As some people in varying degrees of closeness to me know, I've been "writing" a novel since early 2014. While this has amounted up to 30 pages in various states of re-write, the outline of the story itself has evolved dramatically and the novel itself will likely debut as a graphic novel in installments.
I've poured so many of my concepts, beliefs, and emotions into the stories encompassed in this work that I feel it may actually collect an overview not so much of the meaning of life but the meaning of my life. And somewhere in the sure-to-be many pages of this (graphic) novel readers will eventually encounter the bizarre subject of today's illustration: the Hobby Horse Cowboy
He's actually called the Hobby Horse Cowboy because I've yet to think of his real name and thus the name of the character (and title of the illustration) will change in time. I don't want to betray too much of my work-in-progress, so today I'll actually be focusing on the general concept of the Hobby Horse Cowboy outside of his specific context within my writing.
I wasn't all that drawn to Westerns growing up, nor could I understand the romance of the frontier. I simply saw grizzled men who looked the same and talked the same, stoically and silently drifting through a wasteland that mirrored their lack of variety.
Dusty, earthy sepia tones reminded me of what I called "boredom nightmares"; dreams in which I was trapped in horrifyingly dull situations, like finding myself stood on a rustic wooden porch looking over vast fields of dust and nondescript crops and a feeling of isolation as if nothing worth mentioning existed out in that world anywhere.
It was like Special K of the brain - a frozen dreamscape that looked, sounded, and tasted like nothing. This seemed to be the world of the cowboy to me. Unforgiving boredom and eventually a bullet in the head from someone who looked, talked, and walked just like you.
I'm not sure when I shook this impression. I still find the history of the North American West alien and detached but through certain cinematic ventures, I've finally become comfortable to witness cowboys in my role as a detached spectator. I greatly enjoyed the movie Django Unchained and the TV series Deadwood. Cinematic cowboys and Western characters definitely figured into the eventual manifestation of the Hobby Horse Cowboy in his own personal desert somewhere in my mind.
There was the rugged, callous, criminal sleaze of Deadwood's Cy Tolliver. The mesh-shirt-clad shadowy villain (in a movie without a hero) Wes from Urban Cowboy. Several characters from one of my favorite films (and possibly the film, if one can be credited, that softened me to Westerns) El Topo.
But no story informed my own cowboy creation more than Stephen King's horror fantasy Western The Dark Tower series, particularly the 4th book Wizard and Glass and one of its antagonists, Eldred Jonas. Despite King's description of Jonas, I imagined him throughout the book wearing red pants with white polka dots.
The Hobby Horse Cowboy was originally conceived as a Halloween costume. Unlike another example of my art that began as a Halloween costume, Prototype 0, the Hobby Horse Cowboy became too daunting and expensive to do properly so he only exists at this point in scribbled notes, conversations with friends, the deserts of my dreams, and the illustration you see here. The polka dot pants were extremely important to me but I can't quite put into words why.
The closest I can get is saying they somehow unnerve through their mixed insinuations of mania and something that may pass as confidence. This isn't a deep security, rather it's an expectation that the winds blow in his favor. It was also important to me that the cowboy have the lower half of his face red and the upper half white with the exception of red bordering his eyes.
At times, I wondered if this was indicative of the cowboy actually being an android but I no longer feel that's the case. I'd say that his face is simply painted, but I don't know why. However, the red around his eyes may be a natural discoloration from sleep deprivation or some sort of physical reaction to being dead. This may sound mysterious at this point but if you're curious and find yourself reading my graphic novel in the future, this assessment will probably make more sense.
Even if I were not holding some cards regarding the Hobby Horse Cowboy close to my chest, I wouldn't be able to divulge much that wasn't vague for two reasons: 1.) a lot of the truth of the Hobby Horse Cowboy that will need to be revealed to me prior to completing the graphic novel has yet to be revealed to me and 2.) the Hobby Horse Cowboy is clearly insane.
The hobby horse itself may be the clearest sign of this. If there's any doubt, I assure you that he truly believes that the hobby horse is a living, breathing creature that makes his trek across the wastes easier. However, that is a very real gun in the cowboy's hand and an equally real Sheriff's star badge, purposely pinned upside down in reverence to Satan.
This is one of those areas I don't know much background on but the Hobby Horse Cowboy worships Satan for whatever that's worth. You may also notice the inverted pentagram adorning his pistol's holster. The white effeminate hair of the Hobby Horse Cowboy was somewhat informed by my imagining of Stephen King's description of his Eldred Jonas character and may be the closest thing to a similarity in appearance the two characters actually have.
The landscape of this illustration is admittedly simple though perfectly in line with my vision of the cowboy's jurisdiction. This was somewhat influenced by Moebius' art on the Western comic, Blueberry, which I've never actually read. I only became aware of it in the documentary Jodorowsky's Dune and the brief mention and images from Blueberry in the film were enough to leave inspiration.
Unlike a lot of my other works, I actually questioned this illustration, attempting to find meaning in this character that presented himself to me with so much mystery. I took my own impressions of the classic cowboy, seeing them as a symbol that can be at once respected in its adherence to a code of honor, and simultaneously derided for being archaic in its immutable masculinity.
In the Hobby Horse Cowboy the pressures of that rigid masculinity give way to insanity. Here I saw the societal pressure to "be a man", the suppressions of emotions, the symbolic gritting of teeth as the whiskey burns its healing burn over a figurative bullet wound. Those stone faces crack and the Hobby Horse Cowboy is underneath. Those pressures drive him to an infantile state, a Peter Pan of the frontier land.
He's the self-appointed sheriff of his own Western fantasy, enforcing laws with no basis; a mirror to some of the out-of-balance officers of the law who stand as both villain and victim in the pages of our newspapers, smashing the world around them while caught in the thick-walled prisons of their own skins. The world demands manhood so violently but instead receives echoes of children in tantrums.
But beyond that obvious exploration of the Hobby Horse Cowboy, there is a less violent, almost bittersweet quality in the themes of masculinity explored and perhaps this is more on a personal level. While I may not have been drawn to Westerns through most of my life, my father loved the movie The Outlaw Josey Wales.
I never made the initiative to watch this movie with my father nor was I ever invited to join him but I still remember him watching it on rare occasions and seeing the VHS among our rather erratic family collection, the title handwritten on the paper label adorning the plastic spine. This was an artifact of my father's world and I was almost blind to it in my disinterest. But on occasions when I'd find myself trying to connect with my father in some way, my mind would at times drift to this film (which I still haven't seen though plan to someday).
I feel that, on some deep level that can't be fully explained, the Hobby Horse Cowboy also speaks to me of the relationship between sons and fathers, the artifacts the youth tries to comprehend before passing over in boredom, but remembers like a Holy Grail in the painful light of passing time. In Django Unchained, there is a montage where Django is somewhat haunted by longing for his wife to the sounds of Jim Croce's brilliant and beautifully depressing "I Got a Name".
This single, released just after Croce's death in an airplane crash, speaks of a father's unrealized dreams for his son and optimistically addresses those dreams while expressing a warm gratitude and respect for the father. In this, we find hope that the son can take a different path than the father and still earn the father's pride and respect ultimately. On a societal level, it may even express hope that the gender expectations shackled to our fathers may be loosened by the actions of the sons.
But there is a twin theme here and perhaps this is only insinuated in "I Got a Name" but illustrated much more blatantly in the life events surrounding the song: the passing of time and the inevitability of death. There's something intensely beautiful and sad in Croce's lyrics in the chorus: "Movin' me down the highway/Rollin' me down the highway/Movin' ahead so life won't pass me by."
This is magnified by Croce's unexpected death. While the Hobby Horse Cowboy exists in a sort of afterlife, on a much less literal level he is the father and son, the pressures of expectation, manhood, responsibility, the ultimate death, and the promise of a frontier beyond death.