Saturday, December 19, 2015

Gunsmoke Western:An Overview

Throughout his career Martin Goodman had a soft spot for stories that centered on western lore and legend. In fact his very first publishing venture was Western Supernovel Magazine (May 1933), a 15 cent pulp that was soon re-titled Complete Western Book Magazine with # 2, beginning a successful twenty-four year run. Goodman continued in that direction with many other titles, including Best Western Magazine, Top-Notch Western, Western Fiction, Quick-Trigger Western Novels and notably (for reasons which will become apparent) Gunsmoke Western

Gunsmoke Western Vol 1, #4 (October 1937) is actually the first issue, continuing the numbering from Ka-Zar (a character that would later be reused in comics) and running for 6 issues, ending in 1939. H. W. Scott cover art. Thanks to Timely/Atlas historian Dr. Michael J. Vassallo for the scan.

Sixteen years later Goodman resurrected the Gunsmoke Western brand name, this time in comic book form instead of the original prose format that defined pulp magazines (publishers often borrowed from the past, be it characters, story lines or titles). While Goodman often copied what was popular in both comic books and outside media (radio, television, movies) in this case his Gunsmoke Western title predated the popular GUNSMOKE radio and Television show. The program originated on radio in 1952 and transitioned into a TV series in the fall of 1955, running for two decades (the radio show continued until 1961).

It could hardly be a coincidence that Martin Goodman instructed editor Stan Lee to revive Gunsmoke Western as a comic book the exact same month the GUNSMOKE television series debuted in September 1955. To further capitalize on his chances of success, either Goodman or Lee made the title an anthology featuring one of Atlas’ most popular western heroes: Kid Colt, Outlaw. The Kid headlined his own comic since 1948 and was appearing concurrently as the cover feature in Wild Western. Billy Buckskin (the star of his own comic book) shared cover space on the first three issues; the comic was rounded out with four and five page western vignettes.


Gunsmoke Western # 32, (December 1955) is actually the first issue of the series. Since postal regulations added costs to a new title, publishers frequently used an existing (often poor selling) comic and altered its contents while continuing the numbering. The convoluted history of Gunsmoke Western's publication history began with All Winners # 1 in 1948, changed to All Western Winners with # 2 and shortened to Western Winners for #'s 5-7. It then became Black Rider from #'s 8-27, and Western Tales of Black Rider from #'s 28-31. If that's confusing to YOU, I have a headache trying to transcribe all the data (and Michael Vassallo, aka Doc V, will probably tell me that I made a mistake somewhere along the line!) Prolific Timely/Atlas artists John Severin and Joe Maneely teamed up to draw this cover; Severin drew the Kid Colt section; Maneely the Billy Buckskin portion. Image from the Grand Comic Book Database.


Kid Colt either starred or shared space with other featured heroes on Gunsmoke Western covers throughout its 46 issue run. Here is the cover to the second issue, # 33 (February 1956) by the incomparable Russ Heath, whose distinctive art was on display in Atlas' war, horror, jungle, mystery and western covers and interior features.  


Jack Keller began illustrating the adventures of Kid Colt, Outlaw in 1953, remaining his primary artist for the next 13 years. While Keller will never be categorized as the most dynamic of artists, I've always found his clean, simple storytelling on Kid Colt pleasing, in particular his 1950s era art, which had more strength than his looser 60s work. Here is a solid splash from Gunsmoke Western # 33, February 1956.


Later recognized for his satirical work on Mad magazine, Mort Drucker was also accomplished in drawing dramatic stories, including a three-issue run on Billy Buckskin. The character shared the cover spotlight with Kid Colt in three issues of Gunsmoke Western (#’s 32-34) until his title was cancelled. "Scourge of the Frontier!", Gunsmoke Western #33, February, 1956.


He might not have the power of speech like Mr. Ed, but Wyatt Earp's horse, Justice, breaks his master out of jail with uncanny skill! Wyatt Earp, who had his own comic at the time, replaced, Billy Buckskin as co-feature in Gunsmoke Western beginning with issue # 35, June 1956 (although the strip was missing for seven issues, from #'s 37-43). Lee or Goodman's policy appeared to be banishment of a character if they could no longer command sales in a solo title, although inventory would be used up, as will be seen. "The Terror of Tombstone!" John Severin art (with some likely inking/alterations by Carl Burgos).


Western Tales of Black Rider ended with its 31st issue, transforming into Gunsmoke Western. The Black Rider tale published in Gunsmoke Western # 36 (August 1956) was, judging by the job number, an inventory story. "Tension in Leadville", Syd Shores pencils, Chris Rule inks.


Al Williamson was highly acclaimed for his exceptional science fiction art, but his western imagery was equally impressive. Here is a splash from one of the many genre stories he drew for Atlas' westerns. Stan Lee story, Artie Simek letters, Gunsmoke Western # 36, August 1956.


Joe Maneely was Timely/Atlas' goldmine, combining outstanding linework with attractive storytelling. Stan Lee's right hand man in the 1950s, Maneely was not only superbly talented and versatile, but incredibly proficient. What is equally surprising is that his work in all genres was powerful, although his western covers and features, to my eye, are a special treat. Stan Goldberg's bold coloring further compliments the page. Ben Oda lettering, author unknown. "Brand of the Rustler!", Gunsmoke Western # 41, June 1957.


Gunsmoke Western survived the devastating "Atlas Implosion". When Martin Goodman's distributor went out of business he made a deal with Independent News (owned by powerhouse rival National/DC), who limited him to 8 monthly comics (totaling 16 bi-monthly titles). Many of the westerns were cut, but Goodman kept four of his best-sellers on the stands: Wyatt Earp, Two-Gun Kid, the venerable Kid Colt, Outlaw and Gunsmoke Western. John Severin was another superb artist whose love of western lore is obvious. On this cover he utilized a gray-tone effect, adding a layer of depth to this exciting scene. Gunsmoke Western # 43, November 1957, was the first issue to be published under the "IND" (short for Independent News Distributors) logo. 


Angelo Torres, like Mort Drucker, later became recognized for his television and movie satires in Mad magazine. I took an immediate liking to his style when I noticed his art in Marvel's 1970s western reprints. In some ways reminiscent of Steve Ditko's style, Torres brought character and personality to his figures. "All Quiet in Witchita", Gunsmoke Western # 43, November 1957.


Wyatt Earp returned to Gunsmoke Western with # 44 (January 1958), often sharing split covers and equal billing with Kid Colt, similar to the later Tales of Suspense/Tales to Astonish/Strange Tales superhero format. Earp would continue in this manner for the next fourteen issues. Joe Maneely's cover includes head shots of Kid Colt and Wyatt Earp by John Severin.

A comparison of Gunsmoke Western # 45's cover (March 1958) to the British reprint from L. Miller and Son (on the right) accentuates the impact of Comics Code restrictions. The reprinted cover appears to be taken from an original stat; the top caption is toned down in the Atlas original by a single word - the tame "Owlhoot" replacing the violent "Killer." Joe Maneely art.


Coincidentally, the splash page to the opening Kid Colt story in the same issue includes an explanation to parents on what the Comics Code seal signifies. Did this appear in other titles that month? Jack Keller pencils; Chris Rule inks.

The innovative design elements of this cover (photos on a "bulletin board") show off Joe Maneely's artistic skills, amplified by Stan Goldberg's vivid colors. Gunsmoke Western # 47, July 1958.

The Black Rider made his second appearance in Gunsmoke Western # 47 (July 1958) a story originally intended for Black Rider Rides Again # 2, cancelled when the Atlas Implosion occurred. Another Kirby illustrated Black Rider story appeared in # 51; the final inventory tale was published in Kid Colt, Outlaw # 86, September 1959. Jack Kirby pencils; George Klein inks.

"The Kid from Texas" ran just two issues before it became a casualty of the Atlas Implosion; the stories intended for issue # 3 found a home in Gunsmoke Western #'s 49 and 52 (others showed up in Kid Colt and Wyatt Earp). The above story is from # 49, November 1958, with straightforward storytelling and precise inking by Joe Sinnott, who drew every appearance of the character.
John Forte's quirky style and distinctive faces are instantly recognizable. Forte drew many stories for DC in the 1950s and '60s, including "Legion of Super-Heroes", Jimmy Olsen and "Tales of the Bizzaro World". Forte also worked for many other companies and illustrated his share of crime, horror, mystery, romance and western stories for Atlas. "The Stranger from Red River!", Gunsmoke Western # 50, January 1959.


When Joe Maneely died in a tragic commuter accident Jack Kirby stepped into the breach, eventually taking over many of his chores, including the all-important cover asignments. With the exception of two issues (# 52 drawn by Jack Davis and # 55, an inventory cover by Maneely) Kirby penciled every Gunsmoke Western cover until the end of its run. Here is his first cover, inked by Chris Rule, from Gunsmoke Western # 51, March 1959. 


Dick Ayers followed artists Norman Mauer and John Severin on Wyatt Earp, drawing the stories in both his own title and Gunsmoke Western from 1957 until his comic was cancelled in 1960. The look of the character was closely based on actor Hugh O'Brian, whose popular TV series, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, ran on ABC from 1955-1961. Gunsmoke Western # 51, March 1959.


Ringo Kid was yet another popular title that met its end with the Atlas Implosion. One unpublished story showed up in Wyatt Earp, another in Gunsmoke Western # 53, July, 1959 (pictured above). Surprisingly, 5 inventory jobs did not see the light of day for fifteen years. Marvel began reprinting Ringo Kid in 1970 and the stories were published in issue #'s 18 and 19 (cover-dated January and March 1973) apparently without the Marvel staff's knowledge. Will Brehm made the discovery on the original Timely-Atlas Yahoo Group list in March of 2006, based on researching job numbers. Art by Joe Maneely.


It was only natural that a character named "The Gunsmoke Kid" would eventually be featured in Gunsmoke Western, however he was only featured in two issues (#'s 54-55), making concurrent appearances in Wyatt Earp # 25 and Kid Colt, Outlaw # 87 (October/November 1959, respectively) before he was dropped. All the stories were drawn by Jack Davis, the talented cartoonist noted for his work on EC's crime, horror, war and science fiction titles, Mad, and later paperback covers, movie posters and magazines such as TV Guide and Time, where he drew caricatures of celebrities and political figures. Davis worked at Atlas for a short period, contributing covers and interior art on Two-Gun Kid, Rawhide Kid and other western shorts. In Gunsmoke Western # 54, (September 1959) Davis drew the cover and two stories. Two of the three are pictured above.


Jack Davis' second - and final - Gunsmoke Kid story appeared in Gunsmoke Western # 55, November 1959. The splash is an example of his exceptional cartooning skills.


The cover art to Gunsmoke Western # 60, January 1960, spotlights Steve Ditko's meticulous inking over Jack Kirby's pencils. While their work on pre-hero monster stories and covers is often praised - and rightly so - the combination was equally attractive in other genres. 

For examples of Ditko inking Kirby war stories, refer to my earlier blog post:


One issue after "The Gunsmoke Kid" rode off into the sunset the Two-Gun Kid took his place alongside Kid Colt and Wyatt Earp (Gunsmoke Western # 57, March 1960). Goodman now had his three remaining western stars appearing in the same title, although it would be short-lived. Cover art by Kirby and Ayers.


Artists often drew characters they were associated with in both their own comic books and in anthologies, providing a consistent look. John Severin, like Jack Keller on Kid Colt and Dick Ayers on Wyatt Earp, followed suit with double-duty on the Two-Gun Kid's adventures in Gunsmoke Western. "When Storm Smith Strikes!" Stan Lee story, Gunsmoke Western # 58, May 1960. 

Wyatt Earp made his final appearance in Gunsmoke Western # 58, a harbinger of things to come, as his own title was cancelled the following month. A new version of The Rawhide Kid by Lee and Kirby took Earp's place in the lineup (debuting in between GW #'s 59-60, with an August 1960 cover date). Rawhide Kid, however, did not find a slot in Gunsmoke Western; instead Kid Colt filled the gap in # 59 (with two stories) followed by a longer 13 pager in # 60 (a format that was used sporadically; most were 7 pages in length), with Two-Gun Kid and genre shorts filling out the issue.


For a period of time (and beginning with this issue) Dick Ayers was the uncredited inker over Jack Keller pencils, adding detail and solidity to his pencils. "The Guns of Don Drago", Stan Lee story, Gunsmoke Western # 59, July 1960.


Gunsmoke Western, # 59 (July 1960) was the first issue to include two Jack Kirby interior genre stories. Here is the excellent splash to "Only One May Live!", Stan Lee story, Dick Ayers inks, Artie Simek letters.


In the Stan Lee scripted "They Call Him the Judge!" the identity of the Grey Rider, a mysterious masked defender long missing in action, is revealed to be the protagonist, Judge Norman, explaining he retired from his double-life when he took the oath of office. Artist Dick Ayers draws a mask he was closely associated with for many years - that of the Ghost Rider - the western hero he designed and co-created for Magazine Enterprises in the 1950s. Ayers would illustrate a different version of the character for Marvel in the 1960s. Gunsmoke Western # 60, September 1960.


An exceptionally composed Jack Kirby cover, with inking by Dick Ayers. Colorist Stan Goldberg's use of gray on the foreground figures expertly draws the readers eye to the central figure of Kid Colt (Goldberg likely colored most, if not all the artwork featured in this post). Artie Simek's superior lettering completes the package. Gunsmoke Western # 61, November 1960.


Reed Crandall's talent spanned over three decades, a few highlights include his work on Quality Comics Blackhawk feature in the 1940s; his exceptional art for EC Comics in the 1950s and his detailed renderings and biographical stories for the Catholic comic Treasure Chest and Warren's black and white horror magazines in the 1960's. Crandall also produced some fine artwork for Atlas, including this little gem - "When the Apaches Attack!", Stan Lee story, Artie Simek letters. Gunsmoke Western # 61, November 1960.


Jack Kirby (with inker Dick Ayers) replaced John Severin as artist on the Two-Gun Kid feature in Gunsmoke Western # 62 (January, 1961); the following month he took over the Kid's solo title. Following editorial policy, when the Two-Gun Kid's comic was cancelled with issue # 59 (April 1961) the character was banished from Gunsmoke Western, with his last appearance in # 63. Two-Gun Kid appeared to be a sentimental favorite of Goodman's, however, and did not go quietly into the night. The character was his first and longest running western hero, debuting in 1948 and published continuously for 13 years. 

Two-Gun Kid was revived nineteen months later, revamped by Lee and Kirby into a masked hero. After Kirby left the strip, Lee assigned Dick Ayers the art chores, followed by veteran Ogden Whitney. Writers included Roy Thomas, Larry Lieber and Denny O'Neil. Cancelled in 1968, Two-Gun Kid was revived in reprint form in 1970 and finally bowed out in 1977.


Don Heck had a facility for bringing the western genre to life, turning in pages of short stories filled with varied faces and figures, dramatic settings and sharp storytelling. The cowboy in the last two panels may be based on actor Anthony Perkins. "The Fastest Gun Alive!", by the usual suspects (Lee, Simek and Goldberg), Gunsmoke Western # 63, March 1961.


One of my favorite Kirby Gunsmoke Western covers, featuring a dynamic image of Kid Colt that leaps off the comics racks. Dick Ayers inks. Gunsmoke Western # 66, September 1961.


While Steve Ditko only drew a small number of westerns over the years, this page shows his facility with costume design and expressive character faces. "The Escape of Yancy Younger!" is (believe it or not) the second signed Lee/Ditko story. Gunsmoke Western # 66, September 1961.


Dick Ayers was another artist whose work on westerns was first rate. Although recognized for his later efforts on Sgt. Fury, at various times from the 50s to the 70s Ayers penciled many of Marvel's western stars including Kid Colt, Rawhide Kid, Two-Gun Kid, "Gunhawk", Outlaw Kid, and, of course, Marvel's version of The Ghost Rider. A nicely composed page, penciled, inked and lettered by Ayers. "Somewhere Wait the Rustlers!" Stan Lee story, Gunsmoke Western # 67, November 1961.


Comic book artists were often huge fans of the cinema, and not only studied film techniques but often based characters on movie stars. In this story Dick Ayers clearly used the likeness of John Wayne for the main protagonist, Joe Dawson. Ayers pencils, inks and letters, Gunsmoke Western # 68, January, 1962.


The faces of the two characters in the foreground are priceless! "Betrayal!", Lee story, Kirby/Ayers art - of course. Gunsmoke Western # 69, March 1962.


Joe Sinnott ghost penciled this Paul Reinman signed story. A common occurrence, artists often assisted fellow pros when deadlines loomed. Reinman provided the inks. "Moose Magnum, The Ambusher!", Stan Lee story, Artie Simek letters. Gunsmoke Western # 70, May 1962.


Don Heck adds visual impact with his use of vertical panels. "The Montana Kid!", Stan Lee story, Artie Simek letters. Gunsmoke Western # 70, May 1962.


Kid Colt, face to face with...Dr. Doom?? Not really, although the Fantastic Four villain debuted a few months earlier. Kid Colt later faced a foe named Iron Mask whose countenance on Jack Kirby drawn covers was similar to Doom's. In an unusual move the cover to Gunsmoke Western # 73 (November 1962) included a vignette of an interior genre story. Jack Kirby pencils; Dick Ayers inks. This same month, the new, masked version of the Two-Gun Kid debuted by Lee and Kirby, but for unknown reasons that character was not given a venue in Gunsmoke Western.


Jack Keller's interior Kid Colt story featured a typical 1930's-1940's era serial version of a robot, with claw-like hands that looked nothing like Kirby's cover image (covers were usually drawn last, so its likely Kirby - or editor Lee, chose to go for a more dramatic interpretation). While Keller's robot is unexceptional, the criminal in panel one, positioned to face the reader, with his gaunt stance and sour expression, is a compelling image. Keller later found a niche at Charlton, writing and drawing many of their racing car comics into the 1970s. "I Can Outdraw Kid Colt!", Stan Lee story, Jack Keller art, Gunsmoke Western # 73, November 1962.


Jack Kirby continued to draw many exciting 5 page western shorts at the same time he was working on the early Hulk, FF, Ant-Man,Thor and Human Torch tales, putting as much effort on these stories as he did any of the superheroes. Dick Ayers inks. Gunsmoke Western # 73, November 1962.


"Great Caesar's Ghost!" In "Who Murdered Morgan?" the editor of the newspaper bears a resemblance to John Hamilton, who played Perry White, editor of the Daily Planet in TV's Adventures of Superman in the 1950s. Coincidence? Don Heck art, Gunsmoke Western # 73, November 1962.


With artists like Jack Kirby and Don Heck becoming increasingly busy on super-hero features others were called in to pick up the slack, including production man and veteran artist/inker Sol Brodsky. A month earlier Lee began to institute the credit box, where inkers and letterers such as Artie Simek and Sam Rosen became recognized and acknowledged as industry craftsman. Gunsmoke Western # 75, March 1963.


The cover of Gunsmoke Western # 76 (May 1963) is an example of a cohesive company brand beginning to emerge. The "Marvel Comics Group" logo replaces the nondescript "MC" box which appeared on covers for nearly two years, and the upper left corner image, designed by Steve Ditko, used head shots to easily identify characters whose titles were often obscured on magazine racks. The generic gunslinger is likely penciled and inked by Jack Kirby; he and Ayers drew the cover.


Some very effective images dominate this Dick Ayers drawn and lettered page. "The Life and Death of Blast Larkin!", Stan Lee story, Gunsmoke Western # 76, May 1963.


Don Heck portrayed a rare American Indian protagonist with great skill and drama in this Stan Lee penned story, from Gunsmoke Western # 76, May 1963.


Jack Kirby returned one last time to close out Gunsmoke Western, drawing the final five page short, "They Call Him..Dude!", story by Stan Lee, inking by Paul Reinman.

Gunsmoke Western reached the end of the trail with issue # 77 (July 1963). The last romance comic, the long running Love Romances, was also cancelled that month; The Avengers and X-Men took their place on the newsstand racks. The super-heroes were beginning to dominate Goodman's line, although teen humor (Millie the Model, Patsy Walker and their related titles) clung on, as did the "Big Three" western stars: Rawhide Kid, Two-Gun Kid and Kid Colt, Outlaw, while the latter two switched to a reprint format after four years, Rawhide Kid survived under writer/artist Larry Lieber, with primarily new stories and art until 1973. Kid Colt, Outlaw remained steadfast as either a monthly or bi-monthly publication (with a brief hiatus in 1967/68), and continued to be a steady seller, albeit primarily in reprints. In 1979, after an incredible 31 year run, the Kid rode off into the sunset.


Marvel never revived Gunsmoke Western, although it did return to the anthology format five years later, with the publication of The Mighty Marvel Western, a 25 cent title starring (who else) Kid ColtRawhide Kid and Two-Gun Kid in reprints. Issue # 1 (October 1968), Herb Trimpe pencils; Frank Giacoia inks, Sam Rosen lettering and logo design.  


Two artists acclaimed for their solo work in the western genre, Dick Ayers and Syd Shores, joined forces as artist/inker on the Ghost Rider feature in Western Gunfighters # 6 (September 1971). The results were admirable (above left).   Western Gunfighters reverted to standard size and Atlas era reprints with issue # 9 (May 1972). Over a decade later John Severin's artistry still retained its potency as evidenced on the many new covers he produced for Marvel's 1970s westerns (above right).

In 1970 Marvel reused the title of their 1950s anthology, Western Gunfighters, another double-length 25 cent comic which attempted to resuscitate the genre. Along with a few reprints, an array of new features appeared, including "Gunhawk", "The Renegades" "Tales of Fort Rango" and a revival of "The Ghost Rider". Atlas western artists Syd Shores, Werner Roth and Dick Ayers returned to familiar territory, joined by relative newcomers like Tom Sutton, a talented cartoonist very much inspired by the work of Jack Davis, Will Elder and Wally Wood. Unfortunately sales did not meet expectations and after seven issues Western Gunfighters went all-reprint.

In the early 1970s there were a few scattered attempts at producing new western comics (Gunhawks, Red Wolf and a revived Outlaw Kid) but the powers that be seemed to have little enthusiasm for the genre. Instead, fan favorite superhero or related material dominated the line (Sword and Sorcery titles such as Conan the Barbarian and horror/superhero blends like Man-Thing, Werewolf by Night, "Morbius", even a contemporary, motorcycle riding, skull-headed Ghost Rider). For over two decades, though, the western heroes had their day in the sun. For aficionados of comic art they continue to be worth revisiting, for both the historical/cultural context as well as the pure craft of the creators involved.

A tip of the hat to that titan of Timely/Atlas, Dr. Michael J. Vassallo, for his invaluable research into the Goodman empire. His book, with co-author Blake Bell, The Secret History of Marvel Comics, is highly recommended.