Stories of the West Book 1: Three Women at the Frontier


By Paulo Eleuteri-Serpieri, translated by Alfred Blomgren & Tony Raiola (Marvel)
ISBN: 0-932629-03-2

Paulo Eleuteri-Serpieri was born in Venice on February 29th 1944, and studied painting and architecture at the Fine Art Academy in Rome, graduating in 1966. He became an acclaimed painter before turning to comics in 1975 with historical dramas of the American West, scripted by Raffaele Ambrosio, which were published in Lancio Story and Skorpio as well as illustrating biblical tales in Découvrir la Bible.

From 1980 he turned to science fiction material for L’Eternauta, Il Fumetto and Orient-Express, before creating his landmark signature character Druuna, whose Junoesque proportions and fantastic adventures have captivated readers all over the world in such classics of pulchritudinous fantasy as Morbus Gravis, Creatura, Carnivora, Mandragora, Aphrodisia, Obsession, Druuna X and Croquis.

In Europe, where such superlatives are cherished, Serpieri’s astonishing ability to capture the female form in line and in colour has won him the title (although who else would want it is moot) of “Master of the Ass”, and this rare American translation of some of those early Western sagas certainly has a few beautiful nudes within its pages, but these two stories are worth looking at for more than that.

The eponymous ‘Three Women at the Frontier’ details the journey of a group of women literally exported to edge of American Civilisation at the close of the 19th century and how they wrested control of their lives and destinies from the callous, patronising men who thought they knew best, whilst ‘John and Mary, Mary and John’ details the unique meeting and budding relationship of a grizzled old mountain man and a wild woman hermit, once a squaw and slave; certainly one of the most intriguing and refreshing romances I’ve ever read.

Quirky, compelling and superbly underplayed, with some of the best drawing you’ll ever see, this is a fabulous lost treasure, only slightly marred by its appalling reproduction and too-casual proofreading. These wonderful tales of the west (and all those others untranslated as yet) are desperately in need of a high quality English language edition, but until then this will have to suffice…
© 1985 Paulo Eleuteri-Serpieri. All rights reserved.

SHOWCASE presents Bat Lash


By Sergio Aragonés, Denny O’Neil, Nick Cardy & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-2295-6

By 1968 the glory-days of comic-books as a cheap mass-market entertainment were over. Spiralling costs, “free” alternatives like television and an increasing inability to connect with the mainstream markets were leaving the industry at the mercy of dedicated fan-groups with specialised, even limited, interests and worse yet, dependent on genre-trends to bolster sales.

Editorial Director Carmine Infantino, a thirty-year veteran, looked for ways to bolster DC business (already suffering a concerted attack by the seemingly unstoppable rise of Marvel Comics) and clearly remembered the old publisher’s maxim “do something old, and make it look new”. Although traditional cowboy yarns (which had ruled both TV and cinema screens since the 1950s) were also in decline, novel alternatives such as Wild, Wild West and Italian “Spaghetti Westerns” were popular, and would be a lot easier to transform into comics material than the burgeoning Supernatural craze that would come to dominate the next half-decade – but only after the repressive and self-inflicted Comics Code was re-written.

Thus Spanish/Mexican cartoonist and actor Sergio Aragonés was asked by Infantino and Editor Joe Orlando to add some unique contemporary twists to a cowboy hero they had concocted with the aid of the legendary Sheldon Mayer. Although many hands had stirred the plot, Aragonés, with dialogue provider Denny O’Neil, rendered the world-weary lonely saddle-tramp archetype into a completely fresh and original character – at least in comic-book terms – by making him a seemingly amoral wanderer with an aesthete’s sensibilities, a pacifist’s good intentions, and the hair-trigger capabilities of a top gun-for-hire. …And they played him for sardonic, tongue-in-cheek laughs.

Roguish, sexually promiscuous and always getting into trouble because his heart was bigger than his charlatan’s façade; Bat Lash caroused, cavorted and killed his way across the West – and Mexico – in one Showcase try-out (#76, August 1968) and seven bi-monthly issues (October/November 1968 – October/November 1969) before poor sales and a changing marketplace finally brought him low. Now this slim black and white tome (only 240 pages) collects those ahead-of-their-times adventures and also includes later revivals from DC Special Series #16 and a short run from the back of rival and fellow controversial cowboy Jonah Hex.

None of the Bat Lash stories had a title – which makes reviewing them a mite harder – but their strength was always that they took traditional plots and added a sardonic spin and breakneck pace to keep them fairly rattling along. It also didn’t hurt that the majority of the art was produced by that unsung genius Nick Cardy, whose light touch and unparalleled ability to draw beautiful women kept young male readers (those who bothered to try the comic) glued to the pages.

The drama begins with the Showcase introduction in which the flower-loving nomad wanders into the town of Welcome in search of a fancy feed only to find a gang of thugs and a mystery poisoner in the process of driving out the entire populace. Bat Lash #1 carried on the episodic hi-jinks as the laconic Lothario narrowly escaped a lynching only to stumble into the murder of a monk carrying part of a treasure map. Was it his finer instincts seeking retribution for the holy man, the monk’s stunning niece or the glittering temptation of Spanish gold that prompted the rootin’ tootin’ action that followed?

Issue #2 began with a shotgun wedding, ensued as the drifter became unwilling guardian to a little girl orphaned by gun-runners and brilliantly climaxed with unexpected poignancy – and calamitous gunplay…

A radical departure – even for this series – occurred in #3 when the easy Epicurean – whilst trying out the temporary role of Deputy Sheriff – encountered a hanging judge who thought he was a Roman Emperor, before Lash crossed the border into revolutionary Mexico in issue #4 to become embroiled in an assassination plot; a tale as much gritty as witty which displayed the emotional depths of the rambling man.

Still in Mexico for #5 the creative team pitted the dashing rogue against his near-equal in raffish charm and gunplay when he met the deadly bandito Sergio Aragones. Of course they were both outmatched by the delightfully deadly Senorita Maribel…

Mike Sekowsky pencilled most of issue #6 for Cardy to ink: a dark, tragic origin tale which revealed the anger and tears behind the laughter, whilst Bat Lash #7 set the far-from-heroic wanderer on the trail of a younger brother he had believed dead for ten years…

And that’s where it was left for nearly a decade. In 1978 the giant sized anthology comic DC Special Series (#16) produced a Western-themed issue for which O’Neil and artist George Moliterni crafted a slick, sly murder-mystery set in San Francisco where an older Bat Lash was a professional gambler enveloped in a deadly war between Irish gangs and Chinese immigrant workers. This compelling, enjoyable yarn eventually led to a four-issue run as back-up in Jonah Hex #49-52 (June-September 1981) wherein the charming chancer won a New Orleans bordello in a river-boat card game and despite numerous attempts to kill him took possession of the Bourbon Street Social Club.

Was he that hungry for lazy luxury and female companionship, or was it perhaps that he knew a million dollars in Confederate gold was hidden there in the dying days of the Civil War – and never found?

Scripter Len Wein and the incomparable Dan Spiegle concluded this criminally under-appreciated character’s solo exploits in fine style; which only leaves it to you to buy this brash and bedazzling book to convince DC’s powers-that-be to give the foppishly reluctant gunslinger another crack at the big time – and no, I’m not forgetting the recent, ill-conceived make-over miniseries…

Enchanting, exciting, wry and wonderful, this is a book for all readers of fun fiction and a superb example of comics’ outreach potential.

© 1968, 1969, 1978, 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Tex Arcana


By John Findley (Catalan Communications)
ISBN: 0-87416-036-7

One of the best comedy/horror westerns (not, admittedly, a vast field of creative endeavour) of the last fifty years, Findley’s quirky masterpiece of gory, saucy, tongue-in-cheek eccentricity delves into the same rich vein (oh, what a card am I!) as Polanski’s Dance of the Vampires (1967 retitled The Fearless Vampire Killers) and the so-bad-it’s-good Captain Kronus (a rare Brian Clemens turkey from 1974) as well as the immortal Mel Brook’s gem Blazing Saddles in this sagebrush saga of the little town of Hangman’s Corners and the extraordinary things that keep happening there.

Narrated in venerable EC style by the Old Claim-Jumper this slightly abridged volume from 1987 collects the strip which ran in Heavy Metal magazine between March 1981 to 1986 and recounts how a vampire in the thrall of demons attacks the town and how they are all saved by the mysterious lone rider known as Tex Arcana – although most of the work is done by his eerie and ethereal paramour “the Woman in White”. Also included is the short mystery ‘The Amazin’ Case o’ th’ Disappearin’ Chickens’ in which two unprepossessing and ineffectual demons Sweaz and Herp solve the perplexing riddle of why the territory’s biggest chicken rancher loses five head of prime fowl at every full moon…

Findley’s writing is deliciously wacky, full of mock-heroic hyperbole, as he diddles with the icons of the genre whilst his astoundingly rendered fine-line-and-hatching style of drawing – meticulous to the point of mania – is completely mesmerising. This guy can really move a pencil and he doesn’t know how to take short-cuts!

Even after the series was dropped from Heavy Metal Findley kept on working and the eerie epic continues to this day online (http://www.texarcana.com/). In 2006 BookSurge published a 282 page compilation (Tex Arcana: a Saga of the Old West, ISBN: 978-1-41964-632-4) which collected everything to date, but I’ve gone with this 72 page, oversized edition because the reproduction on the new edition is reportedly not everything it could be, and also because I haven’t got hold of a copy of the new book yet. When I do I’ll report back to you…

A little spooky, a lot funny, incredibly realized: whichever version you plump for, doesn’t this sound like your kind of thing..?

© 1987 John Findley and Catalan Communications. All Rights Reserved.

Showcase Presents Jonah Hex volume 1


By John Albano, Michael Fleisher, Tony DeZuñiga, & various (DC Comics)
ISBN13: 978-1-4012-1817-1

The Western is an odd genre that can almost be sub-divided into two discrete halves: the sparkly, shiny version that dominated kids’ books, comics and television for decades, best typified by Zane Grey stories and heroes such as Roy Rogers and Gene Autry – and the other stuff.

That sort of cowboy tale, grimy, gritty, excessively dark, was done best for years by Europeans in such strips as Jean-Michel Charlier’s Lieutenant Blueberry or Bonelli and Galleppini’s Tex Willer which made their way into US culture through the films of Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone. Jonah Hex is the latter sort.

DC (or National Periodicals as it then as) had run a stable (sorry!) of clean-cut gun-slingers since the collapse of the super-hero genre in 1949, with such dashing – and highly readable – luminaries as Johnny Thunder, The Trigger Twins, Nighthawk, Matt Savage and dozens of others in a marketplace that seemed limitless in its voracious hunger for chaps in chaps; but all things end, and by the early sixties the sagebrush brigade had dwindled to a few venerable properties.

As the 1960s closed, the thematic changes in the cinematic Cowboy filtered through to a comics industry suffering its second super-hero retreat in twenty years. Although a critical success, the light-hearted Western series Bat Lash couldn’t garner a solid following, but DC, desperate for a genre that readers would warm to, retrenched and revived an old title, gambling once again on heroes who were no longer simply boy scouts with six-guns.

All-Star Western #1 was released with an August/September 1970 cover date, filled with Pow-Wow Smith reprints, becoming an all-new anthology with its second bi-monthly issue. The magazine was allocated a large number of creative all-stars, including Robert Kanigher, Neal Adams, Gray Morrow, Al Williamson, Gil Kane, Angelo Torres, and Dick Giordano, working on such strips as Outlaw!, Billy the Kid and the cult sleeper hit El Diablo, which combined shoot-’em-up shenanigans with supernatural chills, in deference to the real hit genre-type that saved comics in those dark days.

But it wasn’t until issue #10 and the introduction of a disfigured and irascible bounty hunter created by writer John Albano and Tony DeZuniga that the company found its greatest and most enduring Western warrior. This superb collection of the early appearances of Jonah Hex has been around for a few years, with no apparent sign of a sequel yet, so consider this a heartfelt attempt to generate a few sales and lots of interest… But before we even get to the meat of the review let’s look at the back of this wonderfully economical black and white gun-fest where some of those abortive experimental series have been included at no added expense.

Outlaw was created by Kanigher and DeZuniga, a generation gap drama wherein Texas Ranger Sam Wilson was forced to hunt down his troubled and wayward son Rick. Over four stylish chapters – ‘Death Draw’, ‘Death Deals the Cards!’ (#3, illustrated by Gil Kane), ‘No Coffin for a Killer’ and the trenchant finale ‘Hangman Never Loses’ (#5, drawn by Jim Aparo), the eternal struggles of Good and Evil, Old and New were effectively played out, all strongly influenced by Clint Eastwood Spaghetti Westerns.

The series was replaced by one of the best and definitely the most radical interpretation of Billy the Kid ever seen in comics; a sardonic, tragic vengeance-saga that began with the hunt for the killer of Billy’s father and developed into a poignant eulogy for the passing of an era. Billy’s quest (‘Billy the Kid… Killer’, Bullet for a Gambler’ and ‘The Scavenger’ all by Albano and DeZuniga) ran in issues #6-8. The book closes with a classic spooky Western tale from issue #7: ‘The Night of the Snake’ was written by Gil Kane and Denny O’Neil, and strikingly illustrated by Kane and DeZuniga, clearly showing each creator’s love for the genre…

As good as those lost gems are, the real star of this tome is the very model of the modern anti-hero, Jonah Hex, who first appeared in All-Star Comics #10, a coarse and callous bounty hunter clad in a battered Confederate Grey tunic and hat, half his face lost to some hideous past injury; a brutal thug little better than the scum he hunted – and certainly a man to avoid. ‘Welcome to Paradise’ by Albano and DeZuniga introduced the character and his world in a powerful action thriller, with a subtle sting of sentimentality that anyone who has seen the classic western “Shane” cannot fail to appreciate.

From the first set-up Albano was constantly hinting at the tortured depths hidden behind Hex’s hellishly scarred visage and deadly proficiency. In ‘The Hundred Dollar Deal’ (#11) the human killing machine encountered a wholesome young couple who weren’t what they seemed and the scripts took on an even darker tone from #12. The comic had been re-titled Weird Western Tales (aligning it with the company’s highly successful horror/mystery books and ‘Promise to a Princess’ combined charm and tragedy in the tale of a little Pawnee girl and the White Man’s insatiable greed and devilish ingenuity.

From the very start the series sought to redress some of the most unpalatable motifs of old style cowboy literature and any fan of films like Soldier Blue and Little Big Man or Dee Brown’s iconoclastic book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee will feel a grim sense of vicarious satisfaction and redress at most of the stories here. There’s also a huge degree of world-weary cynicism that wasn’t to be found in other comics until well past the Watergate Scandal, when America as whole lost its social and political innocence…

Issue #13 ‘The Killer’s Last Wish!’ again touched the heartstrings in the tale of a lovable old man and his greedy, impatient son, with Hex the unlikely arbiter of final justice. ‘Killers Die Alone!’ is an vicious tear jerker of a tale as Hex’s only friend dies to save him the vengeance of killers who blame the bounty hunter for their brother’s death, whilst ‘Grasshopper Courage’(#16 – Hex didn’t appear in #15) shows a shrewd grasp of human nature as Hex and an inept young sheriff track a gang of stagecoach robbers.

‘The Hangin’ Woman’ in #17 is a classy thriller wherein Hex runs afoul of a sadistic harridan who rules her hometown with hemp and hot lead, whilst ‘The Hoax’ finds him embroiled in a gold-rush scam that as usual ends bloody. With this tale the length of the stories, always growing, finally reached the stage where they pushed everything else out of the comic for the first time. Before too long the situation would become permanent. ‘Demon on my Trail’ in #19 dealt with kidnapping and racism, whilst ‘Blood Brothers’ (written by Arnold Drake) again addressed Indian injustice as Hex was hired by the US Cavalry to hunt down a woman stolen by a charismatic “redskin”.

Albano returned for ‘The Gunfighter’, as an injured Hex at last hinted about his veiled past while tracking a gang of killers, but it was new writer Michael Fleisher (assisted at first by Russell Carley) who would reveal Hex’s secrets beginning with Weird Western Tales #22’s ‘Showdown at Hard Times’. A chance meeting in a stagecoach put a cabal of ex-Confederate soldiers on the trail of their ex-comrade for some unrevealed betrayal that inevitably ended in a six-gun bloodbath, and introduced a returning nemesis for the grizzled gunslinger.

More was revealed in ‘The Point Pyrrhus Massacre!’ as another gang of Southern malcontents attempted to assassinate President Ulysses Grant, with Hex crossing their gun-sights for good measure. Issue #24 was illustrated by Noly Panaligan, and ‘The Point Pyrrhus Aftermath!’ found a severely wounded Hex a sitting duck for every gunman hot to make his reputation, depending for his life on the actions of a down-and-out actor…

‘Showdown with the Dangling Man’ looked at shady land deals and greedy businessmen with a typically jaundiced eye – and grisly imagination – whilst train-robbers were the bad-guys in the superb ‘Face-Off with the Gallagher Boys!’ illustrated by the inimitable Doug Wildey. Issue #27, by Fleisher and Panaligan featured ‘The Meadow Springs Crusade’ as the bounty hunter was hired to protect suffragettes agitating for women’s rights in oh-so-liberal Kansas, ‘Stagecoach to Oblivion’ (drawn by George Moliterni) saw him performing the same service for a gold-shipping company.

Hex’s past was finally revealed in #29’s ‘Breakout at Fort Charlotte’, a two-part extravaganza that gorily concluded with ‘The Trial’ (illustrated by Moliterni), as a battalion of Confederate veterans passed judgement on the man they believed to be the worst traitor in the history of the South.

‘Gunfight at Wolverine’ is a powerful variation on the legend of “Doc Holliday” and the Hex portion of the book concludes with a two-part adventure from Weird Western Tales #32 and 33, drawn by the great Jose Luis Garcia Lopez. ‘Bigfoot’s War’ and ‘Day of the Tomahawk’ is a compelling tale of intrigue, honour and double-cross as the bounty-hunter is again hired to rescue a white girl from those incorrigible “injuns” – and as usual hasn’t been told the full story…

Jonah Hex is the most unique and original character in cowboy comics, darkly comedic, rousing, chilling and cathartically satisfying. It’s a Western for those who despise the form whilst being the perfect modern interpretation of a great storytelling tradition. No matter what your reading preference, this is a collection you don’t want to miss.

© 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, 2008 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Los Tejanos

Los Tejanos

By Jack Jackson

(Fantagraphics Books)  No ISBN

Known as ‘Jaxon’ in his underground comix days, Jack Jackson’s infectious fascination with the history of Texas was seeping through into all his work even from those early days. Portions of Los Tejanos appeared as the comic books Recuerden el Alamo and Tejano Exile (published by Last Gasp) in the mid 1970s, which the author fleshed out for this early prototype of the Graphic Novel.

Drawn in a captivating, etching-like, cross-hatched style that simply screams ‘true story,’ Los Tejanos provides an absolute wealth of information, social texture and sheer entertainment. It tells the story of Juan Nepomuceno Seguin, a “Texian” of Mexican birth who sided with the rebels fighting for independence. Before becoming part of the United States of America, Texas was briefly a nation unto itself, having won its freedom from a Mexican empire that was bloated, corrupt and in decline. How Seguin turned his back on one culture, only to be eventually betrayed by the other during that period when Hispanic and Anglo-Saxon cultures battled for hegemony in continental America seems to echo even now with relevance. That battle still isn’t over.

The eventual fate of Juan N Seguin makes for powerful reading, rich in fact, well-paced as narrative, and even delivering the occasional solid horse-laugh. But the true measure of a history book, and this most wonderful tome is certainly that, is how the material impacts on the contemporary. Here it also succeeds. The issues were germane in 1840, they were just as much so in 1982, and they still are now.

Why this epic isn’t required reading for every US history or sociology course I’ll never understand.

©1982 Jack Jackson. All Rights Reserved.

Jonah Hex: Face Full of Violence

Jonah Hex: Face Full of Violence 

By Jimmy Palmiotti, Justin Gray & Luke Ross

(DC Comics) ISBN 1-84576-408-0

For a very long time westerns were an integral part of every comic publisher’s stable, and then they fell from favour. In the 1970s DC Comics published a grim, sardonic anti-western anti-hero with a ruined face who mirrored the dark turn that film cowboys had taken. Then the comic book West all but disappeared again.

There’s often a relationship between moving pictures and drawn ones, and I’m sure that the style and success of such shows as Deadwood has convinced the powers that be at DC that the time is once again right for Jonah Hex.

Lucky for us then that the creators involved have done such a bang-up job of updating him. What was once one of the best comics DC published, is almost as good in this incarnation — and looks like getting better with every issue. Electing to buck the modern trend for continued stories, the first six tales collected here are short, punchy, complete adventures displaying the character of the man and the true barbarity of the world he inhabits. With titles such as A Cemetery without Crosses, Bullets of Silver, Cross of Gold, The Slaughter at Two Pines, Chako Must Die, Christmas with the Outlaws and The Plague of Salvation owing more to Sam Pekinpah than Zane Gray, these splendid stories are worthy addition to a great tradition — and just the sort of thing to get more people reading comics.

© 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Comanche Moon

Comanche Moon

By Jack Jackson

(Rip Off Press Inc./Last Gasp)  ISBN 0-89620-079-5

One of the earliest Graphic Novels, Comanche Moon was originally published as the comic books White Comanche, Red Raider and Blood on the Moon during the 1970s by Last Gasp, a regular packager of work by underground cartoonists such as Jackson. This reworked and augmented edition appeared in 1979. So far as I know it’s not currently in print, although it really should be.

The book follows the astounding life of Cynthia Ann Parker and her son Quanah and the course of their lives among Texas Comanches and her own – white – people. Whilst the Parkers are eking out a living on the Southern Plains of Texas in 1836, their homestead is attacked by a Comanche raiding party and little Cynthia Ann and her younger brother are carried off. Separated from him she is raised as a squaw, eventually marrying a sub-chief and birthing a son. The folksy, matter of fact story-telling reinforces the powerful truth of this documentary of the final downfall of the Plains Indians under the relentless expansionist pressure of the new Americans.

Quanah grew to be the last chief of the Comanches and as the old ways died he was responsible for all the meagre concessions his people managed to gain from the unstoppable white men. He was a Judge, a Sheriff, a huckster for Teddy Roosevelt and died a loved and respected political figure among both the Comanches and the settlers.

My dry précis does nothing to capture the hypnotic skill of Jackson in making this history come alive. Comanche Moon reads as easily as the best type of fiction but never strays from the heartbreaking truth that underpins it. Jack Jackson’s work is powerful, charming, thoroughly authentic, astoundingly well-researched and totally captivating. If only all history books could be his good.

©1979 Jack Jackson. All Rights Reserved.