April 5th, 2011 at 11:52 pm
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First, the boilerplate: I’m counting down the days until we take a brief time-out in order to upgrade the server during the week of April 10-16. Please check back after that week for more new content. And to sweeten the deal, each day during the countdown to intermission, I’ll offer a brief personal take on comics related to the day’s illustration.
Before they wore out their welcome through sheer overexposure, Westerns used to be everywhere. The dime novels and stage plays offered to the public while the settling of the West was still taking place (fictionalized current events, the 19th century equivalent of Tom Clancy novels) mushroomed into a worldwide phenomenon, capturing the imaginations of writers in other countries and, in turn, the pioneers of movies and radio drama. By the time comic books came along in the late 1930s, the Western had become so wildly popular that it had already passed through mere popularity and become downright generic.
It didn’t take long for publishers to twig to the appeal of a comic featuring the licensed likenesses of Tom Mix, John Wayne or Buster Crabbe – or, as years went by, their radio and TV counterparts – but if there was no Hollywood star power available, any tough hombre with a horse and a six-gun would do. There was never a Western comics mania comparable to those that briefly boosted crime and horror stories, but the genre was such a reliable seller that it once seemed inconceivable that they would ever die out completely.
Western comics were certainly a staple of my childhood. The Dell adaptations of TV shows like Maverick, Roy Rogers and Have Gun, Will Travel were always good candidates for my dimes, and when those weren’t available there was always All-Star Western, Hopalong Cassidy (no longer on television but still a popular franchise) or the anthology titles from lower-rent houses like Atlas and Charlton.
The TV Westerns of my early childhood, like the Saturday matinee B movies of the generation before me, were pretty much interchangeable, distinguished one from the other by little more than the personalities of their stars. The Western comics were much the same, the star power in those cases being provided by the artists who drew them. It was my first exposure to the work of Joe Maneely, John Severin, Alex Toth, Dan Spiegle, Carmine Infantino, Frank Frazetta and Gil Kane – a hell of a lineup, whatever the genre.
Of course, there were differences beyond the art discernible even to a grade-school kid in that prehistoric age. The DC Westerns were bright and gimmicky, with heroes solving faux-supernatural puzzles or pitted against villains who mounted elaborate death traps. Written by the likes of Robert Kanigher and John Broome, many of the DC Western stories – particularly the “Johnny Thunder” and “Trigger Twins” strips, which revolved around heroes with double identities – were clear precursors to the Silver Age superhero comics that were just around the corner.
Stan Lee also cranked out a lot of Westerns of varying quality. After the company changed its name from Atlas to Marvel, the Westerns written by Lee, his brother Larry Lieber and a handful of others became as gimmicky as DC’s earlier stuff, with Kid Colt and the gang facing off against flashier bad guys and spouting ludicrous cowpoke patois. (A favorite seemed to be the exhortation, “Slap leather, yuh rannies!” To this day, I have no idea what a ranny was supposed to be.) It was a far cry from the scripts Lee and company were writing during the ‘50s, when Atlas produced some remarkably lean and effective stories in response to the “adult Western” trend of the day.
And then there were the books from Charlton, which were in some ways the most interesting of all – mostly because you never knew what the hell you were going to get after you opened the cover. Many of that company’s stories were so minimalistic and downright slapdash that they seemed to have been written in less time than it took to read them, while others were first-class little action stories of surprising maturity.
The cover above from a 1966 issue of Six-Gun Heroes is typical of the company’s grab-bag quality. The featured character, “Gunmaster,” was basically a cowpoke with a mask and, well, lots and lots of guns. Backing him up are Annie Oakley and Wyatt Earp, both of whose strips had been running in Charlton comics since the ‘50s. Note that Earp is depicted in the same flat hat and brocade vest that Hugh O’Brian wore in The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, a TV series that had been off the air since 1961. I remember noting details like that and wondering if some of the Charlton stories I was reading were older than I was, either reprints or long-in-the-tooth inventory. So much of the artwork was so utterly devoid of character that it was often impossible to tell what decade it came from.
At the time, it seemed more of a curiosity than a rip-off. And what did it matter if we were sometimes given older material if we’d never seen it before? After all, Westerns had been around forever, and there would surely be a lot more new stories to come.