“Cowboys in Space” Exhibit Finds the Frontier in the Stars

Exploring the infinite plains at the Bullock Museum

Home on the galactic range: BraveStarr toys featured in “Cowboys in Space” (Photo by John Anderson)

It began with a young boy and a book. When Franck Cordés was a kid, he had a copy of Han Solo at Stars' End, one of the very first Star Wars spin-offs. On the cover, Han and Chewbacca have their backs to the infinite cosmos: But the truth is, it may as well be cacti, and the cantina on Tatooine could be in Tijuana in the 1890s. That's where Cordés first realized "the notion of the space cowboy." Now, all grown up and a curator at the Bob Bullock Museum, he's created a special exhibition, "Cowboys in Space and Fantastic Worlds," pulling together the links between the Old West and outer space in pop culture.

What Cordés – who normally handles the museum's pre-Mexican Texas collection – has assembled for the show would delight generations of science-fiction buffs. Here, there's an early edition of From the Earth to the Moon, here an original 1934 Buck Rogers XZ-31 ray gun, there footage showing how the classic Western train heist was duplicated for Solo: A Star Wars Story.

For Cordés, the only difference between the Lone Ranger and C.L. Moore's 1950s pulp space smuggler Northwest Smith is whether they're riding a horse or piloting a rocket. Yet it's not just the idea of the cool explorer, armed only with a six-shooter/ray gun. The birth of the genre really came with the 1890 census, and the end of the idea of the Wild West: "The amount of people in the Frontier means there is no frontier," he said. At the same time, telescopes became powerful enough that astronomers could see Mars, and what they thought were canals. If there were canals, then that meant life on other planets. Then, in 1897, there was the first reported UFO sighting, when locals in the tiny town of Aurora, Texas, reported a spaceship crashing. "All of a sudden you see this shift," said Cordés. "The frontier is closed, but there's a new frontier in space. ... Manifest Destiny just shifts to space."

It's not all just subtext. Often authors would write a Western story for one pulp magazine, rewrite it so Montana was now Mars, and sell their brand-new science-fiction story to a different magazine. Gene Autry's big break into acting came in 1935, in the 12-part series The Phantom Empire, in which the singing cowboy finds a technologically advanced civilization – complete with robots and radium – in vast caverns under his ranch (and that's 60 years before Firefly). Star Trek was literally pitched by creator Gene Roddenberry as "Wagon Train to the Stars."

The collection also deals with the darker side of the space cowboy, of how aliens were thinly veiled racial stereotypes. Cordés has also included voices reclaiming that cultural history, with toys from 1980s animated series BraveStarr, in which Native American Marshal BraveStarr was the hero, and interstellar good ol' boy Tex Hex the villain. More up-to-date is the work of artist Virgil Ortiz, who reenvisions the colonial tropes of the genre through indigenous eyes.

There are plenty of worlds still to explore, and Cordés hasn't ruled out the possibility that this could become a touring show, or the first of a series exploring the fantastical edges of the prairie. He said, "I've been joking that my next exhibition will be cowboys and dinosaurs."

“Cowboys in Space and Fantastic Worlds” is on view at the Bob Bullock Museum through Dec. 1. Tickets and info at www.thestoryoftexas.com.

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