The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Cowboys in Geek Culture

So we’ve been playing Red Dead Redemption in our house lately, and it’s got me on another cowboy kick. And with all this talk about Cowboys & Aliensand Jonah Hex, well, I’m in a bit of a tizzy. I love cowboys. I truly do. And I have them to thank for many of my geekier endeavors.

At first glance you might not think that cowboys have much of a place in geek culture, but I’m out to prove you wrong. Like the wizard, the knight, and the damsel in distress, the cowboy has grown to prominence in the geek community, especially in pop culture. Sometimes it’s with success… other times? Not so much. Here’s a look at the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of cowboys in geek culture.

The Good

Roland, from Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series. While the ending of the series might have left some room for improvement (I love you, Mr. King, I really do… but let’s just forget that last book, okay?) the image of the brooding Roland Deschain pursuing the Man in Black (who in my mind always looked like a skinny version of Johnny Cash) across the desert is an enduring one. With connections to Arthurian and Carolingian romances, a twisted and heartbreaking love story, and plenty of dark magic to boot, Roland is the epitome of a gunslinger: single minded and heroic in the face of evil. Quite frankly he kicks ass, takes names, and makes it look easy. Hands down my favorite Stephen King creation, in spite of the series’ shortcomings. I’m particularly fond of the comic series, too. Part steampunk, part epic fantasy, and all gunslinger, Roland and his adventures are not to be missed. And good news for fans: Stephen King has tentatively announced an eighth book, The Wind Through the Keyhole.

Captain Malcom Reynolds, Firefly/Serenity. Browncoats, where would we be without Joss Whedon’s nod to the Wild West? Sure, it’s in space. But you can’t tell me there isn’t a whole lot of cowboy in Mal Reynolds. It’s not just his outfit, or his way with the gun. Mal oozes the clever cowboy archetype, by turns brave, sarcastic, and witty—and of course, very good with the ladies. Mostly, anyway. Well, he’s certainly got the appeal going, even if he’s perpetually messing up his relationships. But that’s charming, right? Personally I find that Firefly embodies the perfect synthesis of geek and cowboy culture. That it was so short lived is certainly still a sore spot, but that’s how cowboys live sometimes: hard and fast. The good news is that the Browncoats endure! Just visit any convention to see them in action.

The Bad

Everyone and everything in Wild, Wild, West. I saw this movie when it first came out, and had no recollection of it. Recently—and figuring that it combined two of my favorite things, steampunk and the American West—I thought I’d just give it a whirl. I can now report that I couldn’t make it through the first ten minutes. Horrid doesn’t even begin to describe this film. I love Kevin Kline, but whoever thought up this movie needs to have a stern talking to, or maybe some time in the stocks. Unfortunately, I think the film has had a rather resounding negative impact on the perception of steampunk with a Western flair. Not even the gorgeous steampunk tech in the background could save this film. To cleanse your palate, and go really gritty, you might want to consider some of Joe R. Lansdale’s works. Now that’s wild.

The Ugly

Star Wars. Han Solo is far from ugly, I know this. But while Star Wars started out with a real fresh take on the cowboy theme, it got a little lost in George Lucas’ ego. Sure, there’s desert landscapes, duels, revenge, and romance, but the back story just doesn’t hold up. Part of what makes Westerns so entertaining has to do with their own mythologies—the stories leading up to the action. I honestly think if the prequels had incorporated a little more old fashioned Western feel and a lot less political banter and sappy romance, we’d have had something much cooler. There was no character that functioned like Han Solo, who—in my humble opinion, anyway—made the original Star Wars films truly special. Without that scruffy lookin’ nerf herder, the whole series would have fallen flat. Maybe that’s why I’m so excited about Harrison Ford appearing in Cowboys & Aliens.

How about you? There are plenty of other cowboys in geek culture, good, bad, and ugly. There’s Brisco County Jr, for one, not to mention Jonah Hex. Any ones you’d like to sound off on or challenge to a shoot out?