Once upon a time in the west, cowboys ruled pop culture. They dominated the silver screen, and even overshadowed superheroes in the comic book industry. Today, if it wasn’t for the Red Dead Redemption franchise, the fan base would be as barren as an Arizona desert, but the genre still has diehard fans hungry for content. Every once in a while, they are treated to a movie, a game, or a comic that satiates their need for “reckons,” “imploring,” and “mighty fine hats,” and luckily for comic book readers, Marvel’s relaunch of Gunhawks fills the need for the classic love letter to the cowboy tale.
Husband and wife team David and Maria Lapham are best known for the ultra-realistic and hard hitting Stray Bullets from Image, but other than that, their bibliography for the major two publishers is not extensive. (David Lapham wrote the 2012 series Age of Apocalypse, which was short-lived but critically acclaimed.) Though their work is limited, they always produced stellar content, and Gunhawks will be their first time working with Luca Pizzari, the artist for the Sons of Anarchy series and a couple of tie-ins for 2015’s major event, Secret War. This team-up is perfect for a more down-to-Earth comic like a classic western. Pizzari’s panels are perfect storyboards for a movie; there are not a lot of over-the-top scenes or exaggerated features to distract the eye away from the detailed beauty of their version of the Wild West.
Anyone who has seen a classic western movie or played the Call of Juarez and Red Dead Redemption franchises will not find surprises when they pick up the first issue of Gunhawks. It follows the engaging story of Dean Donnelly, a classic western hero and sheriff of an up-and-coming town with a sordid past. He fought in the Mexican Revolution as a mercenary, and when his time was done, he ended up marrying a teacher in Clearwater. He is currently defending the town against bandits and raising funds to build a schoolhouse, and the book starts off with him single-handedly holding off a troupe of Soldaderas. When one of them escapes his wrath, it’s a race back to Clearwater to save the citizens from a flurry of rage and gunfire.
The major criticism Gunhawks faces is the portrayal of their villains, the Soldaderas. They all happen to be Mexican women, and the townsfolk view them more as monsters than people. Dean even corrects his wife when she calls the Soldaderas “women.” Though he has his personal reasons, and there’s validity based on the comic’s lore, it may cause some PR problems in the future if they are not better fleshed out. In the writers’ defense, it seems that both sides of the conflict are viewed as butchers based on the level of violence they committed. This is not surprising, however, as a world of grey morality fits the Laphams wheelhouse. They are not known for sugar coating or creating forgiving characters; they see the world as selfish, and potentially without redemption. This decision could be intentional, but only time will tell, since this is merely the first issue. It may turn out that Dean Donnelly isn’t the white-hat hero everyone suspects he is.
Gunhawks’ story structure is its defining feature. Most of Marvel’s first issues end on a note forcing the reader to pick up the next issue in order to have a fully fleshed-out plot, but in a rare and refreshing twist, this series ends on the hero’s start of an adventure. In many ways, Gunhawks #1 is like a tutorial stage of a video game — once the audience learns the core mechanics and basic lore, then and only then will the hero embark on his quest. It’s the perfect teaser, and is a great model for other writers to follow. Not every first issue needs to end in a place of absolute uncertainty; sometimes they just need to leave the reader with a good taste of what’s to come.
In every sense of the word, Gunhawks is a pure western down to its core. It has shootouts, a determined sheriff, and loads of dapper hats. Its simple and fun concept is easy to pick up, and its action-packed story will make it even easier to continue. Since not everyone likes westerns, they might find its charm clichéd or dull, but though people looking for something unique will be a little disappointed, they shouldn’t dismiss the wonderful storytelling. Barring that, it holds no punches while showcasing exactly what it is: the perfect western. If the style doesn’t bring in new readers, then the Lapham’s name will surely be a draw. It’s fun, beautiful, and should be on the pull list of western fans everywhere.