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 sidelines, in their own little niche (at least until Steve Englehart tied them into the Marvel Universe in the Avengers # 142, December 1975). 

I once asked Stan Lee why he didn’t cross-over the Western characters, he simply said he never thought of it. I suspect the primary reason was because there was little fan interest in them, and even though they were thought of as "lesser titles" by the 1960s, westerns were solid sellers dating back to the late 1940s. 

Growing up it appeared that Kid Colt, Outlaw was only drawn by Jack Keller, but the character was actually illustrated by a variety of artists, including Pete Tumlinson and Russ Heath. Keller was not an explosive artist by any means, but he was a solid storyteller who seemed particularly suited to the character. Larry Lieber, in his best Kirby style, wrote and drew the Rawhide Kid for many years, becoming closely associated with the character. Dick Ayers drew the original version in the 1950s; the character was revived/revised by Lee and Kirby in 1960 but by late 1962 Kirby became occupied with the superhero strips and a variety of artists filled in, including Dick Ayers, Jack Davis and Jack Keller. Lieber took over as writer/artist with Rawhide Kid # 42 (October 1964) drawing (except for a few fill-in issues) the title until it went all-reprint with # 116 (October 1973). Two-Gun Kid was the first Timely/Atlas/Marvel western star, beginning in 1948. Syd Shores originally drew the character and other artists included Fred Kida, Chuck Miller, John Severin, Joe Maneely and Jack Kirby. After a six month hiatus Two-Gun Kid returned # 60, November 1962) this time as a masked hero, revised by (who else?) Lee and Kirby. After three issues the artistic reins was passed to another fine western artist, Dick Ayers, who drew 22 issues, followed by Vic Carrabotta and, finally, Ogden Whitney who remained on the title until 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 by my older bother 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. Ayers 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, so 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. 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 lasted only seven issues; the character was intriguing but the plots were weak and too closely copied the "love triangle" and hero treated as villain" formulas. 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 returned as the star of a new 25 cent anthology entitled Western Gunfighters. Ayers was back on pencils, 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 Western Gunfighters, which showcased several new characters along with a mix of reprints, converted to all reprint material and a standard 20 page format with its eighth issue. 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 were a few attempts to come up with new titles, including Red Wolf and Gunhawks, but nothing caught on. Over at DC, Jonah Hex became the only successful western feature in the 70s and 80s, but Marvel never found anything comparable. 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, thin distinctive hero clad in black. I was immediately drawn to the distinctive art, drawn 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 superior pen work of John Severin, who excelled in the western genre. Of course, earlier on Jack Kirby drew exciting Rawhide Kid stories, many of which were reprinted in the 1970s, along with his spectacular covers on Kid Colt, Two-Gun Kid, etc. Other western cover art regulars included Herb Trimpe, Dick Ayers and Larry Lieber along with the occasional 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 including 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, Al Williamson 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.

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 represented an important part of comics history and had a special charm 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.