The new Jonah Hex movie shoots up the big screen this weekend and that got us thinking about one of our favorite SF subgenres…the Weird Western. San Antonio and South Texas have borne witness to hundreds of years of western weirdness so we decided to ask about your favorite Weird Western: book, movie, comic whatever. We rustled up favorites from the likes of Joe R. Lansdale, Scott Cupp, Sanford Allen, Paul Vaughn, John Picacio, Mike Fisher, Erik Bosse, James Hartz, Mistah Pete, Ross Ruediger and Drew Mayer-Oakes.
Put your boots on…it’s fixin’ to get weird.
Paul Vaughn – Techno Geek
Several years after moving to San Antonio I discovered the Texas tales of Jack Jackson, published under the pen name Jaxon. Jaxon was one of the original underground comix artists in the 1960s and co-founded Rip Off Press. His historical graphic novels focused on the native people of Texas and their interactions with newer settlers from both Europe and Mexico. Many, like Comanche Moon and Lost Cause: The True Story of Texas Gunslinger John Wesley Hardin, are straight historical accounts, but the book that stands out for me is THE SECRET OF SAN SABA, published in 1989.
Subtitled A tale of phantoms and greed in the Spanish Southwest, this was the Texas weird tale I was looking for. Jaxon mashes up Indians and Cthulhu into a powerfully spicy stew guaranteed to win any South Texas chili cook-off. His meticulous illustrations of the interior of Natural Bridge Caverns (just North of San Antonio) as the otherworldly temple to the Native Americans’ alien god “Zulthu” will stay with you every time you visit this popular tourist attraction. San Saba, in the Texas Hill Country, may be known now as the “Pecan Capital of the World,” but apparently 300 years ago it was a hotbed of giant alien slug worship. And Zulthu’s worshipers were willing to go to great lengths to keep invaders away from their god.
Truly weird, by a master of graphical story telling. This book is now out of print, but it is so worth snatching up if you see one.
Joe R. Lansdale – Author
CURSE OF THE UNDEAD was my favorite Weird Western film as a kid. It’s dated, but I still have a soft spot for it. Favorite comic was JONAH HEX, which, frankly, was more wild than weird. It became weird when I wrote it and Tim Truman drew it. A lot of what we did has become the template for Hex these days, good and bad. Weird Western novel. Huh? Nothing jumps to mind. But, I also liked THE PHANTOM EMPIRE with Gene Autry, an early serial with cowboys and underground invaders. Lots of fun. MONTANA GOTHIC is good, but for some reason can’t remember the author right now (editor’s note: Dirck Van Sickle is the author in question).
Erik Bosse – Eyewash Pictures
His name is the Loop Garoo Kid, and he is the African-American protagonist of Ishmael Reed’s second novel, YELLOW BACK RADIO BROKE-DOWN (1969). He’s a trickster in the Yoruba tradition of Africa. After running afoul of Drag Gibson, the racist land baron in the old west town of Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, the Kid sets out to destroy his adversary through intrigue, hoodoo magic, and good old-fashioned violence.
Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down gleefully throws itself into a weirdness that is more unfettered surrealism than what one would expect from contemporary slipstream novels, or any of those books umbrellaed under the term “new weird.” In this western we have anachronistic rock groups with electric fiddles, detectives who carry ray guns, and there’s even a scene where the Pope arrives astride a monstrous “loud red bull in front of a great stagecoach full of attendants.” As Life magazine put it in a contemporary review: “Literary surrealism has invaded Marlboro Country.” This skinny book make’s Alejandro Jodorowsky’s mind-bending psychedelic western movie, El Topo, appear by comparison as stodgy as a Republic Pictures horse opera.
James Hartz – Artistic Director, Overtime Theater / Film Classic Productions
My favorite Weird Western Tale is SUKIYAKI WESTERN DJANGO directed by Takashi Miike. It is a mashup of homages to Sergio Leone’s Man With No Name films, Kill Bill, Akira Kurosawa, William Shakespeare and anime. The film is a glorious example of taking a time-tested plot (a nameless gunslinger plays both sides of a gang war) and reinvigorating it by abandoning limitations of realism and replacing with a world that constantly adapts to the emotions of those in it.
Beautifully shot as a blend of Kurosawa’s slow motion, Leone’s long shots, and Miike’s hyper-kinetic action all of which is reinforced by the climatic showdown between sword and gun. The film is more than a pastiche, but rather the all-too-rare joy of watching old ideas come together to create something new.
John Picacio – Illustrator
When a book offers Buffalo Bill Cody as a head in a jar attached to a mechanical body and mixes it with zeppelins, sharks, Captain Nemo and Frankenstein’s monster, it’s hard not to pay attention. Joe R. Lansdale’s ZEPPELINS WEST isn’t a straight-up Weird Western in the way that his DEAD IN THE WEST might be, but it’s no less a cult classic. Lansdale’s latest Subterranean Press release DEADMAN’S ROAD collects the zombie classic DEAD IN THE WEST along with four other stories, one never before collected, one brand new. It releases in October but Subterranean is taking preorders now.
Don’t make Joe come to your house and do this.
Ross Ruediger – The Rued Morgue
When the “Missions Unknown” shout-out was issued for this entry, the first weird western that popped into my head was HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER. I tried to think of something else – something even odder and bolder (like El Topo) – but “High Plains Drifter” wouldn’t stand for it. It kept coming back to me as the only logical answer to the question. On the surface, there’s doesn’t appear to be anything particularly strange about the piece, or at least no stranger than the “Man With No Name” trilogy directed by Sergio Leone. This was only Clint Eastwood’s second feature film as a director, and once you start watching it becomes clear that, after acting in countless western productions throughout the fifties and the sixties, Eastwood really wanted to do something different with the genre. And so he turned out a violent, supernatural tale of a town inhabited by cowardly people, and one nameless stranger (Eastwood) who demands justice. But what for? That you don’t actually find out until near the end of the piece, long after the Stranger subjects the townsfolk to one humiliating display after another, renames the town Hell, and has it painted red (literally). Eastwood is as unlikable as he’s ever been, and referring to this character as an antihero is generous. The payoff is creepy and disturbing and yet the movie probably asks more questions than it answers, so if you’re looking for a nice, tidy bow on top of the gift, this probably isn’t the movie for you. Of course you are reading a piece on weird westerns, so what are you waiting for?
On the other hand, if I were a kid looking for a weird western, I’d have to go with THE VALLEY OF GWANGI, because, well, you can never go wrong with dinosaurs and cowboys.
When it comes to Weird Western cinema, there’s nothing weirder than Alejandro Jodorowsky’s EL TOPO. Released in 1970 but unavailable on DVD until 2007, the film follows a mysterious gunslinger in black as he rides across a wasted landscape littered with religious symbols and copious amounts of corpses. Through the gunman’s travels, Jodorowsky forces the viewer’s eye to a kaleidoscope of disturbing images, from eviscerations and brutal torture to a menagerie of physically challenged characters, among them amputees, dwarves and people with Down syndrome. The movie is reminiscent of Dali and Fellini but also Leone and Peckinpah, serving up a bloody surrealist fantasy that’s so seeped in religious symbols that it’s difficult to know how they all fit together. Whether you watch to unlock the puzzle of Jodorowksy’s imagery or simply take in the eccentricity of his vision, it’s an unforgettable travel across a Wild, Wild West as no director before or since has imagined it.
Mistah Pete – Left Foot Red Productions
Gunsmoke, Wagon Train, The Virginian: in the early 1960s, Zane Grey might as well have owned America’s only Neilsen book. But TV is always hot to jump on a trend (a few years late), and by the middle of that decade, Bond-mania had hit the airwaves. Get Smart and The Man From UNCLE had taken the place of Have Gun, Will Travel and Rawhide, but Bonanza was still number one. It didn’t take Faith Popcorn to see where this trend would lead — CBS debuted THE WILD WILD WEST in September of 1965.
The animated opening lets you know not to take this too seriously. This was produced in the era of Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie, but what really veered this into the realm of “Weird Western” were the insane plots the villains threw at the President Grant’s favorite Secret Service agents, Jim West (played by diminutive ball-of-muscle Robert Conrad) and master-of-disguise Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin, Emmy-nominated for the role). They ran up against steam-powered earthquake-machines and cyborgs and crystal brain-implants and a circus of assassins and (no kidding) a drug that shrinks men to six-inches tall. Their recurring nemesis was Dr. Miguelito Loveless, a dwarf mad scientist who exhausted too much of his genius on death-traps for Jim and Artie.
The show was eventually taken off the air not for ratings but as a sop to watchdog groups despairing over TV violence. Each episode included at least two impressive fight scenes pitting Agent West against a veritable sea of burly cowpokes (Conrad famously had his skull cracked in one, which shut down shooting for two weeks), and often also just happened to require Jim to be stripped of his snazzy little blue bolero jacket and pose bare-chested and bound in leather as he’s caressed by some ‘60s wild-eyed hellcat in an exploding garter-belt.
So next time you despair that television panders to the 18-35 year old male, remember there once was a time when they were willing to deprive us of this little nugget of kinky fun simply because some blue-haired prudes complained loud enough.
Mike Fisher – Goofa Man Productions
This weird western is a Twilight Zone episode that involves hillbillies and a man’s love for hunting and his dog. The episode is called THE HUNT.
It involves a man who, along with his dog, is killed in a hunting accident. He eventually realizes that they are dead. The man and dog come to a gate that is the gate to heaven. But the gatekeeper won’t let the dog in!
The hillbilly says, any place that is too high falutin for Rip is too fancy for me!
Then he finds the REAL gate to heaven. See? See what was happening? Awesome episode and I saw it only a year or two ago for the first time.
Scott A. Cupp – Author
The field of the weird western is one that is very dear and close to my heart. I have written the occasional weird western and there are books which I would love to mention but cannot because I have a stake in them. Books like RAZORED SADDLES, THE NEW FRONTIER, and CROSS PLAINS UNIVERSE. I’m in those and helped select the contents for one.
But one I wish I had written is THE WEIRD ADVENTURES OF HAAKON JONES by Aaron B. Larson (1999, Battered Silicon Dispatch Box). Larson came into Adventures in Crime and Space when it was open promoting his book. My partner Willie Siros knew I would love it and purchased it for me. Unfortunately in the great book purge of 2007 it was lost to me, so I cannot even refer back to it. I know there were 36 or so stories in it and that they covered a multitude of genres – western, horror, science fiction, fantasy, detective (I think). They were short but definitely weird. In looking out on the web, I see the hardback is available if you want to part with serious cash. There is a paperback available from Battered Silicon Dispatch Box for either $25 or $30 (both prices are listed). I may have to restock this on my shelves. It’s good, it’s odd, it’s a western.
While others may be discussing Joe Lansdale books like DEAD IN THE WEST, ZEPPELINS WEST, or even THE MAGIC WAGON, I am going to go back to the weirdest western of them all, THE PHANTOM EMPIRE, a 1935 serial from Mascot Films starring Gene Autry as himself, a singing cowboy from Radio Ranch who broadcasts daily so there can be a song in each chapter. Out on the ranch is the hidden passage that leads to Murania, an underground kingdom descended from the lost tribes of Mu. Gene and his boys (his musicians and background singers) team up with two teenagers played by Frankie Darro and Betsy King Ross and go after the fiends who are intent on driving Gene away from Radio ranch. The story is convoluted and on close examination makes little sense but what more do you need. You have Thunder Riders (and Junior Thunder Riders!), killer robots, lost civilizations, a beautiful but evil Queen, ray guns, gangsters, radium, six guns, airplanes, skyscrapers, super fast elevators, and super science. What more could you want? The film is available in several inexpensive formats.
Drew Mayer-Oakes – Director, San Antonio Film Commission
TIME RIDER would be my pick. It stars Fred Ward, Peter Coyote and Belinda Bauer and it was produced by ex-Monkee Michael Nesmith.