that gives her story world both an expressively raw energy and a weird indeterminacy—as if any page could be crumpled up and redrawn differently.
Her pages vary around a pleasantly sloppy 2x2 grid. Sometimes figures and objects partially overlap the thin lines dividing panels, but not as if breaking frames for action effects. It looks instead like Villadsen's lines just like to wander sometimes. Like a cowboy likes to wander.
Her narrative structure overlaps similarly. The six character-perspective chapters partially backtrack, trodding on each other's time frames, but without clarifying an overall structure. Did The Smoker shoot The Coward before or after The Window looked through her window? Did The Whore orgasm and float through her window before or after The Window dressed in The Coward's clothes? And after The Wanted man argues with his talking image in his Wanted poster, does he wake up to the previous morning, before the novel began? If so, does his physical transformation into The Window mean the whole novel is an endless loop?
Of course, none of these questions are answerable, and they shouldn't be. It's not the enigmatic events that matter but their conversations with Western tropes. Sometimes those conversations are literal. Villadsen's idiosyncratic lines extend into her scraggly talk bubbles and looping letterforms. The Smoker spends pages trying to complete a single, faltering sentence: "There are two kinds of people in the world, my friend. Those with a rope around their neck and the people who ... And the people who have the job of doing … of doing the … the … the …"
A short paragraph on the final page explains that this and other dialogue are excerpted from classic Western films including Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). I'm always happy to see an excerpt credited, but the note is odd since any reader who hasn't noticed that Villadesen "deconstructs" the genre by "subverting its masculine framework" will surely never make it to this concluding page. It's also redundant since the John Wayne cameo makes the "homage" explicit, and is there a way to read the novel other than gender subversion?
After the Coward dies his cowardly death, The Window strips his corpse while striking erotic poses that, if drawn by a male artist, would probably make me lose trust in the project. The sex scene between The Smoker and The Whore is similarly disturbing. There's nothing erotic about the interior view of the woman's vagina as the erect penis crushes a fly trapped on its tip. Did the fly's death cause The Whore to orgasm through the window? Will she remain forever lassoed above the saloon by The Smoker's rope? If so, it's a better fate than that of the rest of the cast.
I'm not sure what counts as a spoiler for a loopingly surreal mash-up of metafictional events, so I'll just say the death count increases. What matters more is the implied gender critique behind all the genre chaos. It seems no woman, even a woman who perfectly impersonates a man, can ever occupy a man's Western-defined role. It also seems an attempt to do so is doubly self-destructive because, regardless of her eventual physical fate, the transformation requires a woman to perform and internalize misogyny.
It's less clear what Villadsen has to say about women who do conform to gender roles. Is The Whore equally tragic, or is her inexplicable defiance of gravity also social defiance? I would prefer that interpretation, but her bobbing bare breasts suggest otherwise.
The fate of Villadsen's men is similarly ambiguous. Likening the "useless hole" of The Coward's bullet wound to a vagina reinforces Western gender. So is that the point? Is Villadsen critiquing by making the norms explicit through exaggeration? Considering The Smoker's death by a bizarre smoking accident and The Wanted's gender transformation, what, beyond surreal entertainment, do these things suggest?
In the end, Cowboy is more than a political diatribe. It's an aggressively peculiar take on an already aggressively peculiar genre. Little wonder the funhouse mirror never comes fully into focus.