Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Mighty Marvel Westerns

The Marvel westerns have usually been neglected or dismissed, perhaps rightfully so in terms of the presence and dramatics afforded the superheroes. It may not be a genre they are noted for, but I’ve always found something interesting about the “Kid” heroes; Kid Colt, Two-Gun Kid and Rawhide Kid, in particular, the “big three” of my childhood. The westerns were always far removed from the superhero shenanigans of the Marvel Age, even though Stan Lee tried to indirectly tie them in by using costumed villains from time to time, but they remained on the edge, in their own little niche (at least until Steve Englehart tied them into the Marvel Universe in the Avengers in 1975. I once asked Stan why he didn’t cross-over the Western characters bad he simply said he never thought of it. I suspect the primary reason was there was little interest in them, as far as fan base was concerned, and they were thought of as lesser titles). Kid Colt always seemed to be drawn by Jack Keller, a solid if not entirely dramatic artist, who seemed particularly suited to the character. Larry Lieber, in his best Kirby style, wrote and drew the Rawhide Kid for many years, and Two-Gun was usually at the helm of steadfast Dick Ayers, although Ogden Whitney drew quite a few issues before new material was phased out.

My first Rawhide Kid comic. Issue # 75, April 1970, Larry Lieber pencils and inks
I slowly got interested in westerns, having been immersed in Marvel’s superhero fare growing up. I don’t recall the first western I read, although I have a dim memory of a kid Colt comic in the house, probably purchased by Brother John. In 1967 Martin Goodman took the name of The Ghost Rider, a western hero created by Ray Krank and Dick Ayers for Magazine Enterprises. It was not the first time Goodman took control of an out of date trademark (does the name Daredevil ring a bell?) and this time around, since Dick Ayers was working at Marvel, he was assigned the strip, with Roy Thomas plotting and Gary Friedrich scripting. Dick has recounted that he never knew that Marvel didn’t own the character until years later, when he spoke to Editor Vin Sullivan. One reason the Ghost Rider was given his own book, according to Mark Evanier, was because Independent News did not allow Marvel to add another superhero title. They reportedly could add a western title, and the idea was to make it as superhero-ish as possible, hence the costumed, masked Ghost Rider, who also fought costumed villains such as the Tarantula, and was advertised as “In the style of a western Spider-Man”. The first issue I recall seeing was # 5, and I was instantly attracted to the white garbed hero with a full face mask and “Spider-Man” eyes that pre-dated Spidey (one wonders if the original provided any inspiration for Steve Ditko).  The Ghost Rider only lasted seven issues; they were interesting but not on the highest level. Still, I missed the character and wanted to see more. At that point I likely had no knowledge of the earlier version; I assumed this was a “new” character.

The Ghost Rider # 5, Sept 1967. Dick Ayers pencils; Vince Colletta inks

After a two year hiatus the Ghost Rider did return, as the star of a new 25 cent anthology entitled Western Gunfighters. Ayers was back, inked in the first installment by Tom Sutton, who lent an appropriately eerie atmosphere to the art. This version was again not long for the world, and the book soon reverted to all reprint material and a standard 20 page format. Soon after, the western Ghost Rider was replaced by a contemporary, motorcycle riding hero, once again written by Gary Friedrich. The western character was relegated to occasional appearances in the Marvel Universe, and when the originals were reprinted his name was changed to the NIGHT Rider, which always bothered me (couldn’t we have had a reprint series entitled “the Original Ghost Rider”? Wouldn’t kids be able to differentiate between a motorcycle and a horse?).     
After Western Gunfighters, there was very little new material produced by Marvel in the 1970s. Reprints abounded, though, and one distinctive memory was of buying the first issue of a western comic entitled the Ringo Kid. It featured a tall hero, clad in black, and the art was distinctive. I immediately liked the art, which was by a guy named Joe Maneely, who I would grow to appreciate (and learn much more about, thanks to Timely-Atlas Historian and good friend Michael Vassallo) in the years to come. Truth to tell, I’d seen Maneely’s art in a few Marvel Tales “Black Knight” reprints earlier, but for some reason that Ringo Kid cover touched a nerve.   

The clean, attractive artwork of Joe Maneely instantly attracted my attention. The Ringo Kid # 1, Jan 1970, reprinted cover from Ringo Kid Western # 18, 1954
I continued to buy many of the western reprints, attracted most of the time by the cover art. Gil Kane, prolific cover artist on the superhero line, also loved westerns and did some of his best work on the covers (one of his favorites turned out to be one of mine – which I discovered when I spoke to him at a con and gave it to him to sign).

Mighty Marvel Western # 44, of which, when I handed it to Gil Kane, he told me it was one of his favorite covers and that I have good taste 

Marvel was also graced with the distinctive pen work of John Severin, who also excelled in the genre. Of course, earlier on Jack Kirby drew some exciting Rawhide Kid stories, many of which were reprinted in the 1970s, along with his distinctive covers on Kid Colt, Two-Gun kid, etc. Herb Trimpe did some nice work, as did Dick Ayers (naturally), Larry Lieber, and the occasional special covers by the likes of Gene Colan, Jim Steranko, John Buscema and Paul Gulacy.   

Kid Colt, Outlaw # 214, Jan 1977. Gene Colan pencils; Klaus Janson inks
By the late 1970s, even the reprints were being phased out at Marvel, and aside from a few revivals, have pretty much disappeared from view. Meanwhile I scoured conventions, collecting many of the original Atlas westerns, such as Gunsmoke Western, enjoying the covers and work of artists such as Russ Heath, Bill Everett, Carl Burgos, John Severin, and of course, Joe Maneely. Inside there are numerous examples of superior craftsmanship by the likes of Werner Roth, Joe Sinnott, Jack Keller, Dick Ayers, Don Heck, Angelo Torres and many others. For some it is their best work, and their love of the genre stands out.  While the stories are usually standard fare, there are exceptions to the rule, and many are comparable to other genre shorts.

Gunsmoke Western # 56, Jan 1960. Jack Kirby pencils; Steve Ditko inks
While it is understandable that Marvel, in particular, concentrated their interests on the best-selling superheroes in the 1960s and 1970s, it’s unfortunate that we didn’t get to see what Jim Steranko, Gene Colan or John Buscema could have done with a well written script (Steve Englehart was set to write a Ringo Kid series, some of which was penciled by Dick Ayers, but it was shelved. You can see more on Steve's site:
The Marvel westerns might not always have been mighty, but they were not without charms of their own.     


Jacque Nodell said...

I really haven't read them, but I know Justin likes them quite a bit although he laments that the '70s books were mostly reprints. But that is how My Love and Our Love Story are really -- not enough original material. A Steranko Western would have been pretty spectacular!

Nick Caputo said...

Hi Jacque,

Steranko in any genre was great. And speaking of romance comics, I think I might devote a post to how I got interested in that genre sometime soon.

Jacque Nodell said...

That would be awesome! Looking forward to it!

Booksteve said...

Steranko did do some lovely western covers when he returned to Marvel.

Nick Caputo said...


Steranko did do some nice covers. although I wish there were more of them. Steranko was versatile and looked good in any genre.

Vintage Media Company said...
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Henry R. Kujawa said...

I often think Jim Steranko didn't really love comics that much. If he did, he would have found a way to DO MORE of them. Certainly by this time.