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These best stories of the comic books are preceded by their issue number. They were edited by Julius Schwartz from 1954 on; before that, they were edited by Jack Schiff.
I wish to express my intellectual debt to Michael Tiefenbacher, who indexed these comics, first for fan publications, and then to Gene Reed, for the Grand Comics Database. Their researches have done much to shed light on these neglected works.
I have only been able to find and read selected issues of the Western comic books. No one should treat this article as in any sense a complete history of the magazines. Still, so little has been published about these interesting comic books that these few notes seemed permissible to share with other readers.
The Pow-Wow Smith stories have rarely been reprinted since their end in 1961, and seem to be almost completely forgotten today. This is perhaps part of the general amnesia that has taken over many memories of popular culture, to borrow a phrase from Andrew Sarris.
Beginning in 1946, Manly Wade Wellman's series of tales about Native American detective David Return appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. Unlike the Pow-Wow Smith tales, these took place in modern times. Still, the two portraits of gifted Native American lawmen have much in common.
One thought about the inclusion of sympathetic Native American characters in the comic books. In some ways it was probably easier for the writers and artists to include sympathetic Indians, because of the long tradition of Indians in Westerns. There have always been Indian characters in Western stories. Hence, their mere presence could not be banned as "controversial" by timid executives. In fact, it would be easy to argue that Indians in comic books made them more commercial and appealing to the public. It was probably clear that kids wanted to read exciting stories about Indians. One is sure that Pow-Wow Smith would not have appeared regularly on the cover of Western Comics, unless his appearance there boosted sales. All comic book covers were designed to increase sales of the magazines, and the Pow-Wow Smith covers were probably no exception.
Similarly, it was easier to include black characters in Africa, than African-Americans during this period. There have always been African characters in tales of jungle adventure, and their presence there was encrusted in long tradition. By contrast, the first timid but all-important depictions of black Americans in comics were probably viewed as tradition-busters by the editors and executives of their day.
Despite these commercial aspects, the creators showed real courage in their noble, non-stereotyped depictions of Native Americans. Depicting Indians as heroes, and the central characters in comic book series, was an especially positive step. In fact, there are few depictions of minorities as heroes even today, in the 2000's. When was the last time you turned on your TV, and saw a black man as a Great Detective? Or a Native American as the hero of a crisis?
The Secret of Bad Medicine Canyon (1952). Art: Leonard Starr. Archaeologists are exploring in a cavern, despite Indian legends saying that the place is to be avoided.
What's most notable about this tale is its use of Native American picture writing. It is integrated right into the artwork of the story. The alternation between realistic art and traditional picture narration is unusual. It shows some of the tremendous potential of the comics medium.
Like many of the Leonard Starr era Smith tales, this is full of pleasant detail. Like other Smith stories, it is full of little character sketches, showing the personalities of the people encountered along the tale's way. This gives a warm feeling to the story. The Smith tales feature a sense of community. The various characters are important to Pow-Wow Smith, and play a role in his communal life. Starr also includes good portraits of the many characters.
This tale also includes prejudice that Smith faces from unpleasant white characters he encounters. This is a realistic depiction, focusing on negative stereotypes these bigots project about Native American life. Smith has no easy answer for this. It is treated as one more element in the tapestry of the story, but not really resolved. Such depictions of racial prejudice will be less common in the later Fox-Infantino versions of the character, in Western Comics.
The Double Life of Pow-Wow Smith (1953). Art: Leonard Starr. Pow-Wow Smith apparently leads robbers in their criminal activities. The plot of this tale is easily guessed. But it is nicely worked out. Many of the logical consequences and plot possibilities inherent in the tale's central idea are included here. The discussion leading up the jail break is well constructed, for instance; also the long finale.
We learn that Pow-Wow's Sioux name, Ohiyesa, means "The Winner". This plays a role in the plot.
During this period, Pow-Wow Smith was the top deputy of Sheriff Tom Miles, a white man who greatly respects him. In later stories, Pow-Wow Smith will be a Sheriff himself, in the town of Elkhorn.
Return of the Killers (Detective Comics #194, April 1953). Art: Leonard Starr. When badmen return to the village of West Town, lawman Pow-Wow Smith tries unsuccessfully to get the townspeople to help him fight them. Minor imitation of the movie High Noon (1952). The story is most notable for a charming aerial view of West Town (p1). Starr includes buildings here that will later serve as locations in the story, such as a water mill. During the 1950's, such map like aerial views were popular: Dick Sprang included them in such Batman tales as "The Lord of Batmanor" (Detective Comics #198 August 1953) and "The Jungle Cat-Queen" (Detective Comics #211, September 1954), and Sid Greene would depict them on other planets in Mystery in Space.
Bring in Pow-Wow Smith Dead! (1953). Art: Leonard Starr. Everyone he meets suddenly decides to try to kill Pow-Wow Smith. Ingeniously plotted story that shows a nice working out of its plot details. Like "The Double Life of Pow-Wow Smith" (1953), it invokes the comic book tradition of plots about identity, although neither tale is a secret identity story, strictly speaking. The two stories form a pair, with many common plot links between the two. There are also themes in common: in both tales Pow-Wow has to endure opposition from townspeople who previously supported him, based on their confused ideas about his behavior. Both some of the plot ideas in these stories, and the opposition from the townspeople, anticipate the stories Robert Kanigher will write about Johnny Thunder. I have no idea if Robert Kanigher is the writer of these stories or not.
The story also has features that anticipate the later mystery "The Incredible Delusion" (Lois Lane #47, February 1964); the overall architecture of their plots resemble each other.
The art here by Leonard Starr has a lyrical, poetic quality. The landscapes (p4) are especially good, including a lovely shot of water by a lake shore. The art has a low key, gentle quality. It has a soothing, consoling feel.
The Scarecrow Sheriff (#66, November- December 1957). Writer: Gardner Fox. Art: Carmine Infantino. Based on a cover by Gil Kane. Sheriff Pow-Wow Smith mysteriously rides everywhere with a scarecrow dressed exactly like himself. This is a minor but pleasant tale, notable mainly for Gil Kane's superb cover art. His portrait of Pow-Wow Smith is outstanding. Kane has envisioned him as one of his handsome leading men, forceful looking and in elegant buckskins. The way the scarecrow riding next to him echoes every detail of the Sheriff's costume adds a surrealistic effect. It somehow underlines the sheriff's presence, and makes his visual appearance even more vivid. We see each detail of the sheriff's costume twice, once on himself, and once on the scarecrow, and it makes the costume's visual pattern conspicuous to the viewer. Kane also used a scarecrow on his science fiction cover for "Secret of the Scarecrow World" (Mystery in Space #48, December 1958), and Carmine Infantino drew the cover for "The Doomed Scarecrow" (Flash #118, February 1961). Scarecrows used to be very big in popular culture, and they frequently showed up in the comic books. They were one of the "interesting phenomena of daily life" that were often the basis of children's fiction. The concept of a scarecrow is unique: there is nothing else like it. They can be used analogically, with various devices used to scare away thieves; or they can be depicted literally, as they are here. Their surrealistic resemblance to human beings is often stressed, as it is in this tale.
Both Kane and Infantino clearly enjoyed drawing Pow-Wow Smith. Their interpretations of the character were very personal, and follow their own individual artistic traditions. Their portraits are quite different from each other.
In this story we learn that Pow-Wow Smith lives in a boarding house in Elkhorn. This is similar to the later Green Lantern, who lives in a rooming house in Coastal City. Both men are only infrequently shown at home.
The Return of the Fadeaway Outlaw (1959). Writer: Gardner Fox. Art: Carmine Infantino. Pow-Wow Smith attempts to recapture the Fadeaway Outlaw, an escape artist who often seems to vanish into thin air; meanwhile, Pow-Wow's deputy Hank Brown and Sally Ann prepare to be married. This story brings the Pow-Wow Smith tales into the realm of the impossible crime. Fox would later have his heroes Hawkman and especially, the Atom solve such crimes. Their tales usually focused on one crime whose solution would take up an entire story. By contrast, this story contains numerous little mini-mysteries, each of which is solved right away. Another difference: the Fadeaway Outlaw's impossible disappearances often involve secret passages, something that is usually forbidden in prose impossible crime tales. The Atom's tales would stick much more closely to the rules laid down for prose mystery stories.
The tale includes a schematic diagram, showing the arrangement of an underground tunnel. Similar diagrams occur in other tales written by Fox, including the Adam Strange tale "The Challenge of the Crystal Conquerors" (Mystery in Space #71, November 1961) and "The Man Who Lived Forever" (Strange Adventures #145, October 1962). The Superman family also sometimes employed such devices. They show some of the power of the comics medium to incorporate different kinds of material.
The splash panel shows the Fadeaway Outlaw literally disappearing before Pow-Wow's eyes. This is something of a cheat, and makes the story look almost science fictional, which it is not. In the actual story, the Fadeaway Outlaw merely disappears so fast that it almost seems as if he has vanished. He never actually does this sort of slow fade. However, Infantino's art on the splash is terrific, and compensates for such concerns. The fading is depicted with Infantino's skill at using sketchy art to depict unusual states. This is a personal tradition for Infantino. Also personal: the Western town skyline at the base of the panel. One is used to seeing such city friezes, filled with Art Deco buildings, in Infantino's sf tales. Here we have the formal equivalent, only made up out of Western architecture.
Menace of the Magic Arrows (1959). Writer: Gardner Fox. Art: Carmine Infantino. Based on a cover by Gil Kane. A crook obsessed with shadows develops an arrow he believes can harm a person by striking their shadow. Crooks whose lives center around some specialty were common in such Schwartz super-hero books as the Flash: for example the origin of Captain Cold in the John Broome-Carmine Infantino "The Coldest Man on Earth" (Showcase #8, June 1957). Usually we see the life story of such criminals, showing the origin and development of their obsessions, and "Menace of the Magic Arrows" follows the same paradigm. It also includes a stint in prison in the life history of the bad guy, another common feature of the super-crook tales. The criminal in this Western tale even hopes to have advanced powers, just like the crooks pursued by the Flash or the Atom. Adam Strange will have his own encounter with sinister shadows in "The Deadly Shadows of Adam Strange" (Mystery in Space #80, December 1962).
Pow-Wow Smith becomes a sculptor in this tale. Fox has a long tradition of his heroes creating sculpture. The Golden Age Flash first became a sculptor in Flash Comics #5 (May 1940), and Adam Strange showed his sculptural abilities in "Menace of the Aqua-Ray Weapon" (Mystery in Space #69, August 1961). The sculptures created by these men always advance the plot of the story, and aid in their missions. But the sculptural ability of his heroes also seems like an expression of their creative personalities. It seems to be a key part of Fox's conception of a hero. One also recalls the sculptor Robert Starr in the non-series sf story Fox wrote, "Secret of the Marble Starmen" (Strange Adventures #145, October 1962). Robert Starr is a policeman who takes up sculpture after his retirement. All of these men are not professional career artists. They are men who pursue sculpture on their own, as a personal interest. They all make statues of the human figure. Most are pretty good, and they thoroughly enjoy their work. They are not celebrity artists or hailed by critics, but they are more than amateurs, and they take pride in their accomplishments.
Pow-Wow Smith has many similarities with the same team's Adam Strange tales. The beautiful, evocative desert landscapes of the tales remind one of Rann. Like Adam Strange, Pow-Wow is a man who has come from another group (Earth, Native Americans) to be a leader of a whole community of people (Rann, Elkhorn). Both men are universally respected by the community. Both are its Champion, the person who protects it from menaces. Both have deep intellectual skills, and mainly use their brains to solve problems. Pow-Wow's manifest them by his skill in tracking, detective work, and solving crimes, Adam's by his solving sf problems and escaping high tech traps. Both man have a similar, deeply emotional romance with a woman of the community. Both communities are full of festivals and local customs.
Secret of the Sheriff's Stand-In (1959). Writer: Gardner Fox. Art: Carmine Infantino. Events conspire to make Pow-Wow Smith look bad as sheriff. This story forms a severe test for Pow-Wow's deputy Hank Brown, who is not responsible for these events, but has to cope with them anyway. Such moral tests for supporting characters sometimes occur in the comics: see Lex Luthor's wife Adora go through a somewhat similar trial in Edmond Hamilton's "The Death of Luthor" (Action #318, November 1964) and "The Condemned Superman" (Action #319, December 1964). Such stories always seemed very interesting to me. This is a tale where we really get to look inside of Hank Brown, and see what he is like as a human being. We also get an interesting look at Hank's wife Sally Ann. Women in Fox's tales are rarely shrinking violets. Instead, like Hawkgirl, Alanna and Karel Sorensen, they are right in the center of the action.
Hank Brown is drawn throughout the series in a way they recalls Infantino's portraiture of Adam Strange. Both are some of Infantino's dreamy, elegant looking leading man types. Both have conspicuously blond hair, and both are probably of Northern European extraction. However, the Pow-Wow Smith tales make clear that Hank is not anywhere as skilled a lawman as Pow-Wow. Their relationship forms an explicit rebuke to any ideas of Nordic supremacy, something that is never found in the Schwartz comic books. Instead, it shows a Nordic character, who is clearly eager to work for a man who is of a different race, a man who more talented than himself.
The Sheriff's Birthday Party (1959). Writer: Gardner Fox. Art: Carmine Infantino. When people realize that Pow-Wow Smith has never had a birthday party, the townspeople cooperate to give him a surprise one. This warm story shows the rich feelings that are developing in the Pow-Wow Smith tales. He is a valued member of a genuine community in the tales. Affirmation from a community was important in Fox's world. It reminds one of the communal tributes from the citizens of Ranagar in Fox's Adam Strange tales.
Like many of Fox's Western stories, this one ends with a celebration, this time of Pow-Wow's birthday. These celebrations often give deeper meaning, both to the story and the series as a whole.
Birthday parties would appeal to Fox, because they are a natural example of a cycle, something that characters can go through repeatedly. As is often the case with Fox, there is a change of protagonist with the cycle. The story opens with a small boy having a birthday, and ends with Pow-Wow celebrating one. Both go through a similar action with their birthday cake.
The tale reminds one that Fox was a lawyer, and that he often included legal ideas in his Atom stories. Here he does similar things with legislation in Western history. Law and legislation are always seen positively in Fox's tales.
The Bandit and the Bracelet (1960). Writer: Gardner Fox. Art: Carmine Infantino. Hank Brown begins collecting souvenirs of Pow-Wow Smith's cases. This idea has parallels in super-hero stories. Jimmy Olsen collects souvenirs of Superman; Batman stores momentoes in his Bat-Cave; and Thomas Kamalku keeps a secret diary of Green Lantern's cases.
Fox could shift Point of View among his characters easily, especially if he wanted to present a mystery. Here, the story is told from Pow-Wow Smith's viewpoint, so that he and the reader can puzzle over Hank's behavior collecting souvenirs. In "Secret of the Signal-Sender", the conditions are reversed: during the opening section, Hank is the point of view character, and he and the reader are mystified by Pow-Wow Smith's abilities. Once this mystery is resolved, most of the rest of the tale is told from Pow-Wow Smith's point of view.
Secret of the Signal-Sender (1960). Writer: Gardner Fox. Art: Carmine Infantino. Deputy Hank Brown is mystified by Pow-Wow Smith's sudden ability to pick up clues out of nowhere. This well plotted mystery tale has structural features in common with those Fox wrote for Adam Strange. As in the Adam Strange tales, the plot here is constructed in layers. As one mystery is solved, it in turn leads to other mysteries that need further sleuthing. The subject matter of the mystery also recalls those in Adam Strange. Many of the Adam Strange mysteries center around riddles of control, typically how various large robots or automatic machines are being controlled. Similarly, here Hank and the reader do not understand what control mechanism Pow-Wow is operating under, and how he can find clues. In both Adam Strange and the Pow-Wow Smith tales, the mysteries often center on information.
Infantino is plainly thrilled to be portraying a hero from another race. Pow-Wow Smith is in the tradition of Infantino's elegant, handsome leading men. Infantino's art emphasizes the Native American features of his hero's countenance. Panel after panel celebrates his hero's visual appearance, just as the Rann stories often celebrate that of Adam Strange.
The Charmed Life of Pow-Wow Smith (1960). Writer: Gardner Fox. Art: Carmine Infantino. Sequel to the "Secret of the Signal-Sender". This tale is one of the richest in Native American lore of the series. During the 1960's, Fox richly embroidered his stories with Indian customs and traditions. It is not clear if these are historically authentic, or whether Fox created some of them to enable his plots.
This story and its predecessor are among the best of all the Pow-Wow Smith tales. They are a peak of the series.
Infantino's art is extremely beautiful throughout this tale. The final Pow-Wow Smith stories are from the early 1960's era when he was at a peak of his powers. The landscapes often recall those in his Adam Strange tales. Infantino liked to experiment with blurred, wavy or sketchy images, to convey various plot developments to the viewer. Here the sun is in the various characters' eyes during the final confrontation. Infantino takes one of the cityscapes often seen on the horizons of his panels, and depicts it in a wavy fashion. This is a unique event in this story; I cannot recall any other work in which he combines these two personal artistic traditions, the blurred effect and the cityscape. It makes for a visually fascinating image. The cityscape here is of a Western town, rather than one of the futuristic Art Deco cities that appeared in his sf tales.
The Crowning of Super-Chief (1961). Writer: Gardner Fox. Art: Carmine Infantino. Flying Stag, an Iroquois in pre-Columbian North America, becomes Super-Chief, Saganowahna, to lead the Nations to peace. The Origin of Super-Chief. This is the only super-hero series to appear in the DC Western comic books. It was the start of a short-lived series, that ended after three issues with the unfortunate demise of All-Star Western itself. It is one of the few super-hero series anywhere in the Silver Age to have a historical setting.
Super-Chief's powers are unusual in that they are given to him directly by God. This is atypical, not just in the Silver Age, but in all of comic book history. Super-Chief obtains them after praying to the Great Spirit, also known as Great Manitou. Both are Native American names for God. Fox handles this reverently and in good taste. There are several other references to Manitou throughout the series.
There are formal similarities to the origins of other super-heroes. For example, the Silver Age Green Lantern is given his powers by the Guardians of the Universe. These are noble, wise agents of the good. They charge Green Lantern with his mission, just as the Great Spirit does with Super-Chief. Green Lantern hears the Guardians' voices through his lantern; Super-Chief hears the Great Spirit's voice in his visions. However, the Guardians are merely noble agents of the good; while Super-Chief is given his mission directly by God Himself.
Super-Chief's powers derive immediately from a meteor that comes to Earth, a meteor arranged by the Great Spirit. He bathes in its radiation overnight, just as Fox's earlier hero the Golden Age Flash was exposed to heavy water while lying unconscious for many hours after a chemical lab accident. This means that Super-Chief's powers are rooted in science, like those of other Silver Age heroes of the Schwartz magazines. The powers are not based in fantasy, or the supernatural, two things that were almost never present in the Schwartz books. Super-Chief's origin thus encompasses both religion and science.
Super-Chief's meteor reminds one of the white dwarf fragment that falls to Earth, and which gives the Atom his super-powers, in Fox's "Birth of the Atom" (Showcase #34, September-October 1961). The Atom's origin was only a few months after Super-Chief's. Super-Chief is in fact tied for Gardner Fox's first super-hero of the Silver Age, occurring simultaneously with his Silver Age Hawkman revival, in "Creature of a Thousand Shapes" (The Brave and the Bold #34, February-March 1961). Fox would also revive the Golden Age Flash in "Flash of Two Worlds" (Flash #123, September 1961), so this was one of his busiest years in the super-hero creation business since the early 1940's Golden Age. Fox would also create his science fiction series the Star Rovers with "Who Caught the Loborilla?" (Mystery in Space #66, March 1961). All of these series occurred in magazines edited by Julius Schwartz, and Schwartz must certainly have played a role in the emphasis on such series stories.
There are aspects of Super-Chief's powers that recall Golden Age super-heroes, more than those of the Silver Age. Golden Age super-heroes tended to be Earthmen who received special powers through science, while DC Silver Age heroes tend to be part of a mythos that involves outer space. This is not a hard and fast distinction - the Silver Age Flash is an Earth-oriented as one could wish - but it still is generally true. Super-Chief's meteor does come from outer space, but his adventures are most oriented towards our Earth. The hour-long limitation on Super-Chief's powers recall those of the Golden Age hero Hourman, whom Fox would revive briefly later: see his team-ups with Dr. Fate in "Solomon Grundy Goes on a Rampage" (Showcase #55, March-April 1965) and "Perils of the Psycho-Pirate" (Showcase #56, May-June 1965). Super-Chief's leaping ability recalls that of the early, Golden Age Superman, and his ability to leap tall buildings. His strength also recalls that of Superman. In many ways, his powers nearly exactly parallel those of the early Superman.
The Schwartz sf books were full of evil dictators plotting war. Usually, at the end of the tale the public controlled by the dictator would escape his grip, establish a democracy, ad make peace. This is an admirable element for a plot, and Fox is trying a variation of it here in the Western comics. He had already employed it in "The Strong Man of the West" (Western Comics #64, July-August 1957), in which Pow-Wow Smith had to stop Kaibou, a man who has used his unusual strength to make himself dictator of his tribe, and force his people into war. That tale had lacked plausibility, but Fox uses it more effectively here.
The Invasion of the Indian Giants (1961). Writer: Gardner Fox. Art: Carmine Infantino. Super-Chief deals with marauding giants that threaten the Nations.
Scenes in this tale show Flying Stag interrupting a date with his girl friend, White Fawn, to answer a summons as Super-Chief. These scenes recall similar episodes that regularly appeared in Fox's Golden Age super-hero series, Starman (1941-1946). In both cases, the hero is summoned from a distance, and in both series, the summons is a private signal that only the hero can perceive. Super-Chief's summons involves his meteor amulet, whereas Starman's his gravity rod - both mechanisms that are the source of the hero's power, and which he always carries with him. In both series, the hero makes lame excuses to break his date with his steady girl friend, who does not know his secret identity, and in both cases she is deeply annoyed.
The giants here are from the South. Norse mythology is full of strange beings who live either in the extreme North or extreme South, and Fox is trying something similar here. It all fits in very well with the Native American framework of the story. Once again, Fox has a hero much smaller than the bad guys take them on; this will be a basic element of his Atom tales.
This story is more successful as a piece of storytelling that was the previous origin tale. Fox is beginning to get a feel for his characters, and present them in believable adventures. There is an ease and a sense of naturalness here, a storytelling flow.
This tale takes place in winter, and is full of Carmine Infantino's spectacular ice and snow landscapes.
Johnny Fox's tales took place in the contemporary world of the 1940's. Johnny Fox's Native American heritage was emphasized by the tales. But otherwise the stories typically had no Western feel. They took place in the same sort of backgrounds one might find in Superman, Green Lantern, The Flash or other Golden Age super-heroes.
Mystery of the Dangling Skeletons (1940). Writer: Robert Turner. (Title for this titleless story supplied by Grand Comics Database.) Skeletons of diplomats turn up in an American city.
SPOILERS. Crooks are trying to frame US for the diplomat killings, that will cause it to get attacked by Europeans and dragged into a war. After the US is weakened by the war, the crooks will take it over. Implicit in this is an anti-war theme.
I like Johnny's disguise as a sophisticated Frenchman, complete with top hat (page 2).
Phase Two for Johnny Fox (1940). Writer: Robert Turner. (Title for this titleless story supplied by Grand Comics Database.) Johnny takes on escaped convicts who hijack a bus. In this tale, Johnny loses his invisibility powers, but decides to fight crime anyway as a regular detective.
The bus driver has a dressy uniform complete with Sam Browne belt (pages 3,4). The double-breasted police uniforms also have such a belt (page 5). Both uniforms are worn with peaked caps, but of different shapes. Care has been taken to make all aspects of the two uniforms different.
In the earlier 1950's, most of the Sheriff or deputy heroes in the DC Western magazines wore buckskins. Such costumes were big on TV and the movies, as well. Each hero had his own, distinctive buckskin clothes - they were not identical from hero to hero, although Johnny Thunder's and the Trigger Twins' were close. In the late 1950's, both of the latter two series switched over to more formal Western clothes, while Pow-Wow Smith retained his buckskins till the end.
Both before and after the switch, Walt Trigger had precisely one outfit that he always wore while on active duty as Sheriff. This was referred to explicitly in the stories as his "sheriff clothes". Before the switch, these clothes consisted of a set of buckskins; after the switch, his "sheriff clothes" were a more formal vest, striped shirt and pants. Such "sheriff clothes" seem to be found only in the comics. Movie and TV sheriffs all had a variety of outfits which they wore on different days. The comics idea here seems to be similar to the uniforms that are always worn by super-heroes while on duty. It allows the reader of the comic book to instantly recognize the hero, by his costume. We are less used to seeing such standard clothes always being worn by the non-super powered civilian hero of a tale, such as a lawman. However, Clark Kent usually wore blue clothes with a red accent, such as a red sweater or tie, making him similarly instantly recognizable. The fact that comics have always been a color medium, while film and TV of that era were often in black and white, made such standard clothes more feasible in the comics. The personal color patterns worn by the hero really stand out.
When Wayne Trigger wanted to impersonate his sheriff twin brother Walt Trigger, he put on a duplicate copy of Walt's sheriff clothes. This was true in the early 1950's, when these clothes consisted of buckskins, and in the late 1950's, when the sheriff clothes were the outfit with the vest and shirt. The concept did not change, even though the precise kind of clothes making up the sheriff outfit did.
In many of the early, pre-Fox Trigger Twin tales, Wayne is always pointing up Walt's mistakes, saving his life, and fixing Walt's well-meant but completely botched actions as sheriff. Often this comes as Wayne impersonates Walt, and takes over his sheriff role. It is hard not to see this satirically, and wonder if Walt is not going to wind up spending years on a psychiatrist's couch, sorting out issues with his brother! Even in these stories' Western context, Walt is clearly deeply troubled by all this, and even runs away and tries to start a new life on one occasion. These older stories rarely seem entertaining or fun. Fox clearly is trying to change this pattern, without fundamentally negating what has gone before. Here he has Wayne give Walt plenty of good advice, and try to change some of Walt's impractical ideas. But Fox also lets Walt take this good advice, and then succeed on his own. Wayne is pleased at the end of the tale that Walt is gaining confidence in his abilities, something that he rarely worried about before. This is clearly a lot more humane approach.
Every Sheriff Has 5 Soldiers (1959). Writer: Gardner Fox. Art: Carmine Infantino. When Sheriff Walt needs to track a band of outlaws, his brother Wayne helps him by teaching him to use his 5 'soldiers": his five senses. There is some very good art in the tale, especially showing weather and the Western landscapes.
The War for Water (1949). Writer: ?. Art: Howard Sherman. A crooked rancher fences the only water supply for local cattle, then charges exorbitant prices. In movies, range wars tend to involve an awful lot of shooting between the two sides. This story takes a very different approach. Most of its events instead involve the water itself. The writer and artist put the water through a remarkably wide range of different conditions, many involving geological features of the local landscape, including an abandoned gold mine. The watery landscapes that emerge are fascinating, and done up to a T in Howard Sherman's art. Such an approach is perhaps more suited to a comics tale than to a film. Done as a movie, this tale would have involved a lot of fancy special effects. By contrast, an artist can sit down and draw anything he can imagine. Just as comics are an ideal medium for science fiction, with artists able to create almost any science fictional world, so do the comics allow artists to create any sort of Western landscape.
The Naming of the Wyoming Kid (1957). Writer: Gardner Fox. Art: Howard Sherman. The origin of the Wyoming Kid: young Bill Polk wanders around the West, trying out different professions before finding his role in life. This is one of the gentlest of all comic book origin stories, and also a highly satisfying one.
The Wyoming Kid was a young man who wandered around the West, helping out lawmen and ordinary people who needed assistance. He was Western Comics' longest running character, appearing throughout the entire run of the magazine. Perhaps one reason that he wore so well was the low key and friendly nature of the character. He was always a nice person. He was more interested in helping people, than in zapping bad guys, or other enemies. Also, he had little interest in being the Man in Charge, neither running a town or working as a sheriff. This genuine good nature gives the character appeal. The Wyoming Kid's adventures often involve a mix of do-gooding and law enforcement. He liked to help kids and ordinary townspeople. This mixture of activities recalls Superman, who also did many good deeds, in addition to catching crooks.
The Strange Signs at Saddle Rock (1959). Writer: Gardner Fox. Art: Howard Sherman. The Wyoming Kid solves a mystery involving an isolated town.
The Wyoming Kid goes undercover in this tale, as well as some others. This is consistent with his upbeat personality. He clearly enjoys dressing up as other characters. There is often something humorous about the characters he portrays, also in keeping with his joie de vivre. The Wyoming Kid has no secret identity. Going undercover is a way for him to take on new identities.
Clue of the Outlaw's Hat (1959). Writer: Gardner Fox. Art: Howard Sherman.
The Gift of Danger (1960). Writer: Gardner Fox. Art: Howard Sherman. The Wyoming Kid is entrusted with a fragile Chinese vase to be given as a wedding present in another town, but he keeps encountering adventures that threaten to break it. This is an apparently simple story, little more than an anecdote. But it is one of the most charming and delightful tales in the series. I do not know how it casts its spell.
Fox had a fascination with art objects. Many of his Hawkman tales spring from objects in the museum where Hawkman's secret identity is a curator. Fox is very knowledgeable about such objects, and often associates them with interesting customs or traditions, as he does in this story. The festive tone of the story, and its emphasis on unusual customs, also reminds one of the many unusual celebrations Adam Strange encounters on the planet Rann.
In Fox tales, it is difficult for anyone to go anywhere. Look at all the problems Adam Strange has getting to Rann, or the teleportation stories Fox wrote for the Atom. Many of Fox's stories are built around the challenge of getting from one point to another. There are often technical conditions that make this tricky and intricately plotted. In this story, the Wyoming Kid has to make a journey from one Western town to another without breaking a vase. This sort of "challenge for a journey" story is very personal for Fox, a kind of story he was deeply interested in writing. Fox wrote other tales in which the hero has to transport an object, such as "The Robot-Wraith of Rann" (Mystery in Space #88, December 1963), in which Adam Strange brings a dress for Alanna from Earth to Rann.
Some of the challenges the Wyoming Kid encounters along the way here remind one of the equally challenging landscapes encountered by Fox's Star Rovers on alien planets. Both stories involve upbeat, comic toned adventures in which the heroes meet unusual landscapes and intelligent animals. The Western landscape in this tale is able to evoke the same exotic properties as the alien planetoids in the Star Rovers series. Such equivalences between the West and outer space will pop up in many of Fox's Westerns. There will be formal similarities between the two types of stories. This formal similarity affects not only landscape, but all other aspects of story construction and meaning.
Trouble in Cholla City (1960). Writer: Gardner Fox. Art: Howard Sherman. The Wyoming Kid tries to get food and rest during his yearly visit to his favorite town, Cholla City, but he spends all his time helping the townspeople out with emergencies. Like many of the Wyoming Kid tales, this is just a little anecdote, but it is one filled with charm. The Wyoming Kid always had a strong sense of fun. He enjoyed food, clothes and town parties, and he liked to see other people enjoying them too. This also gives the character a likable quality. The Wyoming Kid is someone oriented towards positive things.
The Amazing Contest at Stovepipe Creek (1957). Writer: Gardner Fox. Art: Gil Kane. Famed Western crime-fighter Nighthawk has pledged to appear as a judge at an outdoor contest of Western skills, while he has also agreed to appear as a contestant in his secret identity of Hannibal Hawkes. Delightful story that is one of the sunniest of the Nighthawk tales. The story has no villains. Instead, it focuses on Nighthawk's ingenuity at appearing to be two people at once, and on the party-like, festival atmosphere of the contest. Nighthawk changes clothes so fast here that he reminds one of the quick-change artist in Fox's "The Riddle of the Two-Faced Astronaut" (Atom #6, April-May 1963).
The Nighthawk stories centered on the hero's attempts to keep his secret identity from bad guys. This was especially true after Gardner Fox took over scripting the stories in the mid-1950's. The pre-Fox Nighthawk had always been a masked hero with a secret identity, but these earlier stories did not all center on keeping his identity a secret, as Fox's usually did. Fox liked to make stories in a series all variations on a theme. Here he has produced a huge run of Nighthawk tales, almost all of which are variations on preserving Nighthawk's i.d.
In many of the tales, a group of outlaws would begin to suspect that Nighthawk and Hannibal Hawkes were the same person. Nighthawk would then come up with some scheme to convince the villains that this was not true. The premise strongly resembles the many stories in which Superman tries to preserve his secret identity of Clark Kent.
Some of the Nighthawk stories deal with his attempt to convince people that he was not actually Hannibal Hawkes, after he secret identity has actually been revealed to them. This "after the fact" tale was often common in Superman as well. I've never found such tales especially plausible. I think that people who've seen good evidence of a secret i.d. would be very hard to convince otherwise.
Hannibal Hawkes is somewhat unusual for a comic book secret identity in that he is not a nerd. Instead, he seems to have a wide range of useful skills in his role of a wandering fix-it man. He is also a gifted cowboy, as this story shows. Hannibal Hawkes' persona is not a disguise, either, or an assumed role. Instead, Hannibal Hawkes seems to be the real self of the character. His Nighthawk role also seems to be a natural expression of his inner feelings: a desire to bring justice to the West. The character has few inner conflicts. Instead, he seems to be doing what he feels like.
The Nighthawk stories tend not to have mystery plots. Instead, both the reader and Hannibal know all the facts of the story from the start. This lack of a mystery puzzle plot is somewhat unusual in the DC Silver Age Westerns. Many of the stories do have outlaws who Nighthawk needs to round up, but they are not involved in mysterious situations.
Gil Kane tended to gravitate to - or be assigned - the Western series in which the hero has a secret identity. His art is a vigorous, prominent feature in both the Nighthawk and Johnny Thunder stories. Both of these series are largely non-puzzle plot Westerns in which the hero has a secret identity, and in which we see everything from the hero's point of view. In both series, the hero spends as much time in his secret identity as in his hero's role: both are an important part of the plot.
This story is notable for its portraits of Hannibal Hawkes. He wears three different outfits in the story, including fancy clothes for the rodeo scenes (p6). Kane also includes close up view of Hawkes (p2).
The name Hannibal Hawkes also reminds one of the character Hannibal Heyes in the Western TV series Alias Smith and Jones.
Amazing Quest for Nighthawk's Secret Identity (1958). Writer: Gardner Fox. Art: Gil Kane. Nighthawk gets amnesia, and cannot remember his own secret identity as Hannibal Hawkes.
This story has formal similarities to the detective story. Nighthawk remembers nothing of his life, and has to track down and discover everything about himself. Fox constructs the whole sequence of events and discoveries logically, just like the logical discovery of the truth in a well-crafted detective tale. The tale also shows a good feel for the progress of the character's emotions. The story is especially close to the "inverted detective story". In inverted mystery stories, the reader first sees the crime, and knows every aspect of it fully; then the reader watches a detective figure out all details of the crime from scratch. Similarly, in "Amazing Quest" the reader starts out by knowing every detail of Nighthawk's life, from previous stories in the series; then the reader watches Nighthawk as, detective-like, he figures out the details of his life.
Amnesia plots were not uncommon in the super-hero comics; a good one is Leo Dorfman's "When Superman Lost His Memory" (Superman #178, July 1965).
When Nighthawk is dizzy from the blow that causes the amnesia, Kane depicts him as surrounded by circles in the air. Kane will use similar circles in Green Lantern to indicate passage from one dimension to another. Kane liked geometric figures in his art.
Secret of the Outlaw Timepiece (1959). Writer: Gardner Fox. Art: Gil Kane. Outlaws plot to find a way of identifying Nighthawk's location, so they can be warned of his presence when they try to commit crimes.
The Nighthawk tales were often structured as a battle of wits between the hero and a gang of villains. Usually this mental contest was over the hero's secret identity. But in this tale, the issue is not over Nighthawk's i.d., but over his location.
Gardner Fox loved tales involving clocks and timepieces: see his Chronos tales in The Atom. We saw Hannibal Hawkes fixing a clock in "The Amazing Contest at Stovepipe Creek".
The Barbed Wire Barricade (1959). Writer: Gardner Fox. Art: Gil Kane. The origin of Matt Savage. Matt becomes the trail boss of a cattle drive for the first time, and assembles his crew. The crew members became permanent members of the cast. Already in this first tale, the Matt Savage stories have the largest cast of regular characters of any of the DC Western series. Another unusual feature of Matt Savage: he is a bit older and more mature than many of the comics' other series heroes. The young cowboy Luthor Jones in this tale reminds one a bit of Jimmy Olsen.
Reader George Moss suggests that the Matt Savage tales were inspired by the popularity of Rawhide, an American TV show that also focused on cattle drives. This is a plausible guess. Rawhide debuted in January 1959, around eight months before the first Matt Savage story.
The Matt Savage stories replaced the Nighthawk series in Western Comics. They were done by the same team: Gardner Fox and Gil Kane. They often received the cover of the magazine, somewhat unfairly, I think, because they were not as interesting on the average as the Pow-Wow Smith tales. Nighthawk had appeared from the start of the magazine; the Matt Savage tales would continue to the magazine's end in 1961.
Most of the other heroes of the Western comics were lawmen, of one sort or another. Matt Savage was different. His role was to lead cattle drives, and make sure that they got to their destination in Kansas from Texas. The early Matt Savage tales stuck closely to this paradigm, but in the later ones, Matt often solved mysteries he encountered along the trail.
This first story is full of Western lore about cattle drives. It is quite an absorbing story. I'd never been interested in cattle drives before, but by the middle of the tale, I was eager to find out what was happening next. Fox had the gift to create an interesting inside look at some well known institution, full of historical facts and narrative vigor. The story reminds one of Fox's similar look inside the Indianapolis 500 race, in his Strange Sports Stories "The Man Who Drove Through Time" (The Brave and the Bold #48, June-July 1963).
Showdown at Rawhide Gulch (1960). Writer: Gardner Fox. Art: Gil Kane. Matt Savage tries to track down the long lost son and heir of a woman in a town near the trail drive. Mysteries about missing heirs recall such famous real life cases as the Tichborne Claimant and Martin Guerre. In both of these real life stories, there was much doubt about whether the man that finally showed up after many years and identified himself as the missing person was in fact the genuine heir. Such diverse mystery writers as Jorge Luis Borges, Mignon G. Eberhart, Josephine Tey and Lillian de la Torre have essayed works inspired by the Tichborne Claimant. This is Fox's go at the story. One might note that other comic books have also featured stories about long missing relatives that finally appear. See Leo Dorfman's "Supergirl's Big Brother" (Action Comics #303, August 1963).
The construction of Fox's story reflects his personal approaches. Once again, the tale is in layers, where the solution to one mystery situation leads to another layer of mystery. The flow of information is also an important element in his plot.
The Leap Year Bandits (#83, September-October 1960). Matt Savage works with a Texas Ranger who is pursuing a thief. Minor story, except for some good art.
Kane includes an aerial view of a tiny Western town (p7). It is just as Constructivist as the mighty futuristic cities he depicted in his sf comics. The buildings tend to be rectilinear, with trapezoidal extensions. Such similar extensions are often seen on his future architecture. It is a delightful image, like a toy version of his cities. Also neat: a five-sided corral at one end, which extends the geometric pattern of the town. The corral is not a regular pentagon; instead, its sides tend to be set at 90 or 45 degrees to each other.
The City Without Guns (1948). Writer: Robert Kanigher. Art: Alex Toth. Johnny Thunder's Dad is replaced as Sheriff of Mesa City by a crook. This seems to be the fourth Johnny Thunder story. Even at this early date, the character has assumed the form he will have during the entire, very long run of Johnny Thunder (1948 - 1961). Apparently these were already fixed in the first story (which I have not yet read).
John Tane is the schoolteacher of the Western town of Mesa City. He tries to educate its young people in democratic values, to live "in peace in the American way of life". John's secret identity is Johnny Thunder, who assists his father as deputy to keep outlaws away from Mesa City. His father, who does not know the real identity of Johnny Thunder, is constantly full of scorn for his son John Tane. John Tane dyes his blond hair black with coal dust, to change to Johnny Thunder. Here he has a secret room in the loft of the school house in which to change his identity, whereas in the late tales of the series circa 1960, he will use an annex in back of the school house. John Tane also changes his way of speaking when he becomes Johnny Thunder - it is the assumption or creation of a whole new personality.
His horse throughout the series is Black Lightning, a white horse with a black mark on his forehead that looks like a lightning bolt. Black Lightning gets equal billing with Johnny Thunder on the splash page in this early story, something that will soon pass.
"Johnny Thunder" was previously used by DC for the name of a sort-of-super-hero, a somewhat comic character of the 1940's. This first Johnny Thunder was a member of the Justice Society of America. When his tales came to a permanent end in 1948, DC immediately recycled his name for the new Western hero of Kanigher and Toth. The Western Johnny Thunder and the super-hero Johnny Thunder have nothing in common but their names; they are completely separate characters. Kanigher was the scripter of almost all of the tales of the Western hero Johnny Thunder (1948 - 1961). Since 1961, the Western Johnny Thunder has hardly ever been revived in new stories, with one key exception, but the super-hero Johnny Thunder has made some brief comebacks, often in tales of the Justice Society.
"The City Without Guns" is most notable for Alex Toth's remarkably vivid art. Toth is especially evocative with his landscapes. The splash shows Johnny Thunder and Black Lightning in Monument Valley, with lightning in the background. A scene showing the Sheriff and Johnny peering through a rectangular window at some bad guys is also strikingly atmospheric (p8). Toth takes full advantage of night shadows and overhead angles in his art. The portraits in the story are also good.
Decoy at Canyon Pass (1954). Writer: Robert Kanigher. Art: Mort Drucker. Outlaws try to lure John Tane to an ambush with a fake Johnny Thunder impersonator, not realizing that John Tane and Johnny Thunder are the same man. This story is genuinely surrealistic. Since Johnny Thunder is essentially an imaginary person created by John Tane, it is logical that other people would be able to create a copy of him too. Seeing a complete duplicate of yourself must be an extremely strange experience. The fact that the duplicate is evil adds to the bizarreness. In Kanigher's Metal Men tales, both the robots themselves and their creator Doc Magnus have to deal with duplicates of themselves; Doc's turns out to be evil, as well. The duplicate Metal Men robots show up in "The Nightmare Menace" (Showcase #38, May-June 1962); Doc Magnus' duplicate emerges in "Robots of Terror" (Metal Men #2, June-July 1963). Identical twin brothers often play a role in Kanigher's work, as well, such as the Trigger Twins in his Western work, or the twin brother bad guys in "Nine Worlds to Conquer" (Mystery in Space #1, April-May 1951).
The fact that John Tane encounters a duplicate not of himself, but of his alter ego, Johnny Thunder, adds a further layer of strangeness to the tale. Kanigher and Kane will also include life-size images of Johnny Thunder in "Mystery of the Masked Menace" (1960). These too have a surrealistic effect. Once again, these are created by bad guys.
The Indian Chief of Mesa City (1956). Writer: Robert Kanigher. Art: Gil Kane. Based on a cover by Gil Kane. A young Indian lad, Swift Deer, becomes Mesa City's honorary Sheriff for a day. The central idea of the story is already present in Kane's cover, which shows Johnny Thunder taking care of bad guys in the background, so that his young friend will not be bothered with them during his day as honorary Sheriff.
This story has excellent art by Gil Kane. The cover shows many action scenes. Kane loved to depict his heroes making flying tackles. Sometimes his hero will be pictured in mid-air, about to land on the bad guy; other times, the tackle will be in progress, with the hero landing on the other guy, and both men on the ground. Kane tends to depict both men from above, seen from their backs. The full figure of the hero is usually seen in such pictures - it is the human body as a whole that fascinates Kane. This links his work to classical traditions in art, portraits of the idealized human figure.
Also notable is an overhead shot of a Western alley, with Johnny leaping from one side to another. This panel is architecturally outstanding, conveying a picture of a Western town.
Kane took over the art for Johnny Thunder in #84, August-September 1955, and he stayed with the character till the series and All-Star Western itself came to an end in 1961. He succeeded Mort Drucker (of Mad magazine fame) on the series; earlier, Alex Toth had drawn the character. Kane's version was first-rate throughout. He especially excelled in his portraiture of Johnny Thunder. Much of the enjoyability of the series is due to Kane's gripping art. Many fans immediately think of such 1960's super-hero series as Green Lantern and the Atom when Kane' name is mentioned. I do too - they are two of my favorites. But people should also look into his high quality 1950's work on Johnny Thunder, the Nighthawk, and his non-series stories in the sf comic books.
Johnny Thunder's Indian Son (1957). Writer: Robert Kanigher. Art: Gil Kane. Swift Deer temporarily adopts Johnny Thunder to be his father, to take part in a father-son festival contest.
Mesa City is not a friendly place. Most of the citizens are self-righteous bourgeoisie. They treat both the Sheriff and the school-teacher in town simply as hired help. They will pay them to perform their work, but they will not give them any assistance or support, other than staying out of their way. Nor do they offer either man any social respect. They are just employees. Although Mesa City would collapse without the Sheriff and his deputy Johnny keeping outlaws at bay, and although there will be no future to Mesa City without education, the locals feel that employing some men to do these jobs discharges all their obligations. Any faults, such as the aging Sheriff's difficulties in physically over-powering outlaws, is simply an occasion for a job reprimand.
In some ways, it is not clear to me why Johnny Thunder feels so obligated to perform such tasks, at least in Mesa City. He is doing two very hard jobs well, and gets very little in return from the society around him. He might be better off in a community that offered him respect and affection for all the hard work he does. On the other hand, Johnny Thunder is upholding the ideals of civilization. He is clearly very fond of children, and tries to help them all he can. This is one of his most appealing character traits. Johnny Thunder is definitely a social outsider himself, and one suspects he strongly identifies with other people who are powerless in society, such as children.
In this story, the citizens of Mesa City ridicule Johnny Thunder for not being married. This is an appalling but key moment in the series. It reflects the deep social pressure of 1950's America that all people should be married, whether they are suited to be or not. Johnny's mental response to this is interesting. He never actually expresses a desire to be married; he merely defensively suggests it would not be fair to ask a woman to share his life of danger. By contrast, Johnny seems genuinely touched by a desire to have children. After all, he devotes much of his life to teaching kids. So Swift Deer's offer to adopt him as his father for a day seems genuinely gratifying to Johnny.
The Origin of Johnny Thunder (1959). Writer: Robert Kanigher. Art: Gil Kane. Based on a cover by Gil Kane. Flashbacks reveal how school teacher John Tane first adopted his secret identity of Johnny Thunder.
This story concentrates on two related things: John taking on his new role as Johnny, and issues involving his adoption of a secret identity. The scene where Johnny is dressed in his cowboy clothes for the first time is very involving. They depict a deep release for the hero, an expression of feelings that have long been pent up inside of himself. It is as if a whole hidden side of Johnny that is finally getting out.
This sort of personal release can be given many real life interpretations. It constitutes a whole personal awakening. Such life events, when a whole new world of opportunities open for a person, are powerful experiences.
The key question in Kanigher's work is "what does something feel like?". He is always plunging his heroes into some experience, and showing what this sort of event feels like from inside. The portraits are very detailed. They often take the hero from his first tentative stages, through deeper immersal in the event, to many climaxes and major encounters. The whole process is many staged. It is not a single incident; rather it is a huge adventure with many stops along the way, rather like a novel by Alexandre Dumas. Kanigher often uses long stories within issues to convey this complexity, and story sequences that stretch across more than one issue.
Kanigher's tales tend not to build up to some big victory at the finale. Instead, there tend to be many victories and defeats along the way. This allows the hero to experience a wide array of different kinds of events associated with the adventure. At each stage, Kanigher shows us what his hero is feeling. The hero's thoughts, responses and feelings are set forth in detail. The kinds of events along the way can be very diverse. They offer a similarly diverse set of responses by the hero to the varied situations.
Kanigher's adventures are good in their own right, simply as stories. But they also tend to have allegorical implications. Kanigher was a persistent champion of the rights of women and racial minorities. Many of his tales have female or black or Native American heroes. In addition to such stories, many can be read as allegories of the experiences of such characters, as they fight discrimination. The lead character in the story "Challenge of the Robot Knight" (Mystery in Space #7 April-May 1952) might be a robot, but it soon becomes obvious to most readers that he is undergoing the sort of experiences faced by a black man fighting discrimination.
Other Kanigher stories often show us men who are permanently outside of the norms that society has established for masculinity. Once again, sometimes this is explicit on the surface - his Johnny Thunder stories can be seen as a realistic portrait of such a man. Other times, it is an easily penetrated allegory, such as the robot Tin in Metal Men who is not born as what society thinks of as a "normal" male.
Kanigher's stories offer a critique of both racial discrimination and gender norms. He is one of the most persistent dissenters from the received social ideas on the subject. But they also do more. They offer a portrait of what it is like to be an outsider fighting such norms in one's personal life. We see the titanic struggle of his heroes to break free. Often times, his heroes have to make up entirely new ways of living, working and operating. Since they are outsiders, no social rules have been set up for them to do anything other than the most menial work and marginalized existences. So the heroes have to invent their own ways of doing their jobs and interacting with society. This is not a single step process. Rather, the hero tries many things, some of which work out better than others. We can see such development of roles and approaches over many issues of the Metal Men, for instance. They are always coming up with new ideas on how they might perform their roles. As we mentioned before, Kanigher shows us the hero's thoughts and feelings at every step of the way of this experience. It is an inside look at what it means to invent a new existence and way of life and work for yourself.
The book that is shot in this tale is a disturbing image. It reminds one of a similarly shot chess piece in ":Nine Worlds to Conquer" (Mystery in Space #1, April-May 1951). In both tales, a symbol of intellectuality is under siege from bullets.
The Screaming Eagle Ambush (1959). Writer: Robert Kanigher. Art: Gil Kane. Sequel to "The Origin of Johnny Thunder", in which the new Johnny Thunder copes with his legendary status as a gunslinger, despite the fact that he can't really shoot.
Johnny Thunder's first steps as a neophyte crime-fighter recall the early stories of Kanigher's robot heroes, the Metal Men. Just as the unconfident but determined Tin has to screw up his courage to help out, so does Johnny Thunder have to wade into situations here where he is deeply over his head. Both men are convinced they have no skills to offer, but by trying and experimenting with different approaches, they often wind up achieving much more than they expect. Both Tin and Johnny have to endure put-downs from other characters, in this case, Johnny's abrasive Sheriff father. These other characters are normative masculine men, people who seem to have no problem fulfilling society's definition of masculinity. Both Tin and Johnny seem born otherwise. They are very different from what society expects or demands. This seems to be rooted in their basic nature. It will never be easy for them to fit in. They will experience titanic struggles to express themselves, and to find a role and a life in which they can function. However, this does not mean they are bad. On the contrary, they have much to contribute. Their struggles form much of the subjects of Kanigher's stories.
Kanigher's tales form profound portraits of social outsiders. The people in them go through detailed adventures that make vivid the life experiences of those born outside the system.
Guns of Destiny (1960). Writer: Robert Kanigher. Art: Gil Kane. A bully and outlaw pursues both John Tane and Johnny Thunder throughout their whole lives. This story strongly parallels a much later tale Robert Kanigher wrote for the romance comic books, "Play With Fire" (Girl's Love Stories #178, July - August 1973), a tale with art by Jay Scott Pike. Robert Kanigher was also the editor of Girl's Love Stories at the time. "Guns of Destiny" deals with a bully who uses first his fists, then his guns, to dominate and control John Tane from childhood on. John Tane develops an emotional obsession over him, and vice versa. The heroine of "Play With Fire" is a girl who develops a similar obsession with a star baseball player. In her case, the obsession is based on his attractiveness to her. The baseball player is not a bully. But his all-powerful attractiveness to the heroine causes a similar obsession in her life. The two stories are structured similarly. Both protagonists see visual images of faces of the men they're obsessed with, large sized, and floating in space above them. These two men look quite similar: they are handsome men with lots of curly hair. Both are often laughing superiorly at the hero of the story. John Tane's bully is even called Roaring Red, because he is often laughing at the hero. Both men know what power they have over the protagonist, and frequently point it out in their dialogue to them. Both tales occur over a long period of time, and both have an extensive flashback in their earlier sections. Both men are quite surprised at the end, when the protagonist finally turns on them.
Another Kanigher tale in which the hero encounters a taunting bully is "Nine Worlds to Conquer" (Mystery in Space #1, April-May 1951), the first Knights of the Galaxy tale. In this science fiction story, the bully's image materializes, not as a piece of mental imagery, but as an actual real life picture that the bully displays on TV screens. He superimposes the image on regular broadcasts; it is an image that appears involuntarily to the hero, just like the mental images of his obsession in the other tales.
A similar themed story to "Play With Fire" from a Kanigher-edited romance comic book is "That Special Man" (Love Stories #152, October - November 1973), a tale which may or may not be by Kanigher. It has fewer formal similarities to "Guns of Destiny", however. In "That Special Man" the curly-headed man to whom the heroine is attracted is a rock singer. The heroine of "That Special Man" has a difficult, abrasive father, just like John Tane. "That Special Man" is further discussed in my article about its artist Art Saaf.
Mystery of the Masked Menace (1960). Writer: Robert Kanigher. Art: Gil Kane. A masked outlaw leaves terrible traps for Johnny Thunder. This macabre Western, full of bizarre incidents, anticipates the kind of thriller stories that would frequently appear on the TV series The Wild, Wild West (1965 - 1969).
It is not just Johnny's sheriff father who is always trying to force him into gender norms. The outlaws in the tales also try to coerce Johnny. They often make demands on him, telling him what they expect him to do. Such expectations can be very unpleasant. The outlaws always seem to be unconflicted men who fit in naturally with society's norms of masculinity. They are also mean as mud.
Six-Gun Showdown with Madame .44 (1961). Writer: Gardner Fox. Art: Gil Kane. A masked woman Robin Hood, "Madame .44", crosses swords with, and romances, Johnny Thunder. Johnny Thunder meets his match in a woman who is as tricky as he is, and who has her own secret identity. In many ways she is a double for Johnny Thunder, sharing such characteristics with him as a divided personality, and an oppositional attitude to the society around her. This story is an attempt to add a female romantic interest to the Johnny Thunder tales. It is the start of a three issue run for Gardner Fox on the series, a run that ended with the magazine's demise in 1961. "Madame .44" is an interestingly dynamic character. She is clearly an attempt to come up with a more lively partner for Johnny than the insipid heroines who sometimes appeared in Western movies. Green Lantern's girl friend Carol Ferris will later also develop the secret identity of villainess Star Sapphire, in tales scripted first by John Broome - "The Secret Life of Star Sapphire" (Green Lantern #16, October 1962) , then Gardner Fox - "Star Sapphire Unmasks Green Lantern" (Green Lantern #26, January 1964).
Whatever Happened to Johnny Thunder? (1980). Writer: Michael Tiefenbacher. Art: Gil Kane. Johnny Thunder and Madame .44 resolve their unfinished business. This tale was one of a series, all beginning "Whatever Happened to", that Julius Schwartz published many years later. All revive some comic book hero of yesteryear, and show readers what they are doing today. This warm-hearted tale gives some nice closure to the Johnny Thunder series. The title recalls Henry Farrell's prose thriller, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1960).
Gil Kane is drawing Johnny Thunder here again, 19 years after the first series ended. Johnny Thunder looks a little different. His hair is a bit longer in the 1970's style, showing some waviness. The story emphasizes the blond hair of John Tane, more than the black of Johnny Thunder. In general, it tends to view John Tane as the real person, and Johnny Thunder simply as his secret identity.
The Boss of Gila Gap (#1, January-February 1948). Art: Ed Smalle Jr. US Marshal Jim Sawyer is assigned to get rid of the corrupt crowd that are ruling the town of Gila Gap. The early Jim Sawyer tales show him cleaning up Western communities run by vicious dictators. These stories certainly have a political edge. The 1940's were the era of such horrendous dictators as Hitler and Stalin. It was probably very heartening to readers to see Jim completely destroy such dictators' powers.
Jim is lean, lazy and laid back in his manner. This makes a comic contrast to his extreme efficiency in cleaning out such bosses. He goes in, and cleans up these towns in an astonishingly direct manner. Right from the start, Jim seems a fully grown-up character. He is not a juvenile. He is a grown man doing his job.
Even in this tale, Jim is concerned about gathering evidence, which he does successfully. This serves two functions: it puts these tales into a long tradition of detective stories, where the detective gathers clues. And it shows that Jim is adhering to the rule of law. He is only arresting people when he has serious evidence that they have committed crimes, rather than any sort of personal whim.
The Bells of San Filippo (#2, March-April 1948). Writer: Don Cameron? Art: Ed Smalle Jr. Jim tries to arrest the gunmen ruling San Filippo Valley.
In Jim Sawyer's anti-dictator tales, the townspeople are always standing by to revolt. It is a two part process. Jim arrests the town dictators, and the people rise up to defy his henchmen, who usually flee the town. This recalls such pre-war swashbuckler films as "The Adventures of Robin Hood" (1937) and "The Mark of Zorro" (1940), in which the populace eventually rises up against its oppressors.
The Two Brothers in Big Horn (1949). Writer: ?. Art: Ed Smalle, Jr. The Cowboy Marshal dreams that he will be shot and killed on his next assignment, then has to face up to a pair of sinister outlaw brothers. Moody, atmospheric tale. The story has something of the feel of a fairy tale, with the hero's adventure seemingly in the grip of a sinister prophecy. There is a bit of a Fritz Lang atmosphere to this story, with its emphasis on fate, suspense and a persecuted hero.
Today's action movie heroes never show fear, even in the most ridiculously dangerous situations. But in this early tale, the main subject is the hero's fear. Both he and his fellow US Marshals agree that their job is dangerous, and something to be taken seriously. The fact the hero is a US Marshal, and thus a workaday member of a real life, official crime fighting unit, adds to the sense of realism and seriousness of the tale. He is not a figure of fantasy or a romanticized cowboy-hero.
The Cowboy Marshal is the only character in the DC Western comics who seems to have a regular boss, and who works for a large organization, in this case the US Marshals. The character also has a bit of a working class feel. Johnny Thunder works somewhat irregularly as a deputy for his Sheriff father, and most of the Sheriff characters in the comics report somewhat diffusely to the town fathers, although this is an infrequent event that is rarely depicted. Matt Savage, Hannibal Hawkes, Wayne Trigger, and Rodeo Rick seem to be self-employed.
The Cowboy Marshal appeared from the start of Western Comics through issue 42; in #43 he was replaced by the arrival of Pow-Wow Smith from Detective Comics. This was around the time that editor Jack Schiff left the DC Western magazines, and editor Julius Schwartz took over.
The Man Who's Wanted (1949). Writer: ?. Art: Jimmy Thompson. Rodeo Rick tries to help a young cowboy, Bucky Russell, who's on the run from a robbery he's accused of committing.
Rodeo Rick was a champion rodeo star. He toured the West with his large show, always stopping to help people in trouble. Most of the Rodeo Rick tales I've read lack plausibility. They always tried to crowd rodeo events in the stories that just didn't seem to fit. The tales are inoffensive, but not very distinguished.
This story has some good art showing the mesa landscapes (p4).
Mystery of the Black Bandanna Bandit (#65, September-October 1957). Writer: Gardner Fox. Art: Frank Giacoia. Rodeo Rick tries to help round up a masked outlaw that is threatening a small town. This is a minor tale. Frank Giacoia's art shows some pleasant features, especially in its portraits of the local Sheriff and his deputy. The Sheriff is in the full black coat and striped trousers of a typically duded-up Western lawman. He looks much dressier than many of the buckskin wearing sheriffs in the rest of the DC Western comics. Giacoia also showed his skill with men's costumes in such sf tales as "The Star Oscar" (Strange Adventures #34, July 1953) , "Mystery of the Twin Spaceships" (Strange Adventures #101, February 1959), "The Perfect Planet" (Mystery in Space #9, August-September 1952) and "Riddle of Asteroid 8794" (Mystery in Space #50, March 1959). Giacoia's clothes tend to be extremely sharp and dressy. They tend to exemplify classy traditions, and not be especially science fictional or avant-garde. The often embody the looks of traditional military officers or guardsmen. They have a serious, authoritative appearance.
Movie cowboy Hopalong Cassidy got his own comic book, which was taken over in the 1950's by DC from its original publisher. Hopalong Cassidy was the skillful sheriff of the town of the small Western town of Twin Rivers. The stories were mainly detective tales, with Hopalong trying to capture various bandits and outlaws. Hopalong Cassidy had no secret identity, no crime fighting gimmicks, no continuing friends or series characters, and wore plain black Western clothes. All of this made him very different from other comic book Western heroes of his time, most of whom had aspects that resembled the costumed super-heroes that appeared in other comics.
Trail of the Telltale Clues (1957). Writer: John Broome. Art: Gil Kane. Many clues point to Gerry Hopkins, a cowboy who has recently drifted into town, being the masked outlaw that is terrorizing the community, but Hopalong is skeptical. This is one of John Broome's detective stories. Broome was fascinated by clues. He often inverted their meaning in philosophically inventive ways. In "The Case of the 14 Clueless Crimes" (Strange Adventures #162, March 1964) the detective hero makes key deductions from the fact that there are no clues. Here, Hopalong becomes skeptical when there are too many clues.
The hostility to newcomer Gerry Hopkins shown by the townspeople of Twin Rivers is related to the stories John Broome was to write about refugees, such as "Behind the Space Curtain" (Mystery in Space #55, November 1959) and "The Secret of the Golden Thunderbolts" (Green Lantern #2, September-October 1960). Hopkins is not a refugee from a dictatorship - he is just wandering around the West on his own accord - but the prejudices he face are similar to those that face many real life refugees.
Wandering cowpuncher Gerry Hopkins also attracts suspicion from the townspeople by refusing to share any facts about his life before he drifted into Twin Rivers. This certainly look suspicious, in suggesting that he has something to conceal. It also causes him to run smack up against John Broome's story-telling paradigms, which stress building up a life history for his characters. Just at the point where most Broome characters will open their mouth and tell their life stories, Gerry Hopkins refuses to talk. Hopkins' closed-mouthed behavior thus is in structural opposition to Broome's story telling construction.
Broome counteracts this, by including details of Hopkins' life since he reached Twin Rivers. These details form a "life history" for the character, one that admittedly starts only on Hopkins' entrance into Twin Rivers. It is as if Hopkins were born when he entered the community. These detail of Hopkins' life are presented in two flashbacks, just the way many life histories in Broome occur in flashback sequences.
The Canine Sheriff of Twin Rivers (Hopalong Cassidy #126, November-December 1957). Writer: John Broome. Art: Gil Kane. When Hopalong rescues a dog, it loyally follows him everywhere. This tale is most notable for Kane's depiction of caves, both on the splash panel, and the last part of the story. It anticipates his cave art in the Atom's origin tale "Birth of the Atom" (Showcase #34, September-October 1961). The art combines vertical columns with those that twist from the vertical to the horizontal, making thin bridges. I don't think this is scientifically accurate, but it makes for great pictures. Kane shows an outstanding sense of composition here.
The Forgotten Men of Ghost Town (1953). Both the radio and TV character The Lone Ranger and the Nighthawk wore masks. A somewhat similar comic book character was the Vigilante. He was masked, wore a fancy cowboy costume, and fought crooks. Like other comic book crime fighters, such as Batman, he had a secret identity, in this case a singing cowboy known as Greg Sanders, the Prairie Troubadour. Greg Sanders would wander from town to town, and along the way, the Vigilante would solve crimes. Some of his stories were actual mystery plots, such as "The Forgotten Men of Ghost Town". This story has a mystery puzzle plot, complete with clues and a surprise solution.
The name Vigilante is an unfortunate one, suggesting a vicious character who takes the law into his own hands. At least by the early 1950's, the character was gentle, friendly and law abiding. While the name Vigilante will never seem like an appropriate one, his stories were wholesome and unobjectionable.