Saturday, May 21, 2022

The Resurgence of Western Comic Books in the Late 1960s and Early 1970s Part Three

The Western genre had been part of American comic books nearly since the beginning of the medium. In 1948 there was a surge in popularity of Western comic books, with several publishers introducing their own Western titles. By the late Fifties the genre had faded in popularity, with several publishers cancelling their remaining Western comic books. While Marvel Comics and Charlton continued to publish a few Western titles, from the early to mid-Sixties there was a lull in Western comic books. This changed in the late Sixties when there was a resurgence in the genre in comic books, with such new titles as Marvel's Ghost Rider DC Comic's Bat Lash making their debuts. This resurgence may have reached its peak in 1970, but the resurgence would continue for several more years with yet more new titles and characters being introduced. Among the new characters introduced during the resurgence would be one who would not only be the most famous Western comic book character to emerge from the resurgence, but possibly the most famous Western comic book character of all time.

With the resurgence in Western comic books still going strong, a new comic book publisher would count Western titles among those they published. Skywald Publications entered the publishing field with the black and white comic magazine Nightmare in 1970. It was in 1971 that Skywald Publications made an attempt to enter the field of colour comic books under the imprint Skywald Comics. Of their first two titles one was a romance comic book (Tender Love Stories), while the other was a Western comic book titled Blazing Six Guns. Both were cover dated February 1971. Blazing Six Guns was an anthology title that included an original story featuring The Sundance Kid as well as reprints of Western stories from defunct publishers such as Magazine Enterprises and Avon. Blazing Six Guns only lasted two issues. It was followed by Wild Western Action, cover dated March 1971. Each issue of Wild Western Action included an original story featuring a team of Western heroes known collectively as The Bravados. as well as reprints from defunct publishers such as Toby, Magazine Enterprises, and Avon. Wild Western Action only lasted three issues.

Skywald Comics' first title devoted to a single character followed Wild Western Action. The first issue of Butch Cassidy was cover dated June 1971. Each issue featured an original story starring Butch Cassidy, and like Skywald's other titles each issue featured reprints from other publishers. Butch Cassidy proved about as successful as Wild Western Action. lasting only three issues. That same month saw The Sundance Kid get his own title. It followed the same format as Skywald's other Western titles, with an original story followed by several reprints. It also lasted only three issues. Skywald's last Western title was The Bravados, with the team of Western heroes getting its own title. It only lasted for one issue.

Skywald Comics did not prove particularly successful, a fact which editor Al Hewetson attributed to "a price war" between DC and Marvel "which hurt just about everybody." Skywald Comics published its last colour comic book with a cover date of October 1971, that book being Butch Cassidy no. 3. Skywald Publications continued publishing their black and white magazines until finally going out of business in 1975. Their last magazine published was Psycho no. 24 (March 1975).

While Skywald Comics' line of colour comic books failed, both Marvel and DC Comics continued publishing their own Western titles. It was in Avengers no. 80 (September 1970) that Marvel introduced a Native American superhero called Red Wolf. This Red Wolf lived in the Seventies, but Stan Lee decided he wanted the character to be set in the Old West. Red Wolf was then given a try-out starting out with Marvel Spotlight no. 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 was given his own title with Red Wolf no. 1 (May 1972). Unfortunately, Red Wolf would not prove to be successful. The title lasted for six issues before the setting was changed to modern times with someone else assuming the mantle of Red Wolf with issue no. 7 (May 1973). Red Wolf would only last two more issues. It would be decades before the Johnny Wakely version of Red Wolf would appear again. His first appearance in years would be in Rawhide Kid vol. 4 issue 2 (July 2010).

It was in late 1971 that Marvel would introduce another title that consisted solely of reprints. The Western Kid had been a character that Marvel had published in the Fifties, both in his own title and in the anthology title Gunsmoke Western. The Western Kid was was Tex Dawson, a gunfighter who wandered the Old West doing good. Unlike other Marvel characters, such as Kid Colt and The Rawhide Kid, he had never been accused of a crime and was not wanted by the law. A reprint title, The Western Kid, debuted with a cover date of December 1971. It would not prove to be as successful as some of Marvel's other Western reprint titles, only lasting five issues.

While Marvel would see little success with Red Wolf and its reprints of The Western Kid, DC Comics would see phenomenal success with their next Western character. In fact, it seems like that at this point Jonah Hex could well be the most famous Western character to debut in American comic books of all time. Jonah Hex is a bad tempered, cynical bounty hunter who, nonetheless, has a personal code of honour such that he will always protect the innocent. While many fictional Western comic book heroes could be matinee idols, one entire side of Jonah's face was scarred.

Jonah Hex made his first appearance in All-Star Western no. 10 (March 1972). After several issues of featuring the adventures of such historical figures as Billy the Kid and Buffalo Bill, All-Star Western shifted back to its original format with its 10th issue. Jonah Hex was the headliner, with El Diablo and Bat Lash stories filling out the issue. Jonah Hex proved to be successful, remaining the headliner when All-Star Western was retitled Weird Western Tales and remaining the headliner until he received his own title, Jonah Hex Vol. 1 No. 1 (March/April 1977). The title Jonah Hex proved to be successful, ultimately running for 92 issues until August 1985, easily outlasting the resurgence in Western comic books. Since then Jonah Hex appeared in the title Hex (in which Jonah is thrown forward in time to an apocalyptic future) and still later in several titles set in Old West. He also appeared in an episode of Batman: The Animated Series, a 2010 live action feature film, and the TV series Legends of Tomorrow.

It would only be two issues following Jonah Hex's first appearance that All-Star Western  was retitled Weird Western Tales. DC Comics had been publishing the anthology series Weird War Tales, which blended war stories with elements of horror, science fiction, and mystery. The title had proved successful, hence DC Comics retitled All-Star Western. And while it might seem unusual for DC Comics to have changed the format of All-Star Western to that of the Weird West, in some ways it  should not have been surprising. The origin of El Diablo, who had appeared in All-Star Western Volume 2, touched upon the supernatural. With Jonah Hex's introduction in issue no. 10, the Weird West elements in All-Star Western became even more pronounced. It must be pointed out that the late Sixties had also seen a resurgence of horror comic books, many of which proved to be highly successful. Regardless, with the new title and the not-quite-so-new format, Weird Western Tales proved to be a success. It ended its run with issue no. 70 (August 1980).

It was only a few months after Jonah Hex's first appearance that Marvel published its last new Western title with entirely new material. Gunhawks no. 1 (October 1972) introduced gunfighters Reno Jones and Kid Cassidy. Kid Cassidy was the son of Southern planters, while Reno Jones had been one of the Cassidys' slaves. After the plantation was attacked by Union forces and Reno's lover Rachel was abducted, Reno Jones and Kid Cassidy enlisted in the Confederate Army. After the war they wandered the West, searching for Rachel. Kid Cassidy was killed off in Gunhawks no. 6 (August 1973). The series was then retitled Reno Jones, Gunhawk. This made Reno Jones the second African American character to have his own title after Luke Cage. Reno Jones, Gunhawk no. 7 (October 1973) would also be the final issue of the title. Kid Cassidy and Reno Jones disappeared from the pages of comic books until the mini-series Blaze of Glory: The Last Ride of the Western Heroes in 2000, which told a more historically accurate (and politically correct) version of their story. Among  other things, Reno Jones never served in the Confederate Army.

The same month that Gunhawks debuted, Marvel also re-introduced one of their titles from the Fifties as a reprint title. Wyatt Earp no. 30 (October 1972) resumed the numbering of the title, which had last been published in 1960. Despite having the name recognition of a historical figure, the reprint title Wyatt Earp did not prove particularly successful. It lasted for four issues, ending with no. 34 (June 1973).

Marvel introduced yet another reprint title with Gun-slinger no. 1 (January 1973). Despite the title, this was another attempt on Marvel's part at reprinting old Western Kid stories. It proved no more successful than their attempt in 1971, lasting only three issues.

The failure of Gunhawks, Wyatt Earp, and Gun-slinger signalled the end of the resurgence of Western comic books. Not counting Jonah Hex receiving his own title in 1977, no new Western titles would debut for the rest of the decade. Nevertheless, Marvel would continue publishing such titles as Kid Colt, Outlaw and The Rawhide Kid for the remainder of decade. DC Comic would continue publishing Weird Western Tales. What is more, DC would debut two new characters in the pages of Weird Western Tales. When Jonah Hex received his own title, his place in Weird Western Tales was taken by Scalphunter. Brian Savage was a young boy when he was abducted by Kiowa Indians, who raised him. When he left the tribe, he assumed the name "Scalphunter." Scalphunter first appeared in Weird Western Tales no. 39 (March/April 1977). Scalphunter would continue to appear for the rest of the run of Weird Western Tales and has occasionally appeared in DC comic books since then.

It was in Weird Western Tales no. 48 (September-October 1978) that DC Comics introduced another new Western character. Cinnamon was born Katherine "Kate" Masner. Her father was a sheriff in a Western town. When her father was killed, by bank robbers, Kate was sent to an orphanage. While there she secretly taught herself to be a gunfighter. Once she came of age, she became a bounty hunter. Cinnamon would only appear in two issues of Weird Western Tales, but would prove to have some success in the long run. She has appeared sporadically in comic books ever since. In more recent comic books she has been teamed with the old DC Comics character Nighthawk. She has also appeared in an episode of the TV show Legends of Tomorrow.

Marvel Comics would attempt to introduce a new Western character in 1980. Caleb Hammer was a Pinkerton detective in the Old West who appeared in Marvel Premiere no. 54 (June 1980).  That would remain his only appearance until he resurfaced in the 2000 mini-series Blaze of Glory: The Last Ride of the Western Heroes.

Even though DC Comics would introduce two new Western characters in the late Seventies, the resurgence in Western comic books more or less ended in 1982. The resurgence's end marked the start of a slow decline for the Western genre in comic books. Marvel cancelled Western Gunfighters in 1975 and The Mighty Marvel Western in 1976. They cancelled The Two-Gun Kid in 1977. It was in 1979 that Marvel cancelled its two remaining Western titles: Kid Colt, Outlaw ended its run after thirty one years, making him the longest continuously published Western comic book character of all time. That same year The Rawhide Kid ended its run as well. It was the following year that DC Comics cancelled Weird Western Tales. Only Jonah Hex would last into the Eighties, ending its run in 1985.

As to what brought the resurgence of Western comic books to an end, that can be attributed to the decline of the popularity of the Western genre as a whole in American society. While the Western was a popular film genre in the Thirties, Forties, Fifties, and even the Sixties, in the Seventies the Western was not nearly as popular as it once was. In the Seventies only Blazing Saddles (1974), which was notably a parody of the genre, ranked in the top ten highest grossing movies for its year. In the late Fifties  there was often at least one Western television show on every night. The Seventies saw the cancellation of the long running Westerns Bonanza and Gunsmoke. Even readership for Western fiction began declining in the mid-Seventies. With the Western genre declining in popularity in other media, in some respects it is remarkable that it persisted in comic books as long as it did.

While the resurgence in Western comic books only lasted from about 1967 to 1976, it would have a lasting impact. At Marvel, The Ghost Rider, rechristened The Phantom Rider, would continue to appear in Marvel comic books, even playing a role in titles devoted to the motorcyclist known as The Ghost Rider.  At DC Comics, Jonah Hex would prove so successful that his fame may well exceed characters who originated in the Forties, Fifties, and Sixties, such as Kid Colt, Pow-Wow Smith, and The Rawhide Kid. Other characters, such as El Diablo, Scalphunter, and Cinnamon still appear from time to time. Strangely enough, while  historically Marvel had more success with Westerns than DC prior to the resurgence (after all, they continued to publish Western comic books from 1948 to 1980), DC Comics had more success than Marvel did during the resurgence. Weird Western Tales would be longest running Western title to emerge during the resurgence, while Jonah Hex, a title devoted to a character from the resurgence, would be the longest running Western title to debut in the Seventies.

Both Marvel and DC Comics have returned to the Western genre from time to time since the end of the resurgence in Western comic books in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 2000 Marvel published the mini-series Blaze of Glory, followed by its sequel Apache Skies in 2002. A controversial third volume of The Rawhide Kid was published in 2003 followed by a sequel mini-series, Rawhide Kid: The Sensational Seven, in 2010. DC Comics has perhaps made more use of their Western characters, with three mini-series featuring Jonah Hex alone, as well as two new titles starring the character. As part of the New 52, DC Comics even published a third volume of All-Star Western that continued the adventures of Jonah Hex and also featured such characters as Nighthawk, Cinnamon, Tomahawk, and Bat Lash. It lasted for 34 issues. While the heyday of the Western comic book may be long past, it is safe to say that some of the characters from the resurgence in Western comic books that lasted from 1967 to 1973 will be around for a long time.

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