From its title, you might think that Daniel Merlin Goodbrey's The Last Sane Cowboy (AiT/Planet Lar) was some sort of a pomo western, but this graphic stories collection proves to be something else again. Set in an "unfolded Earth" where reality has become much more malleable, Cowboy consists of a series of stories and amusingly Feiffer-esque monologues from the inhabitants of this world, a place where a man can bleed scorpions or a woman can smell the future; where one supporting character has a Labrador's head, another a dolphin's. In two of the tales ("The Man Who Fell to Earth," "The House That Wasn't Her,") characters express their profound sense of dislocation in this changed setting; in others, we see them striving to adapt to their Absurd New World.
Rendered in a high-contrast style which blends computer-generated figures with grey-toned photo backgrounds, Cowboy's tone alternates between wryly deadpan and a more somber mournfulness, though the flatly static nature of the art tends to favor the former. To my eyes, the most effective pieces are the two extended stories, the title tale and "House That Wasn't Her," which both center on characters who have lost a part of their family – and venture into an increasingly more surreal landscape in the hopes of getting back what they've lost.
In "Cowboy," a ten-gallon hat-wearing woman enters the town of Insanity to bring back her fish brother: along the way, she's confronted by talking horses, six chattering skulls (a bit that reminded me more than a little of Bob Burden), the ghost of Abe Lincoln (murdered twice, we're told) and a giant scorpion who is guarding the saloon where her brother's being held.
The saloon is the last vestige of sanity left in the town, but our heroine isn't allowed to enter because she's adapted so well to the madness all around her. "One saloon in a town full of mad folk," the cowgirl says. "And only the sane are allowed inside? That ain't just crazy. That's downright mean." Insanity, we quickly see, is the most travelled route in the unfolded Earth.
In contrast, the hero of "House" remains stubbornly focused on the world — and love — he lost. Convinced that his house is no longer (literally) the same place where he once lived with his lover, he travels through an Escher-styled landscape in search of the place that was stolen from him, refusing to recognize the fact that even if he gets his home back, his loved one will still be gone. A surprisingly poetic meditation on the power of grief, couched in a series of dream-like images and absurdist tactics: not exactly the kinda comic you expect from AiT/Planet Lar (which more typically traffics in more straightforward genre storytelling).
But perhaps that fact adds to The Last Cowboy's lingering effectiveness. This isn't a graphic collection that you put down and easily forget. Once a map has been unfolded, it's never quite the same…