Chris & Shane Houghton’s Reed Gunther stories follow the adventures of the titular hapless cowboy, his best friend, Sterling, and his love interest, Starla. Set in an imaginary version of the Wild West that is equal parts dangerous and absurd, there are monsters who are frequent visitors.
The series has survived to see two trade paperback collections – the first was self-published by the brothers and the next by Image Comics. A failed bid to make the transition from comic to animated series has left the story in limbo. The authors’ website tells visitors that more stories are to come, but for now readers will have to rely on these two volumes.
The first volume maintains a plot arc through all five issues, starting with meeting Starla on her ranch and “helping” her slay a monster. After this encounter, Reed and Sterling move on to another town where Reed’s love of adventure and greed get the best of him and he agrees to follow the shady Mr. Picks down into a cave that has been off limits to its surrounding townspeople for many years. The cave’s protector knows that vicious turtle-men live there. One thing leads to another and soon Reed, Sterling, and Starla are trying to win back the turtle-men’s idol to try and stop the spread of monsters across the United States.
Monsters & Mustaches, the second volume, takes a more episodic approach to its stories. Reed’s backstory is revealed, there’s a fight with a werewolf, Starla has an identity crisis, and Sterling takes center stage in a plot that reveals his backstory. It’s a hit or miss volume that loses the thread of the previous story and therefore some of its momentum, only picking it back up momentarily in the last two chapters. As a whole, Reed Gunther has many good adventurous elements and a good heart for friendships, but it falters when relationships between characters are sacrificed for a cheap joke or a new story.
What Reed Gunther has going for it are the things that made it a good candidate for an animated series. The Houghtons work well with physical comedy. For example, there’s a great bit in the first chapter where Starla, Reed, and Sterling are trying to get Starla’s herd of cattle to move away from a river to no avail. Reed decides to fire his gun into the air, which makes the cow next to him reflexively kick its back legs, sending him flying into Starla and past a very confused Sterling. The Houghtons are also good at comic escalation, as when a giant snake is destroyed… only to reveal that it is full of smaller, just as angry snakes, causing even more chaos. Moments like this, along with inventive curse-like exclamations like “Pickled Beets!”, “Bourbon and Eggs!”, and “Talluca Lake!” give the comic an appealing nature for all ages. Although this is not a comic for young children – the second volume delves into darker territory – teens, undoubtedly, would enjoy the goofiness of the adventures, despite all the characters being adults.
However, Reed’s character walks the thin line between loveable earnest goofball and deliberately obtuse harasser. The first scene of the first book is him spying on Starla, who is bathing in the river, and this squicky attitude towards women, and Starla in particular, carries on throughout the adventures. Reed’s pride is easily hurt and it competes with his equally large instinct to do good. The combination of these two things often override his ability to listen to the people around him. It is played for comic effect, but isn’t always that funny. When Reed asks Sterling why Starla is so mad that he tied her to a tree and wouldn’t listen to her repeated requests to be untied so she could defend her ranch (and save Reed’s life in the process), it reads as infuriating and oafish rather than goofy. In the end, Sterling unties Starla.
There is some character growth towards the end from both Reed and Starla. They start to work together at the end of the first volume and throughout the second. But it is not enough to distract from the ickiness that began with their first meeting. The storyline is clearly trying to make Starla and Reed an item using the tired playground dynamics of “If he bothers you, it means he likes you”, culminating in a scene near the end of the second volume where she is forcibly made to kiss Reed. Starla herself does not get a backstory like Reed and Sterling do. Instead, she gets a story where she questions her identity as a woman because she doesn’t wear a dress and gets angry at Reed when he makes fun of her for it, a far cry from the self-confident rancher she started out as in volume one. To top it all off, one of the very last jokes in the second volume is one about Starla’s weight, and she responds with a threat driven by insecurity. Where Starla could be a well-rounded female character, even one who struggles with gender norms, she is left with a clumsy plot line and her agency taken away from her too often, while jokes at her expense pander to stereotypical humor about women. Any growing relationship between her and Reed or comic potential around her is marred by these missteps.
The tone and atmosphere of the stories are highlighted and reflected by Chris Houghton’s bouncy line that gives the artwork a natural energy and the way the characters express every hyperbolized emotion through exaggerated facial expressions, while balancing these things with more realistic backgrounds to anchor the story in a vivid western setting.
Reed Gunther, vol. #1: The Bear-Riding Cowboy
by Shane Houghton
Art by Chris Houghton
Reed Gunther, vol. #2: Monsters and Mustaches
by Shane Houghton
Art by Chris Houghton