Stark Holborn’s Top Five Alternate Westerns

By Stark Holborn

Posted on June 5, 2014 in Books, Film with tags Stark Holborn, Westerns

Everyone knows what Westerns are: cowboys and lawmen, shoot-outs at noon, train robberies and saloon brawls, right?



Westerns are about far more than the standard tropes: they’re about space, frontiers, about the struggle between humans and environment they inhabit, about endurance and raw humanity.

Now, like most people, I love Once Upon a Time in the West like it was my own child, but here are a few other Westerns that might take y’all by surprise


Firefly by Joss Whedon


OF COURSE. What justification do y’all need? Whedon does an admirable job of smushing together the best of classic SF and the Western genre into a smart, witty show that’s an absolute lesson in character portrayal and peril.

And before anyone asks, I’m GLAD there was only one season (mumble mumble Serenity). Stay as you are, Firefly, ever glowing in our memories. Honourable mention also goes to fellow Space Western Cowboy Bebop.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville


If Firefly is a Space Western, then Moby-Dick is a Sea Western. Ishmael is our wandering drifter, thrown out into the vast desert ocean with a band of dreamers, madmen and outlaws: none more so than Captain Ahab. The uncharted seas are as wild and menacing as the forbidding landscapes of Arizona or New Mexico. Melville’s classic defies genre, as do many Westerns: by turns comedy, tragedy, philosophical reflection and high-stakes adventure.


Dead Man directed by Jim Jarmusch



You got me: I will freely admit that this film is a pretty major influence for Nunslinger, as well as being one of my favourites. Technically, it’s an Acid Western. Johnny Depp (remember when he was a good actor?) plays William Blake – an accountant sent to the lawless, edge-of-civilization town of Machine – who becomes embroiled in an abstract spirit journey. The film’s brilliance lies in its intertextuality: it’s a self-aware black comedy, a musing on the savage poetry and rich isolation of the west, and a brilliant pastiche. That, and it includes Iggy Pop as a cross-dressing cannibal.

Pretty Deadly by Kelly Sue DeConnick & Emma Ríos

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This lush, vivid, brutal comic book series is a recent discovery for me, but a totally absorbing one. It’s Weird West at its best: deft storytelling and imagination combine to bring the mythology, folklore and superstition embedded in the Western landscape to life.


Roughing It by Mark Twain


Mark Twain’s semi-fictional, semi-autobiographical work is essentially a young man’s misadventure in the (very) Wild West, spanning 1861-1867. It’s jam-packed with classic Clemens exaggeration: here are stories of alkaline lakes and mining camps, prospecting, being down-and-out-in-San-Francisco, stagecoach journeys, broncos, riches, poverty and rush towns…

Nunslinger, the nearly-true tale of Sister Thomas Josephine and her adventures in the untamed wilderness of 1864 America, is publishing serially. Western Review calls the series ‘more fun than a rattlesnake in a barndance bran-tub’ and the Observer notes that it’s ‘witty and atmospheric, with a cliffhanger every few chapters… thrilling stuff.’

Books 1 through 9 are now available at your favourite purveyor of fine ebooks.


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