Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Marvel Comics Westerns Part One: The Beginning

Today Marvel Comics is best known for such superheroes as Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, and Iron Man. While Marvel's superheroes are a billion dollar business today, there was a time when the companies that would become Marvel Comics published a wide array of genres beyond superheroes. In fact, more so than superheroes, Marvel can lay claim to being the biggest publisher of Western comic books in the history of the medium. From the Forties to the Seventies, Marvel published more Western comic books than any other publisher. What is more, Marvel's Western characters had lasting power. The longest running Western character in comic book history is Kid Colt, whose title was published by Marvel from 1948 to 1979, nearly 31 years in all.

In some respects it should come as no surprise that Marvel Comics would publish so many Western titles in its history. Before Martin Goodman published comic books, he was an established publisher of pulp magazines. In 1932 he founded two companies, Mutual Magazine Distributors and Newsstand Publishers, with Louis Silberkleit (who would go onto found MLJ Comics, now Archie Comics, with Maurice Coyne and John L. Goldwater). Their first publication was Western Supernovel Magazine, cover dated May 1933. It would soon be retitled Complete Western Book Magazine and became Martin Goodman's longest running pulp magazine. Martin Goodman's publishing career then began with a Western pulp magazine.

It was in 1939 that Martin Goodman entered the burgeoning field of comic books with Marvel Comics #1, October 1939. As with his pulp magazines, Martin Goodman published his comic books through a number of shell companies, all of them operating from the same office. Among these shell companies were Animirth Comics, Zenith Publications, and even one called Marvel Comics (this well before the name was formally adopted in 1961). For simplicity's sake, I will simply refer to all of these shell companies as "Marvel," as anachronistic as that may be. Although today Marvel is regarded as one of the two big comic book companies, this was hardly the case during the Golden Age of Comic Books (roughly 1938 to 1949). Although  Marvel did respectively well in the Golden Age, it was outpaced by the companies that would become DC Comics and other companies such as Fawcett Publications (publisher of the original Captain Marvel) and Dell Comics. During the Golden Age, Marvel had only three truly popular superheroes (The Human Torch, The Sub-mariner, and Captain America) and published titles in a wide variety of other genres.

In fact, Marvel's earliest Western character appeared in that first issue of Marvel Comics, alongside The Human Torch and The Sub-Mariner. The Masker Raider was Jim Gardley, a cowhand who found himself framed for cattle rustling after he turned down a wealthy rancher's offer to work for him as a hired gun. Gardley then became The Masked Raider to get justice for himself and afterwards travelled round the West meting out justice to evil-doers. The Masked Raider would not prove to be particularly successful. He lasted for only twelve issues in Marvel Mystery Comics (as Marvel Comics had been renamed).

It would be several years before Marvel would publish its next Western character. In the meantime, superheroes became phenomenally popular during World War II and then began a gradual decline as the war came to close. Comic book publishers soon turned to other genres beyond superheroes, among them crime, romance, and Westerns. In some respects it should come as no surprise that comic book publishers would begin mining the Western genre, as B-Westerns were popular children's fare in the Forties. As early as 1941 Fawcett Publications had published a Gene Autry title. It was in 1946 that Dell Comics began a successful run of Gene Autry comic books that would run until 1959. Fawcett Publications published a one-shot Hopalong Cassidy title in 1943 and then launched a continuing title in 1946. Like Gene Autry, the Hopalong Cassidy comic book would run until 1959. The late Forties would see yet more cowboys stars receive their own comic book titles. It was then only a matter of time before comic book publishers would begin creating their own Western heroes.

That year happened to be 1948. Western comic books proved to be a big trend in the industry, with several publishers launching their own Western titles. DC Comics launched the simply named Western Comics, the first issue titled dated January/February 1948. Prize Comics changed the format of its flagship title Prize Comics to the Western genre with Prize Western #68, May 1948. Dell Comics, know for publishing licensed properties, published their first issue of The Lone Ranger, cover dated January/February 1948.

More so than other comic book publishers, Marvel Comics in the late Forties well into the Fifties had a tendency to follow any trend that came along. Quite naturally, then, Marvel Comics also entered the field of Western comic books in 1948. Marvel's Western line would become part of their bread and butter for the next few decades. Indeed, Marvel published so many Western characters that to detail all of them would take a rather large book. They entered the field with Two-Gun Kid #1, March 1948.

The original Two-Gun Kid was Marvel's first major Western character. He was Clay Harder, who had been wrongly accused of murder and afterwards wandered the West on his horse Cyclone. The Two-Gun Kid differed from many other Western characters created in comic books in that he was a singing cowboy, much like Gene Autry or Roy Rogers. Not only did he travel the West with his two guns, but this guitar as well. The Two-Gun Kid initially did not prove overly successful. His title only lasted for a year and a half. That having been said, he continued as a back up feature in other titles and proved popular enough to get his own title back in 1953. This time it proved more successful, running until 1961.

Cover dated the same month as Two-Gun Kid #1 was a title very loosely based on a historical character. Annie Oakley ran for four issues, until November 1948. It was revived with issue #5, June 1955 and ran until issue #11, June 1956. Annie Oakley would not be the last historical figure upon which Marvel based a comic book.

Two-Gun Kid was soon followed by a Western anthology, Wild West, its first issue cover dated spring 1948. Wild West not only featured the Two Gun Kid, but such characters as Arizona Annie and Tex Taylor. While Arizona Annie would only have limited success, Tex Taylor would eventually get his own magazine. Tex Taylor launched with its first issue, cover dated September 1948, and ran for nine issues. As to the character of Tex Taylor himself, he was a vigilante who travelled the West righting wrongs. As to the anthology title Wild West, it was renamed Wild Western with its third issue and ran until 1957.

While some of the Western characters introduced by Marvel in 1948 saw only limited success, Kid Colt, Hero of the West #1, August 1948 introduced the company's most successful Western hero in terms of longevity. With issue #3, the title was changed to the more provocative Kid Colt, Outlaw. The origin of Kid Colt was one that Marvel had used for the original Two-Gun Kid and would use again and again for various Western characters. He was Blaine Colt, who was wrongly accused of murder and then went on the run, righting wrongs throughout the West as he did so. While Kid Colt's origin may not have been particularly original, the character proved very successful.  Kid Colt, Outlaw ran for 229 issues, from 1948 to 1979, longer than any other American Western comic book. The character of Kid Colt not only appeared in his own title, but also in the pages of Wild Western and later Gunsmoke Western.

While Kid Colt would see a good deal of success, the character of Blaze Carson would not. Unlike many of Marvel's Western characters, Blaze Carson was a lawman, a sheriff in the Old West. He first appeared in Blaze Carson #1, September 1948. The title only lasted for five issues. With issue #6 it was retitled Rex Hart, featuring the character of that name.

It was the success of Marvel's Western titles that would lead the company to switch their superhero anthology series All Winners (volume 2) to a Western format. With the second issue of volume 2, winter 1948, it became All Western Winners. The character of The Black Rider was introduced in that issue. The Black Rider was Matthew Masters, a former criminal known as The Cactus Kid who eventually reformed and still later took the mantle of The Black Rider to fight crime. After All Western Winners became simply Western Winners with issue #5 June 1949, the title was again retitled Black Rider with its eighth issue, March 1950. Black Rider proved somewhat successful, and the character remained its star until it became the anthology title Gunsmoke Western with issue #32, December 1955. Gunsmoke Western starred Kid Colt, and also featured the original Two-Gun Kid, The Ringo Kid, and others.

One notable thing about Marvel's Western comic books is that the company did not publish cowboy star comic books the way that other companies did. For instance, Fawcett published comic books devoted to Hopalong Cassidy, Gabby Hayes, Lash LaRue, Monte Hale, and Rocky Lane. Dell published titles devoted to Gene Autry, Rex Allen, and Johnny Mack Brown.  In contrast, Marvel  published only two. Reno Browne was an actress and equestrian who starred in 14 B-Westerns in her career. It was with issue #50, April 1950 that Marvel retitled its teen humour title Margie, Reno Browne Hollywood's Greatest Cowgirl. Reno Browne lasted for three issues before the cowgirl star lost her title to The Apache Kid with no. 53, December 1950. Whip Wilson starred in B-Westerns made by Poverty Row studio Monogram Pictures. Not counting uncredited roles, he appeared in a total of 23 movies. Whip Wilson took over the numbering of Rex Hart, beginning with #9, April 1950. The title did not prove very successful, as it lasted only until #11, September 1950. Afterwards the title was renamed Gunhawk and taken over by the character of that name.

As to The Apache Kid, he first appeared in Two-Gun Western #5, November 1950. The Apache Kid was a white man who had been raised by the Apache after he had been orphaned. While The Apache Kid had taken over the numbering of Reno Browne, the title switched to #2 with its second issue. The Apache Kid proved somewhat successful, running until issue #10, January 1952. It was revived with issue no. 11, December 1954 and ran until no. 19, April 1956.

By the end of the Forties, Marvel was well established as a publisher of Western comic books. It even had one of the big hits of the era to its credit, Kid Colt, Outlaw. In the Fifties, Marvel would establish itself as the foremost publisher of Westerns, even as the survival of the company was an uncertainty.

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