Originally released in webcomic form, what anyone needs to know about Bikini Cowboy is encapsulated within the title. It’s about a woman who wanders the wild west wearing a yellow string bikini, along with the requisite cowboy hat and boots, while carrying a surfboard. It wouldn’t surprise me if the whole comic was originally conceived around that image. The getup by itself isn’t all that remarkable, but the protagonist morphs into a truly baffling presence just by being placed in the American frontier of 1812, more than 130 years before the term “bikini” (which is mentioned in-story at one point) entered the popular lexicon. The comic has a lot of fun playing off the premise without actually bothering to explain anything. The reader just has to go with the flow.
Like the more established Jeff Smith and Ben Caldwell, creator Luke Weber draws in that classic big-eyed cartooning style often employed in Western animation and children’s book illustration. His individual character designs aren’t as idiosyncratic or as varied, but they all posses that graceful elasticity of form, movement and expression essential to the style. And like his more famous colleagues, he’s really good at transitions and wordless panels that track a person’s body language and other nonverbal cues. Much of the comic is devoted to this kind of filmic pacing and goes a long way to enliven this 377-page graphic novel. Atypically, Weber forgoes applying a more finished look by drawing everything with rough pencils which are then overlaid with gray washes. It imbues everything with grit and dirt. While I’m not sure if I wouldn’t have preferred to look at colour pages, the approach doesn’t clash with the setting’s arid environment. The book’s one glaring weakness is its numerous typos and misspellings accompanied by some slapdash lettering, something that might have been avoided with more judicious editing.
Weber’s art doesn’t objectify the titular character, “Whisky” Jill McKay, but exploits the shock value of her anachronistic appearance to hook the reader. She’s first shown as a shadowy figure emerging from the desert and walking into a frontier town. It’s only when Jill enters a saloon and sidles up to the bar that her bikini-clad fashion is revealed. As if to further confuse the reader, Jill then orders an energy drink from a completely befuddled bartender like that’s supposed to be a thing in 1812. The story really gets going when she rescues an orphan boy named Rod McCloud from his abusive guardians. And then things take an even odder turn when Jill claims to be a witch, while Rod admits to possessing psychic powers.
Nothing overtly supernatural happens, at least not until the end, but the narrative contains numerous magical realist elements. Jill’s bikini identifies her as belonging to a certain coven of eccentric witches. She takes Rod under her wing because she thinks he might be some kind of messiah, and somehow useful to her nebulous quest. An ominous cloud starts following the two wherever they go. Rod is bedevilled by terrifying dreams. There are constant Biblical references being cited, particularly from the Book of Revelations. But what primarily propels the plot forward are Jill’s attempts to stay ahead of a ruthless marshall hunting her down not just for numerous alleged crimes, but because he’s also an ex-clergyman who's seriously offended by Jill’s ultra-modern behaviour.
Towards the end, Bikini Cowboy elects to preserve the sense of the mysterious. Jill remains very much an enigmatic figure, and the issue of Rod’s strange abilities has been quietly set aside. The comic prefers to ground the story using the personal relationship between Jill and Rod. Neither are particularly complex characters on the surface. Jill has a lot of gumption while Rod is a cheeky kid. They start out as an awkward hero-sidekick pairing. But they have an easy and amusing camaraderie that comes from a place of developing affection and trust.
The story’s pacing also betrays its serialized web-based format. The book’s biggest fight actually occurs at the midway point, and the conclusion is kind of abrupt, which leads me to suspect that Bikini Cowboy was published after Weber decided he had enough material for a graphic novel. So while he has Jill McKay proverbially riding off into the sunset, there's just enough ambiguity to allow for her return in a sequel, if she proves popular enough.