I can already feel you asking, “What is ‘Muscle Horse’?” and the honest answer is “I don’t know.” Nate Garcia’s cowboy comic features the return of Alanzo Sneak and his horse Sheena. Last we saw Alanzo and Sheena in the self-titled Alanzo Sneak (June 2021,) they had just narrowly escaped some meat hunters who were trying to turn Sheena into burgers. With Alanzo down for the count due to being bitten by a venomous snake, Sheena reacted just the opposite to a similar venomous bite, swelling up with muscles and biting the face off of one of the meat hunters. Picking up from there, Muscle Horse follows up on the duo’s adventures as an old friend Huff Deely catches up with them at Big Mama’s saloon. And Sheena has gone through a few upgrades to protect herself in the future even though she’s the one who saved the day in their previous appearance.
In this new comic, Sheena has a gun installed in her throat that comes out through her mouth when needed and that feels like one of the more reasonable plot points in this whole thing. There’s a child-like spirit present on every page, a playfulness with the genre and the plot of this comic. Alanzo Sneak looks like a not-too-distant cousin of Woody from the Toy Story films, minus the vest, the sheriff’s badge, and the pull spring that activates his voice box. And Woody would not be prepared for anything that happens to Alanzo, particularly a strange encounter with a guy who has a unique relationship with pierogies. But more on that later.
Garcia’s drawings of Sneak, Sheena, Huff, and all of the other characters in this comic feel like he is taking old wooden stop-motion puppets and drawing their adventures. There’s a chiseled quality to the characters, from Alanzo’s pointy nose that defines the rest of his face to Huff’s dog-like features. His floppy ears look like they should be made of the fake leather that old toys used to use to mimic furry features. Garcia’s artwork implies a physicality to these figures, but an exaggerated presence that is much more toy-like than realistic. It’s that connection to Woody and Toy Story, to the nature of fun and play, that makes Muscle Horse feel a bit like a honey trap of a story,
The artistic sheen of Muscle Horse lulls you in just so that Garcia can upend your expectations and make you squirm. The comic opens with a nice trip to the zoo, Sneak visiting a big cat exhibit just as things go wrong. Standing next to a sign that says “Do Not Feed The Animals,” Sneak flashes a devious grin toward the reader before pulling out a box of Muscle Horse treats from his sneakers. A totally ripped horse flexes on the front of the box, “Yum” he says, and “Only For Horses” the box warns in the corner but Sneak is more wrapped up in giving the tiger a treat than in reading any warnings on the box or any posted signs. Let’s just say that things don’t go good for Sneak from there and the only way to get out of the situation is to pull the treat out of the tiger, and he doesn’t go through the mouth to get it.
The first couple of pages of this introduction are drawn innocently and cartoonishly, with a devilish yet innocent wink and a nod. Sneak’s actions are the stuff of cartoon shorts, misadventures of the Looney Tunes kind. Sneak is mischievous but he’s not dangerous. The tiger, after taking the treat, becomes this large, caricaturish beast chasing Sneak. A ZooKeeper gazes on unapprovingly; “Bitch shoulda read the sign.” her only words as the situation unfolds in front of her. Language aside, this starts as innocuous as a cartoon short from the 1950s does. And then you get to the third page and its twelve panels, Sneak on the back of the beast, grabbing its tail, and then plunging his hand into the cat’s butthole, fishing for the magical horse treat.
Yes, you read that right.
For Garcia, that’s just the first three pages of this comic, setting the tone and humor early so you can tell if this is a comic for you or not. If you stick with it, Garcia charts a story of building absurdities for Sneak and Sheena to overcome. Part of the fun of this comic is the feeling that Garcia is going to do something completely messed up on the next page. And then again on the next page, and the page after that, and the page after that. Muscle Horse is a visual gag comic where Garcia’s imagination runs wild in this old western tale. Each panel is a world of possibilities for Sneak and all of the oddball characters that he encounters, from Huff’s disgust at a boiled pierogi (an “abortion” he calls it) to another character's deeply personal and intimate relationship with another one of those boiled pierogies. And then there’s the Alanzo’s sister Monty and her partner Sazel, the duo who installed Sheena’s enhancements.
Garcia treats storytelling as constant forward motion. It’s always building to a “what’s next” moment. That’s what this Alanzo Sneak’s story is about, the what’s next of the situation he’s in. For the reader, there’s a thrill in waiting for that next moment, the quickness of getting to it, and the infinite possibilities that exist in the white space between the panels. And that can be said of all comics but Garcia plays with the expectation of that next moment. From the moment on the third page where Sneak has to fish the Muscle Horse treat out of the butt of the tiger, there’s the excitement tinged with a bit of fear about what sick or amusing or amusingly sick thing Garcia is going to come up with next. As Garcia builds his story, there’s a version of it that’s a standard Western. But luckily we get Garcia’s neo-absurd Western take on Sneak that does everything it can to take the air out of the self-importance of these kinds of narratives.
That drive for “what’s next” front-loads this conic with enough outrageous moments that by the time you get to the last quarter of the comic, it’s easy to feel a bit desensitized to everything. Oh, look, that guy with the pierogi on his cock is now facing down Sneak. Yes, we already got past the shock of what the guy with the pierogi was doing so maybe we’re past the moment of any more possible shock. Facing down the man who has had an intimate relationship with a boiled pierogi, Garcia’s storytelling doesn’t feel like it is as much building up to a climax as it is building toward what’s the next crazy thing that could happen, coming back around to another rescue from Sheena (see the last Alanzo Sneak comic,) this time hopped up on Muscle Horse treats like the tiger in the first few pages. It’s a showdown between a steroidal and a skeleton spirit like it’s high noon at the O.K. Corral.
So let’s come back to the question of what Muscle Horse is. Maybe it’s a how-to in horse protection. Maybe it’s a cowboy story about encounters at a western saloon. Maybe it’s Pierogi porn. Most likely, it’s probably all of those and so much more. Ultimately in it, Nate Garcia is exploring the possibility of the next panel, the quickness of getting to it, and the infinite possibilities that exist in the white space between the panels. Muscle Horse tells the story of a man and his horse but this is one of those comics where you have to pay as much attention to what’s happening between the panels as you do with what’s happening in the panels.