Wild West Vol. 1: Calamity Jane opens into a violent and lawless world set in the Old West, where we follow well-known historical figures Martha Cannary and James Hickock, better known as American folk heroes under the names Calamity Jane and Wild Bill respectively. Wild West offers a retelling of their story, how they met, and how Martha comes to learn the secret of the West.
Content warning: Discussion of rape
Wild West Vol. 1: Calamity Jane
Gloris Thierry (writing) and Jacques Lamontagne (art)
May 20, 2020
Wild West leads with open plains, contains period-typical violence of the gun-toting variety, and presents a wide variety of common tropes for Western genre.
The story begins with Martha Cannary as maid in the Red Fox brothel and saloon, and James Hickock as a bounty hunter roaming Omaha. Tension is immediately set for both characters through their individual storylines. James has set up in the Red Fox while he’s in town looking for his next bounty. And Martha is raped by a man who she previously had an unwanted encounter with in the brothel. The rape scene does start happening on panel but does not show explicit detail. This isn’t the first act of violence Martha suffers, but it is an early indicator of the very dark times ahead for her.
Martha and James meet while he is staying in the brothel. He tells her that her life is her own and that America wasn’t created for usurpers. This general theme, that anyone can change the direction of their life, runs throughout this first volume. James embodies this idea wholeheartedly through the story, constantly telling Martha that God’s destiny for America was greatness.
As our main characters get to know each other and handle their individual storylines, elsewhere railroad development is afoot. The current head of the railroad is expanding through Omaha and has some interest in the town of Omaha City, attempting to keep the owner of the Red Fox under control. Thematically, the railroad ties into the classic Western ideal of progress and things constantly changing. The railroad primarily frames Martha’s story as she learns more and more about the people around her and the things they have done to impact her life.
One thing that stood out to me while reading is the fact that every character ends up resorting to violence in some form by the end of the volume, even Martha. This one thread of commonality all the characters share is shown right to us on the back cover in the comic’s synopsis: “Handguns erase all physical inequality”. But resorting to violence in the lawless world the comic paints for us readers is expected right away and not surprising, especially to anyone familiar with the Western genre. When it comes to the Western genre, themes and character types I really enjoy tend to be staples: from the semi-grey characters that skirt along fine lines of questionable morality to themes like discovering oneself against the backdrop of an ever changing world.
The story presents a lot of moving parts and striking thematic elements such as the dual stories of both Martha and James that kept me hooked throughout. This paired with the artwork of Jacque Lamontagne presents a very gritty take on the Old West. With establishing shots showcasing the landscape of Omaha to darker scenes inside the brothel and saloon itself, the art really grounds the story and characters in a setting that feels very alive.
The art ties into the story in a natural way. With colors that are very indicative of the Omaha setting (think browns, reds, greys, and greens), the art is very grounded in the reality that the characters face throughout. Action scenes feel very sharp when they happen, bringing both Martha and James to the forefront of multiple pages throughout the volume. Action scenes tend to tie into character moments or when the story is moving forward significantly, making for action that has meaning.
For fans of historical fiction, Westerns, or a story that has sharper edges to it, I think Wild West is definitely worth a read! I found Martha and James to be both very intriguing characters and I’m really interested to see where this series takes them in the future.