Friday, January 10, 2020

Marvel Comics Westerns Part Three: Riding Off into the Sunset

The heyday of Western comic books lasted from the late Forties to about the mid-Fifties. The late Fifties saw many comic book publishers cancelling their Western titles. The majority of Western comic books cancelled at the time were the many cowboy movie star titles, perhaps because Hollywood had largely stopped making B-Westerns in the early Fifties. That having been said, other Western titles were cancelled as well. Prize Western, Red Ryder, and Straight Arrow all ended their runs in 1956. DC Comics cancelled both of its Western titles, Western Comics and All-Star Western, in 1961. While the late Fifties saw the cancellation of many Western comic books, Westerns did not entirely disappear from newsstands and comic book racks in the Sixties. Charlton Comics continued publishing Western comic books well into the Seventies, and continued publishing their title Billy the Kid until 1983. While they would publish Westerns in fewer numbers than they had in the Fifties, Marvel would continue to publish Western comic books until the end of the Seventies.

Of course, what would become Marvel Comics would undergo changes in the early Sixties. It was with Journey into Mystery #69 (June 1961) and Patsy Walker #95 (June 1961) that the company began formally branding itself "Marvel Comics." With Fantastic Four #1 (November 1961)  Marvel Comics re-entered the field of superheroes. Not only would Marvel Comics' line be increasingly dominated by superheroes as the Sixties progressed, but by the end of the decade Marvel had become DC Comics' chief rival.

While Marvel's Western characters would be overshadowed by the company's superheroes starting in the Sixties, their Western characters would continue to be popular throughout the decade. In fact, Marvel Comics would introduce two significant new characters, although both used the name of older characters. It was with Rawhide Kid #17 (August 1960) that writer Stan Lee, penciller Jack Kirby, and inker Dick Ayers introduced a new version of The Rawhide Kid. This new Rawhide Kid was Johnny Clay (later changed to Johnny Bart), who, like many of Marvel's Western characters, was falsely accused of a crime and forced to go on the run. The new Rawhide Kid was a short, soft spoken redhead with a gift for the fast draw and brawling. At a time when Western titles at other publishers were being cancelled, Rawhide Kid proved to be a hit.

Following the introduction of a new Rawhide Kid, Marvel then introduced a new Two-Gun Kid. Two-Gun Kid having ended its run with no 59 (April 1961), Two-Gun Kid #60 (November 1961) saw the introduction of an entirely new character by that name. The new Two-Gun Kid was Matt Hawk, a lawyer who decided to fight crime after reading dime novels featuring Clay Harder, known as The Two-Gun Kid (Marvel Comics' original character of that name). Matt Hawk then donned a mask to become the crimefighter known as The Two-Gun Kid. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had given the new Two-Gun Kid a dual identity so that he would closer resemble a superhero. Curiously, Marvel would sometimes reprint stories featuring the original Two-Gun Kid with the art redrawn so he resembled the new version.

While superheroes became increasingly popular as the Sixties progressed, Marvel's Western characters remained popular. According to sales figures from the website Comichron, Rawhide Kid ranked in the top-selling comic books for most of the decade, with Kid Colt, Outlaw also occasionally ranking. In the Sixties Marvel Comics may have been better known for their superheroes, but their Western characters were still selling well.

While superheroes dominated the early to mid-Sixties, by the late Sixties sales for superhero comic books were beginning to decline. Quite naturally, then, comic book publishers began to look to other genres. The horror genre was revitalised with such titles as DC Comics' The Witching Hour and Marvel's Chamber of Darkness. Before the revitalization of horror comic books, however, there was a slight resurgence in Western titles.

Given they already published Western titles, it should come as no surprise that Marvel would publish the first title in this revival of Western comic books. Beginning in 1950, Magazine Enterprises had published a character called The Ghost Rider. The original Ghost Rider was Rex Fury, a masked crimefighter who often found himself facing supernatural menaces. Quite simply Magazine Enterprises' Ghost Rider may well have been the first Weird Western in the history of comic books. It was in 1967 that Marvel Comics took advantage of the lapsed trademark and created their own Ghost Rider. Marvel's Ghost Rider was Carter Slade, who donned a mask and a phosphorescent costume to fight crime. Unlike Magazine Enterprises' Ghost Rider, Marvel's Ghost Rider did not fight supernatural menaces. Instead, Ghost Rider was a fairly straightforward Western. Marvel's Ghost Rider debuted in Ghost Rider #1 (February 1967). Ghost Rider would only run for seven issues, but the character would later appear in the Western anthology Western Gunfighters.

The failure of Marvel's Ghost Rider did not sidetrack the revival of Western comic books in the late Sixties. It was over a year later that DC Comics introduced the character of Bat Lash in Showcase #76 (August 1968). Bat Lash received his own short-lived magazine with Bat Lash #1 (October/November 1968).  DC Did not let the failure of Bat Lash stop them from moving further into the field of Westerns. The company launched All-Star Western with issue #1 (September 1970). It was only a few months later that DC Comics changed the format of their Revolutionary War themed title Tomahawk to that of a Western, the covers now emblazoned Hawk, Son of Tomahawk. While Hawk, Son of Tomahawk would only last for nine issues, All-Star Western proved somewhat successful. With its tenth issue (February/March 1972) it introduced the character of Jonah Hex, the most successful Western character to emerge since the Sixties. All-Star Western would be rebranded Weird Western Tales starting with issue #12 and ultimately ran for seventy issues.

Of course, unlike DC Comics, Marvel had never abandoned the Western genre, continuing to publish various Westerns throughout the Sixties. In fact, Marvel's responded to the renewed interest in Western comic books by creating titles filled with reprints of their earlier work. The first of these was The Mighty Marvel Western, which launched with a cover date of October 1968. The Mighty Marvel Western featured reprints of Kid Colt, Rawhide Kid, and Two-Gun Kid stories, as well as occasional Matt Slade stories as well.

The Mighty Marvel Western would be followed by several more reprint titles. Ringo Kid reprinted old Ringo Kid stories and ran for 30 issues from January 1970 to November 1976. It was followed by Outlaw Kid, which ran for 30 issues from August 1970 to October 1975. Later in the Seventies Marvel would relaunch Wyatt Earp with issue #30 (October 1972), reprinting old Wyatt Earp stories. It ran for only for four issues, ending with #34 (June 1973).

Not every new Western title Marvel published in the Seventies featured exclusively reprints. While Western Gunfighters bore the title of an earlier Marvel Western anthology, it initially featured original material. Starting with issue #1 (August 1970), it featured such series as "Gunhawk," "Tales of Fort Rango," and "Renegades, " as well as new Ghost Rider stories. With issue #8 (April 1972) Western Gunfighters became a reprint title featuring old Black Rider, Outlaw Kid, Apache Kid, Matt Slade, and even Kid Colt stories.

It was with Avengers #80 (cover-dated Sept. 1970) that Marvel introduced a Native American superhero called Red Wolf. While this Red Wolf lived in the present day, Stan Lee wanted the character to be set in the Old West. It was then that the character was featured in Marvel's try-out magazine Marvel Spotlight starting with issue #1 (November 1971). Red Wolf was Johnny Wakely, a Cheyenne man who had been raised by white people. After stumbling upon the grave of a Cheyenne warrior known as Red Wolf, he was visited by a Native American spirit known as Owayodata and he became Red Wolf. Red Wolf received his own title with issue #1 (May 1972).  Red Wolf remained a Western only for six issues. With issue #7 (May 1973) it shifted to a modern day setting with someone else donning the mantle of Red Wolf. It only lasted two more issues.

It was a few months after Red Wolf received his own title that Marvel launched another Western title with Gunhawks #1 (October 1972). Gunhawks centred on Kid Cassidy, a Confederate veteran of the Civil War, and Reno Jones, a former African American slave. Together they became wandering gunslingers, searching for the woman Reno loved, Rachel Brown, who had been kidnapped. It was with Gunhawks #6 (August 1973) that Kid Cassidy was killed. Gunhawks was then retitled Reno Jones, Gunhawk with its next issue, #7 (October 1972). This made Reno Jones only the second African American character at Marvel, after Luke Cage, to have his own title. Unfortunately, this would be the final issue of the magazine.

By the mid-Seventies, Western comic books would once more be in decline. Following Gunhawks, Marvel debuted no new Western titles for the rest of the decade. Kid Colt, Outlaw had increasingly begun featuring reprints as far back as 1966. With issue #142 (January 1970)  it entirely became a reprint title. Two-Gun Kid began featuring reprints in 1970 and with #105 (July 1972) it became exclusively a reprint title. Rawhide Kid became exclusively a reprint title with issue #116 (October 1973).

Not only did Marvel's long-running Western titles begin printing reprints exclusively, but one by one the company began cancelling Western comic books. Western Gunfighters ended its run in 1975. The Mighty Marvel Western ended its run in 1976. Two-Gun Kid was cancelled the following year, in 1977. After over thirty years, Kid Colt, Outlaw ended with issue #229 (April 1979).  Rawhide Kid ended the following month with issue #151 (May 1979).

Before the Seventies were over, Marvel would make one last attempt at a Western. Caleb Hammer appeared in Marvel Premiere #54 (June 1980). Caleb Hammer was a Pinkerton detective in the Old West. For may years, his appearance in Marvel Premiere would be his only appearance.

Over the years Marvel would revive some of its better known Western characters. The Two-Gun Kid would even join Marvel's best-known superhero team The Avengers for a time. The 2000 mini-series Blaze of Glory featured several of Marvel's Western characters, including The Two-Gun Kid, Rawhide Kid, Kid Colt, Outlaw Kid, Reno Jones, Red Wolf, and Caleb Hammer. The Rawhide Kid starred in the 1985 mini-series The Rawhide Kid which featured the character in middle age. The 1995 mini-series The Two-Gun Kid: Sunset Killers featured the character of that name. In 2003 there was a controversial mini-series, Rawhide Kid: Slap Leather, which reinterpreted the character as gay. It was followed by Rawhide Kid: The Sensational Seven in 2010, which also featured Marvel characters Kid Colt, Red Wolf, and The Two-Gun Kid, as well as historical figures.  In between those two mini-series Marvel published issues under the title The Mighty Marvel Western. The year 2006 saw the publication of Kid Colt and The Arizona Girl (AKA Arizona Annie), Strange Westerns Starring The Black Rider, and The Two-Gun Kid.

Today it seems likely that only people of a certain age, as well as comic book historians and some comic book fans, even remember that Marvel published Western comic books. Despite this, Westerns played a large role in the history of Western comic books. Marvel saw more success with their Western titles than any other comic book publisher, and may well have published more Western titles than any other comic book publisher as well. In the dark days following the collapse of the distribution company American News Company and before the publication of Fantastic Four #1, it was largely their Western titles that allowed Marvel to survive. And while their Western titles would be overshadowed by their superhero titles in the Sixties, Marvel's Western comic books continued to be successful well into the Sixties. Indeed, Marvel Comics published Western comic books with nearly no interruption for over thirty years, from 1948 to 1979.

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