Jesse James: Classic Western Collection

By Joe Kubert & Carmine Infantino (Vanguard Productions)
ISBN 1-887591-44-3

There was a time, not that very long ago, when all of popular fiction was engorged with cowboy stories.

As always happens with such periodic phenomena – such as the Swinging Sixties Super-Spy Boom and perhaps the modern Vampire Boyfriend trend (too soon to tell, but I’m sharpening stakes and having some cola and Perrier blessed, just in case…) – there’s a tremendous amount of dross and a few spectacular gems. On such occasions there’s also generally a small amount of superb but not-quite-transformationally magnificent concoctions that get lost in the shuffle: carried along with the overwhelming surge of material pumped out by television, film, comics and book producers and even the toy, game and record industries.

After World War II the American family entertainment market – for which read comics, radio and the burgeoning television industry – became comprehensively enamoured of the clear-cut, simplistic sensibilities and easy, escapist solutions offered by Tales of the Old West; already a firmly established favourite of paperback fiction, movie serials and feature films.

I’ve often pondered on how almost simultaneously a dark, bleak, nigh-nihilistic and oddly left-leaning Film Noir genre quietly blossomed alongside that wholesome revolution, seemingly for the cynical minority of entertainment intellectuals who somehow knew that the returned veterans still hadn’t found a Land Fit for Heroes… but that a thought for another time and graphic novel review.

Comic books saw a huge outpouring of anthology titles and new six-gun toting heroes to replace the rapidly dwindling supply of costumed Mystery Men, and true to formula, most of these pioneers ranged from transiently mediocre to outright appalling. Europe and Britain also embraced the Sagebrush zeitgeist, and produced some pretty impressive work, with France and Italy eventually making the genre their own by the end of the 1960s. Still and all there was the rare gleam of gold and also a fair share of highly acceptable silver in the American tales, and as always, the crucial difference was due to the artists and writers involved…

With every comic-book publisher turning hopeful eyes westward, it was natural that most of the historical figures would quickly find a home and of course facts counted little, as indeed they never had with cowboy literature…

Avon Books started in 1941, created when the American News Corporation bought out pulp magazine publishers J.S. Ogilvie, and their output was famously described by Time Magazine as “westerns, whodunits and the kind of boy-meets-girl story that can be illustrated by a ripe cheesecake jacket.”

By 1945 the company had launched a comic-book division as fiercely populist as the parent company with over 100 short-lived titles such as Atomic Spy Cases, Batchelor’s Diary, Behind Prison Bars, Campus Romance, Gangsters and Gun Molls, Slave Girl Comics, War Dogs of the U.S. Army, White Princess of the Jungle and many others, all aimed – even the funny animal titles like Space Mouse and Spotty the Pup! – at a slightly older and more discerning audience, and all drawn by some of the best artists working at the time. Many if not most sported lush painted covers that were both eye-catching and beautiful.

Six of their titles had respectable runs: Peter Rabbit, Eerie, Wild Bill Hickock, outrageous “Commie-busting” war comic Captain Steve Savage, Fighting Indians of the Wild West and the comfortingly scripted but magnificently illustrated fictionalised adventures of Jesse James.

Within these pages cow-punching aficionados (no, its neither a sexual proclivity nor an Olympic sport) and all fans of wonderful comic artwork can (re)discover a selection of range-riding rollercoaster rides about a troubled and misunderstood fast-gun forced to defend his name and life from an assorted passel of low-down no-goods and scurvy owlhoots, that have far more in common with Robin Hood’s brand of Outlawry than the actual Frank and Jesse James.

Nonetheless these anodyne but enjoyable tall tales still have a lot to recommend them. In stories such as ‘The Liberty Bank Robbery’, ‘Disaster at Savannah’, ‘Texas Killer’, ‘Devil’s Desperadoes’, ‘Jesse James… Sheriff’, ‘Helltown Holdups’, ‘Gunplay at Gallatin’, ‘The Great Prison Break!’, ‘Six-Gun Slaughter at San Romano’, ‘The Russelville Gunfights’ and ‘The Apache Kid Treasure’ the put-upon hero tries to live a blameless life until pushed to action by reputation-hungry fools, greedy bankers, psychotic killers and all the other myriad touchstones of Western mythology.

This black and white collection reprints material from issues #5, 6 and 7 of Jesse James (1950-1951) primarily featuring the art of comics legends Joe Kubert and Carmine Infantino, who would a few years later usher in the Silver Age of comics, but also includes the stylish frontispieces by acclaimed artist Wally Wood and world-famous portraitist Everett Raymond Kinstler, whose elegant illustrative art graced many Avon comics, as well as text features, biographies and even some pre-production pencil sketches.

Bill Black has also reprinted a few Avon Jesse James tales as part of his AC Comics line, but with 24 issues plus an annual released between 1950-1956 and artists like Leonard Starr, Al Williamson, Fred Kida and Frank Frazetta also contributing sterling work to these admittedly above-average shoot-‘em-up scripts, surely there’s still enough potential fans around to support a complete reprinting of this title – perhaps in the cheap and cheerful DC Showcase/Marvel Essentials giant phonebook format?

Black hats, white hats, great pictures and traditional action values – what more could you possibly ask for?

© 2001 Vanguard Productions 2003P. All other trademarks and copyrights in this book are acknowledged to their respective owners.