Thursday, January 9, 2020

Marvel Comics Westerns Part Two: The Fifties

With superheroes in decline following World War II, the comic book industry began expanding into other genres, such as crime, romance, and horror. The ever popular Western was among the genres into which comic book publishers expanded. In 1948 there was a bumper crop of Western titles. Western comic books would be at their height from the late Forties to nearly the mid-Fifties.

Among the comic book companies that would capitalise on the boom in Western titles was the publishing empire of Martin Goodman, which I will simply refer to as "Marvel," however anachronistic that may be. Marvel entered the Western field with The Two-Gun Kid in 1948. They followed it up with a number of other titles, including the hit Kid Colt, Outlaw. Although today known for their superheroes, in the end Marvel would publish a number of Western comic books over the years. What is more, they published them well into the Seventies.

It was in 1951 that Martin Goodman formed his own distribution company, Atlas News Company, which would distribute both the comic books and other magazines published by his many shell companies. Both Martin Goodman's comic books and his other magazines would then bear an "Atlas" logo for the next several years. It is for this reason that comic books published by the companies that would become Marvel are known collectively as "Atlas Comics," even though it was only the name of Martin Goodman's distribution company.

Regardless of the changes in the distribution of Martin Goodman's publications, Marvel would continue to see success with their Western titles. Their very first Western character, the original Two-Gun Kid's own title had ended with its tenth issue (November 1949). That having been said, The Two-Gun Kid would continue to appear in Marvel's Western anthology titles and got his own title back with Two-Gun Kid #11, December 1953. This time it would prove more successful, lasting until issue #59, April 1961. Even after the second cancellation of Two-Gun Kid, it would not be the last readers would hear of a character by that name, even if it would be different character in the Sixties.

Marvel would follow the revival of The Two-Gun Kid's title with another Western anthology, Western Outlaws, in February 1954. The years 1954 and 1955 would see a boom in Marvel's Western comic books, with Marvel publishing several new titles. Even a small sampling of them makes for a long list. The first of these was Ringo Kid, the first issue of which was cover dated August 1954. The Ringo Kid was unusual among Western characters of the era in that he was half white, half Native American (although the tribe varied from story to story--at times given as Comanche and at times given as Cheyenne). Because he was half Native American, The Ringo Kid was an outcast in white society. Making matters worse, like a good number of Marvel's Western characters, he had been falsely accused of a crime. Ringo Kid proved successful, running 21 issues until September 1957.

The following month Outlaw Kid debuted. The Outlaw Kid was created by well-known illustrator Doug Wildey, who would later create the animated television series Jonny Quest. The Outlaw Kid was lawyer Lance Temple, he created the masked identity of "The Outlaw Kid" in order to right wrongs. Like Ringo Kid before it, Outlaw Kid proved successful, lasting for nineteen issues until September 1957.

Marvel Comics clearly liked characters with the word "Kid" in their name, as another they would add yet another "kid" to their stable later in 1954. Debuting in Western Kid #1, November 1954, The Western Kid was Tex Dawson. Unlike many of Marvel's Western characters, Dawson was never falsely convicted of a crime. It would seem that he just enjoyed travelling the West and doing good. Indeed, he was even respected by lawmen. Western Kid proved to be a success, lasting for 17 issues until August 1957.

While the Outlaw Kid and the Western Kid have largely been forgotten, the "Rawhide Kid" is a name that is still recognizable to comic book fans today. That having been said, the Rawhide Kid who debuted in Rawhide Kid #1 , March 1955 was a different character than the one most people are familiar with today. The original Rawhide Kid was an unnamed gunfighter who dressed in buckskin and used a whip and lasso as well as his gun. Although not as well known as the later incarnation of the Rawhide Kid, this version proved successful in his day. The title ran until September 1957.

Although it might seem as if every Western character published by Marvel had the word "kid" in his name, that wasn't the case. In fact, after having published an Annie Oakley title, Marvel would also publish a title dedicated to another historical figure. Wyatt Earp #1 was cover dated November 1955. This should come as no surprise, as Wyatt Earp, the historical marshal of Dodge City, Kansas and Tombstone, Arizona had already proven popular in media beyond comic books. By 1955 he had already been featured in three movies: Frontier Marshal (1934), Frontier Marshal (1939), and My Darling Clementine (1946). In September 1955 the television series The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp debuted on ABC. Wyatt Earp proved to be a success, running for 29 issues until November 1960.

Wyatt Earp was not the only lawman published by Marvel, although Matt Slade was a fictional creation. Matt Slade was a U.S. Marshal who eventually worked undercover among outlaws, using the nickname "Kid Slade." Matt Slade, Gunfighter #1 was cover dated May 1956. With #5, January 1957 the title was changed to Kid Slade. The title would not last much longer. It was cancelled with issue #8, July 1957.

By 1956 Marvel was publishing several Western titles, many of which were fairly successful. Unfortunately, events would unfold that would lead to the cancellation of many of those titles. In late 1956 Martin Goodman closed Atlas News Company and arranged for his comic books and other magazines to be distributed through American News Company. American News Company was the largest magazine, newspaper, book, and comic book distribution company in the United States, and distributed a lion's share of the comic books published in the country. Unfortunately, in 1952 the United States government had begun antitrust litigation against American News Company. The lawsuit would prove disastrous to American News Company, with major publishers beginning to leave the company. Ultimately, American News Company shut down in 1957.

Of course, this left Martin Goodman without a distributor for his publications. As Stan Lee explained in a 1988 interview with Comic Book Artist, "....we couldn't go back to distributing our own books because the fact that Martin quit doing it and went with American News had gotten the wholesalers very angry ...and it would have been impossible for Martin to just say, 'Okay, we'll go back to where we were and distribute our books.'" Martin Goodman then found himself in the unenviable position of having to make a deal with Independent News Co., the distribution company owned by rival DC Comics (then formally known as National Periodical Publications). Independent News restricted Marvel to only eight titles a month, this after years of having published over fifty titles a month.

As a result, many of Marvel's Western titles would end their runs in 1957. Only a few, such as Kid Colt, Outlaw; Two-Gun Kid; Wyatt Earp; and Gunsmoke Western survived. That having been said, while Marvel would publish fewer Western comic books in the Sixties, in some respects the best was yet to come for the company's Western characters.

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