Retroactive Continuity: Goth Western

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Commissioned essay for Shane deNota-Hoffman

Yes I know this is a week late; I’ll do two essays and two vlog posts this week to make up for last week.

Goth Western really isn’t all that gothic. The webcomic by bonyfish (a.k.a. Livali Wyle) has some light touches of the weird, what with its many-armed forgotten gods haunting the desert landscape of the Old West, but even those aren’t that strong. It’s also got a fascination with death, but purely as a stage in a process; Mag notwithstanding, there is no lurking darkness within the self waiting to reach up and consume us, no haunting echoes of past losses threatening to return. The most goth thing about the comic, really, is the color scheme: monochrome with touches of red for blood and flowers.

The first chapter implies otherwise. It opens with Jack in what looks like an unwinnable standoff, though of course an in medias res opening that implies the main character’s death but cuts away without showing it is essentially an announcement that the climax of the story will be showing us that character survive. But we flash back to the death of Evelyn, and at once we appear to be starting the story with the fridging of one half of a lesbian couple–hardly an auspicious beginning!

But what we have here is a case of narrative substitution. The death of Evelyn is a narrative collapse of sorts, as she is quite clearly alive in the opening. The narrative of the lone gunwoman haunted by the death of her lesbian lover–which would fit quite neatly into the traditions of both westerns and gothic literature–collapses the instant it begins, the opening of the story and beginning of the plot contradicting one another. The substitution occurs only a few pages later, when Jack sells her soul to Millustra in exchange for restoring Evelyn to life.

This is where the story appears to begin to take on elements of the gothic. It is a not unfamiliar tale: driven by love and grief, Jack puts herself at the mercy of a trickster god, described as the god of doomed lovers, to bring back the one she’s lost. We know how this will go: Jack will have to do terrible things in service of her dark master, and most likely lose the restored Evelyn as a result. Evelyn may not even be herself anymore; she might just be a shell, or she might be haunted by having come so close to death. In the end, this will all turn out to have been a terrible mistake, most likely involving the suffering and deaths of Jack and Evelyn.

And yet instead, the story is surprisingly brief. Jack is sent to kill one of Millustra’s enemies, a serial killer trying to get the god’s attention by killing those he has marked. There is little characterization of the villain, but he seems a thoroughly reprehensible sort, and though it takes some effort, Jack and Evelyn kill him and his henchmen before riding off together, still very much alive and in love, and in search of more adventure. They are not suffering, not dead; the ending is joyous and bright. There is very little that could be called gothic here.

What there is, is love. Queer love, specifically. Millustra is, as Jack asserts in the denouement, a god of love first and death second; not, as the beginning of the story implies, a trickster god who dooms lovers to death, but a protector god who defends those who find a love worth dying for. He demands violence, but not against those whom he watches over; he seeks violence against those who would threaten them, like the villain. This is the second and final substitution the narrative performs. In the end, it rejects the “deal with the devil” narrative and embraces love instead.

When narrative substitution occurs, there is inherently an implied criticism of the narrative that has been replaced. The idea of doomed love as something beautiful, even admirable, of art that celebrates the noble suffering and pain of tragic lovers, runs into serious issues when we apply it to stories of queer love. Heteronormative love cannot be othered–that’s what the “normative” part means!–and so depicting a doomed instance of it is not inherently harmful. Queer love, however, is consistently othered, and so showing it as doomed carries implications of negative judgment–implications made all the stronger by the fact that for much of the 20th century, queer love stories could generally only be published if they ended in tragedy, precisely in order to convey a negative judgment.

To put it in terms we have been discussing lately, a lesbian summoning a many-armed, fanged trickster god of death and love to resurrect her lover is an embrace of queer monstrosity. It is a declaration that, if we are to be treated as monsters anyway, we may as well take the chance to destroy our enemies. Millustra, to quote Jack’s already-referenced speech near the end, “looks after us misfits who find that love in strange places, who’ll defend it with everything we’ve got.” A serial killer hunting those who have been touched by Millustra, in other words, is hunting people who have experienced love outside of the boundaries of heteronormativity; our villain is a homophobe.

And he “had it all backwards from the start.” He wasn’t hunting monsters; he was creating them, drawing boundaries and setting definitions, practicing abjection via gunfire. That’s the point of the final substitution, the happy ending: the tragedy and doom were created by him and those like him, suffering imposed in judgment of difference. The real monsters are here on the inside, the part of Us that creates a Them, not the Them themselves; and when those monsters are defeated, there is no further need for an Us or a Them, for normality and deviance. There’s just freedom and love.

Huh. The real monsters are on the inside.

Maybe it’s a little bit gothic after all.


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2 thoughts on “Retroactive Continuity: Goth Western

  1. The real monsters are on the inside.

    Maybe it’s a little bit gothic after all.

    It’s hauntological, at least.

    The real monsters are here on the inside, the part of Us that creates a Them, not the Them themselves; and when those monsters are defeated, there is no further need for an Us or a Them, for normality and deviance.

    The New Yorker did an archive issue a few months back that included (what their online archives tell me was only the first half of) James Baldwin’s 1962 “Letter from a Region in My Mind” (think Between the World and Me if TNC had been less worried about the tender fee-fees of wypipo), in which he came to a similar conclusion:

    White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this—which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never—the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.

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