Lucky Luke volume 12: The Rivals of Painful Gulch

By Morris & Goscinny, translated by Luke Spear (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-905460-60-1

Lucky Luke is a rangy, good-natured, cowboy able to “draw faster than his own shadow”. He amiably roams the fabulously mythic Old West, having light-hearted adventures with his sarcastic horse Jolly Jumper, whilst interacting with a host of historical and legendary figures.

His continuing exploits over seventy years have made him one of the best-selling comic characters in Europe (more than 83 individual albums, sales totalling in excess of 300 million in 30 languages… so far…), with the usual spin-off toys, computer games, animated cartoons and a plethora of TV shows and live-action movies.

First seen in the 1947 Annual (L’Almanach Spirou 1947) of Le Journal de Spirou, Lucky was created in 1946 by Belgian animator, illustrator and cartoonist Maurice de Bévère (“Morris”), before ambling into his first weekly adventure ‘Arizona 1880’ on December 7th 1946.

Working solo until 1955, Morris produced nine albums of affectionate sagebrush spoofery before teaming with old pal and fellow trans-American tourist Rene Goscinny, who became regular wordsmith as Luke attained the dizzying heights of legend, commencing with ‘Des rails sur la Prairie’ (Rails on the Prairie), which began serialisation in Spirou on August 25th 1955.

In 1967, the six-gun straight-shooter switched sides, joining Goscinny’s own magazine Pilote with ‘La Diligence’ (The Stagecoach). Goscinny co-created 45 albums with Morris before his untimely death, from whence Morris soldiered on both singly and with fresh collaborators.

Morris died in 2001 having drawn fully 70 adventures, plus some spin-off sagas crafted with Achdé, Laurent Gerra, Benacquista & Pennac, Xavier Fauche, Jean Léturgie, Jacques Pessis and others, all taking their own shot at the venerable vigilante…

Lucky Luke first amused British readers during the late 1950s, syndicated to weekly anthology Film Fun, and rode back into comics-town again in 1967 in Giggle, where he used the nom de plume Buck Bingo.

In all these venues – as well as in numerous attempts to follow the English-language album successes of Tintin and Asterix – Luke sported a trademark cigarette hanging insouciantly from his lip. However, in 1983 Morris – amidst both pained howls and muted mutterings of “political correctness gone mad” – deftly substituted a piece of straw for the much-travelled dog-end, which garnered him an official tip of the hat from the World Health Organization.

The most recent and successful attempt to bring Lucky Luke to our shores and shelves comes from Cinebook (who have rightly restored the foul weed to his lips on the interior pages, if not the covers…), and it’s clearly no big deal for today’s readership as we’re well past sixty translated books and still going strong.

Lucky Luke – Les rivaux de Painful Gulch was the Dynamite Duo’s 10th collaboration (available in English on paper and as an e-book as The Rivals of Painful Gulch) and first published in Europe in 1962.

The outrageous tale draws on the legendary and infamous feud between the Hatfield and McCoy families in West Virginia and Kentucky between 1863 and1891 and opens with our hero and his chatty horse peaceably proceeding until repeatedly stopped by bushwackers demanding the cowboy remove his hat.

With his patience rapidly evaporating Luke eventually learns the region and township of Painful Gulch is plagued with two warring families who shoot at each other at every opportunity. The O’Haras all have enormous red noses whilst huge wingnut ears are the genetic marker of every son of the O’Timmins clan…

The rest of the townsfolk live in fear of the ferociously feuding families because the only thing they have in common is a mutual inability to hit anything they aim at. They always miss their targets but the collateral damage to bystanders, building and livestock is appalling…

Ever keen to keep the peace, Lucky attempts to play peacemaker, but even he can’t stop the gun-crazed whackos from blasting way at each other and blowing up any civic amenity that might possibly benefit their hated foes.

Eventually, even Luke’s cool patience is exhausted and when the rapidly departing Mayor nominates our hero as his successor, the furious newcomer resorts to subterfuge, pandering and chicanery to establish a lasting détente.

…And when even that doesn’t work, the lone gunman plays his ultimate trump card and ropes in the weary, long-suffering wimmin-folk of the O’Timmins and O’Haras to settle the issue…

Slick, sly and sassy, The Rivals of Painful Gulch is a fast-paced slapstick romp with plenty of action, lots of laughs and barrel-loads of buffoonery superbly crafted by comics masters, and offers a wonderful glimpse into a unique genre for today’s readers who might well have missed the romantic allure of an all-pervasive Wild West that never was…
© Dargaud Editeur Paris 1971 by Goscinny & Morris. © Lucky Comics. English translation © 2008 Cinebook Ltd.

Rick O’Shay and Hipshot: The Great Sunday Pages

By Stan Lynde (Tempo Books)
ISBN: 0-448-12522-6

Once upon a time, Westerns were the most popular genre in American mass entertainment, with novels, magazines, films, radio shows, TV series, comicbooks and of course newspaper strips all devoted to “Men Doin’ What They Gotta Do”: Riding Ranges, Rounding up stuff, Gun-fighting and all the other timeless iconic cultural activities we all think we know…

Over the decades hundreds of Western strips have graced the pages and increased the circulation of newspapers; from singing cowboy film-star Roy Rogers to Red Ryder, Casey Ruggles, the Lone Ranger, Lance and so many more. Even staid Britain got into the act with such lost masterpieces as Buffalo Bill, Matt Marriot, Gun Law and Wes Slade ranking highest amongst fans around the world…

With such a plethora of material concentrated in one genre it’s no surprise that different takes would inevitably develop. Thus, alongside The Big Country, High Noon, Soldier Blue or Unforgiven there blossomed less traditional fare such as Destry Rides Again, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or Blazing Saddles.

Falling straight into the same comedy Western territory as The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw and Support Your Local Sheriff – whilst predating both – came one of the earliest and most successful modern gag-a-day continuity strips, blending iconic scenarios with memorable characters, playing out their daily antics against a spectacular backdrop of lavishly illustrated natural beauty.

Stan Lynde was born in Billings, Montana on 23rd September 1931, the son of a sheep farmer who grew up with a passion for comic strips. His first efforts appeared in the High School paper and after studying journalism at Montana State he served in the Navy from 1951-1955. During that tour of duty he created the strip Ty Foon for a Services magazine.

After the Navy, Lynde tried a succession of jobs and ended up in New York working for the Wall Street Journal. Whilst there he created Rick O’Shay which eventually found a home with the mighty Chicago Tribune Syndicate (home of Gasoline Alley, Terry and the Pirates and many others). The feature premiered as a Sunday page on April 27th 1958, adding a daily black-&-white strip from 19th May that year.

Lynde produced the strip until 1977 when he left the Syndicate to produce another wonderful Western Latigo (1979-1983). Tribune-News Syndicate owned Rick O’Shay outright and continued the feature with substitutes Marian Dern, Alfredo Alcala and Mel Keefer, but it just wasn’t the same and the strip was allowed to die in 1981.

Rick O’Shay took Western conventions to sly and winningly whimsical extremes as it followed the life of Rick, Deputy Marshal of the little town of Conniption. The series was set in the rugged Montana countryside where Lynde grew up and to which he returned as soon as the strip proved successful enough to support him.

Conniption was too small for a full Marshal and whatever order needed keeping was easily handled by the easy-going Deputy Rick and his friend; grizzled veteran gunslinger Hipshot Percussion. Apart from drinking, fighting and gambling, the township’s most serious problem was criminally bad puns, personified in the likes of saloon owner Gaye Abandon, newspaper editor Clarion McCall, hotelier Auntie Climax, town drunk Mooch McHooch, gunsmith Cap’n Ball, banker Mort Gage, gambler Deuces Wilde and a rather feisty young ‘un dubbed Quyat Burp.

The town’s spiritual needs were catered to by Reverend Jubal Lee and the local Indian tribe was led by Chief Horse’s Neck

As years passed the dailies began spoofing contemporary events such as the James Bond craze, pop music and TV shows but the Sunday episodes (such as the grand selection from 1972-1976 reprinted in this paperback sized, but regrettably monochrome collection) retained their integrity and continued to spoof the traditions and shibboleths of the mythical Old West.

Bright and breezy slapstick rib-ticklers and laconic, tongue-in-cheek jokes involving drunks, card-games, guys joshing with each other, the malicious recalcitrance of horses and other inanimate objects resonated beside perennial duels and showdowns. Hipshot facing down a succession of goofy young wannabes regularly called the old gun-hawk out to steal his rep played and replayed continuously; all set against the breathtaking geography of Montana’s “Big Sky Country”…

Lynde moved to Ecuador and continued working in the Western genre, producing the strip Grass Roots, new material for Swedish magazine Fantomen, assorted graphic novels and – after regaining the rights to Rick O’Shay for his own Cottonwood Publishing company – new works and chronological collections of this classic strip until his untimely death in August 2013.

This nifty and delightful book from 1976 actually belonged to my wife until I took greedy full-possession of it: part of that glorious 1970s era of easily concealable paperback collections featuring classic strips like Peanuts and The Perishers and so many other magical ways to lose yourself whilst teachers droned on around you in interminable obliviousness.

Most of the books were even returned at the end of term, although some unscrupulous educators operated a “confiscation is forever” policy…

Fun and fulsome entertainment, this little gem won’t be easy to track down, but if giggles, guffaws and gunfights are your thing you’ll definitely want to round up those later Rick O’Shay Cottonwood releases and hopefully his family will be able to convince some major publisher – digital or otherwise – to get these magical strips and yarns into comprehensive mainstream collections for comics posterity…
© 1972, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1976 The Chicago Tribune. All Rights Reserved.

Scalped Vol 1: Indian Country

By Jason Aaron & R.M. Guéra (DC Comics/Vertigo)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1317-6

The Western is a tricky genre to pin down: all at once infinitely re-inventible, compellingly human and shockingly mythic. The genre also enjoys a chameleonic gift for subsuming the unique memes and tropes of other forms of story-making and pitting them against each other.

There are horror westerns, space westerns, comedy westerns and – because time and location aren’t key to our definition – especially crime stories that can be fully acknowledged as being pure Cowboys and Indians…

These revelations have always been best explored in the relatively recent phenomenon of “grim and gritty” comics. Initially the preserve of Good-Guys-In-Tights savagely slaughtering really bad folk instead of arresting them, now the tarnished grime of über-realism can be seen where it belongs – in tales of darkly desperate people facing their greatest challenges.

You don’t need a history degree to know that Native Americans have had a pretty crap time since Europeans colonized their country. However, in recent decades lip-service and guilt have been turned into some minor concessions to the most disadvantaged ethnicity in the USA, and contemporary Federal mandates that allow gambling on officially designated Indian Land have meant a cash bonanza for various tribes on reservations throughout the country. The Indians are getting rich.

Well, some of them are…

Disenchanted son of a 1970s Native American activist, Dashiell Bad Horse ran away from the desolate squalor of the Prairie Rose Indian Reservation as soon as he turned fifteen. Now he’s back and although there’s a snazzy new casino, “the Rez” is still a hell-hole and sordid Demilitarized Zone where his people subsist in crushing poverty, still prey to every self-destructive social toxin money or favours can buy or bestow.

Reluctantly Dash takes a sheriff’s job, but he knows he’s actually just another leg-breaker for current Tribal Leader and fully-installed crime boss Lincoln Red Crow. Still, whilst wiping out rival drug and booze gangs for his brooding boss, he is slowly growing closer to the all-powerful Indian Godfather…

The job even provides a number of tantalising, too-tempting fringe benefits, which facilitate Bad Horse finally getting to really know the former rebel who was once his mother’s closest ally in the all-but-forgotten freedom movement.

And that’s good. After all, that’s why the FBI planted him there in the first place…

As concocted by writer Jason Aaron and potently limned by R.M. Guéra, this slow-boiling saga is seedy, violent, overtly sexual and ferociously compelling: a darkly brutal, modern-day Western Noir.

The oddly familiar yet fiercely exotic locale and painfully unchanging foibles of people on the edge make this tale an instant classic and one still available as a either trade paperback or eBook.

Scalped: Indian Country is an uncompromising thriller that hits hard, hits often and hit home. Best of all, it’s just the opening salvo in a lengthy sequence of compulsive confrontations and unwrapped mysteries so why not hold on to your hat and jump right in?
© 2007 Jason Aaron & Rajko Milošević. All Rights Reserved.

Loveless Vol 2: Thicker Than Blackwater

By Brian Azzarello, Marcelo Frusin, Danijel Zezelj, Werther Dell’edera & various (Vertigo)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1250-6

Hitching its wagon firmly to the grimy, gritty, excessively dark and overwhelmingly nihilistic end of the Western genre, Loveless is a bleak and brutal confection, utterly unsanitised and unsuitable for kiddie consumption, but one that seems far closer to historical truth than any six-gun shootout on Main Street or rhinestone spectacle…

In this second stunning collection (still as yet not in digital form) Brian Azzarello and Marcelo Frusin, who did so much to revive and revitalise crime comics genre with 100 Bullets and returned a razor-sharp hard edge to urban supernatural horror in Hellblazer, take a further good hard look at the Western with results both breathtaking and horrific…

The mysteries continue and deepen as the spiritually bereft and morally bankrupt town of Blackwater further festers under Union occupation in the days and months after the American Civil War. The freed slave population are no better off under Northern rule, returning southern men have taken to wearing white sheets whilst exacting bloody reprisals, and the ordinary citizens are terrified that their lives and their secrets will be found out by either the Yankees or ,worse yet, returned Confederate hard man Wes Cutter.

Nobody is sure what Cutter wants. He’s asking uncomfortable questions about the fate of his missing wife, and he doesn’t want to be anybody’s friend. Moreover, since the military commander and his Carpetbagging bosses have insultingly appointed Cutter sheriff of Blackwater, he’s a traitor with the authority to get away with whatever he wants.

How the guilty-as-sin townsfolk react to Occupation Forces, former slave/Union soldier turned bounty hunter Atticus Mann, and the rabble-rousing, murderous renegade Confederate returnees, let alone the despised sheriff, is chillingly and graphically depicted by Danijel Zezelj, Werther Dell’edera and Frusin when the citizens become victims of a sustained campaign of murder…

Combining classic Western themes with contemporary twists such as flamboyant serial killers and protracted murder mysteries, Azzarello even manages to include hot-off-the-presses contemporary political metaphor in this twisted, stark and uncompromising series (collecting issues #6-12 of the monthly Vertigo comicbook).

A brilliant Western and a dazzling adult comic strip.

Get it if you’re old enough and tough enough.
© 2006 Brian Azzarello & Marcelo Frusin. All Rights Reserved.

Secret of San Saba: A Tale of Phantoms and Greed in the Spanish Southwest

By Jack Jackson (Kitchen Sink Press)
ISBN: 978-0-87816-080-8 (HB)                    978-0-87816-081-5 (PB)

I’m reading lots of graphic novels digitally these days, and it’s clear how much superb classic material – especially genre works with war and western themes – isn’t much of priority to content providers yet.

You try tracking down Sam Glanzman’s The Haunted Tank or Joe Kubert Sgt. Rock compilations, or even a relatively well-exposed screen property like Jonah Hex (other than the admittedly superb Justin Grey/Jimmy Palmiotti books of recent vintage) and see what joy you get…

Another such classic omission is this stunningly impressive western/horror mash-up from the inimitable Jack Jackson, still tragically only available in the original oversized (277 x 201 mm) monochrome softcover and hardback album editions, originally published by Kitchen Sink as part of their Death Rattle Series.

Known as ‘Jaxon’ since his Underground Commix heyday, Jackson’s infectious fascination with the history of Texas is a signature of much of his work even from the earliest days. Here the Commix legend expertly combines a love of historical documentary with the fabulous Lovecraftian horrors of the cosmic void, resulting in a breathtaking and wonderful period supernatural thriller, skillfully woven into the fabric and lore of the Southwest desert lands…

When a silvery entity crashes to Earth in a blazing fireball, it galvanises the fading dreams of Xotl, a young Faraone warrior who had lost faith in his gods.

As the years pass, the natives worship the fearsomely fulgent power of the star-fallen thing, and when the mighty Apaches conquer the Faraone, the twice-defeated tribe turn to the newly arrived Europeans for help. This is a tragic mistake, revealed too late, after the tribe finds that Priests and Colonists might speak of God but only truly worship wealth.

When the newcomers learn of the Cosmic Slug that fell from the stars, all they can see is the overwhelming wealth its silver mantle represents…

The decades-long battle between Apaches and Missionaries to control the slimy silver wellspring makes for a powerful if cynical tale, full of the intoxicating artistry, spellbinding storytelling, and the mesmerising aura of authenticity that is Jackson’s most telling narrative tool.

Based on the ancient Texas stories and legends of ‘Blanco’ and ‘Negro Bultos’ (supernatural treasure mounds), this most fantastic story should be, has to be true, if only because he has drawn it.

Superbly compelling, this is a must-read item for any serious fan of both comics and horror fiction, so let’s have it back and out in every format possible, pretty please…
© 1989 Jack Jackson. All rights reserved.

El Diablo

By Brian Azzarello, Danijel Zezelj & various (Vertigo)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1625-2                  :978-1-84576-777-8 (UK Titan Books edition)

This extra-adult all-Vertigo interpretation of the classic DC Western avenger dates from a 2001 4-issue miniseries, and is an early precursor to the superb Loveless (for which see our recent Loveless: A Kin Of Homecoming review or best yet get the book). It is not as far as I’m aware available digitally yet.

Moses Stone is a gunman turned sheriff in the frontier town of Bollas Raton. His fearsome reputation, as much as his actions, serves to keep the town peaceful, and he’s perfectly content not shooting anybody.

Then one night the awesome and terrifying El Diablo comes to town and exacts a gruesome vengeance on a band of outlaws, yet inexplicably refuses to kill Stone when the lawman tries to halt the carnage.

Unable to understand or let it lie, sheriff and posse trail the vigilante to the town of Halo, New Mexico where the bloodshed continues and a ghastly secret is revealed.

Although a deep, brooding mystery with supernatural overtones, fans of the original western avenger (created by Robert Kanigher & Gray Morrow and debuting in All-Star Western #2, (October1970) will be disappointed to find that tragic Lazarus Lane – brutalised by thieves, struck by lightning and only able to wake from his permanent coma at the behest of Indian shaman White Owl – is all but absent from this darkly philosophical drama.

The demonically-infested agent of vengeance is long, long overdue for a comprehensive collection. The original occasional series of short tales from All-Star and Weird Western was illustrated by Morrow, Joe Kubert, Alan Weiss, Dick Giordano, Neal Adams, Alfredo Alcala and Bernie Wrightson whilst scripters included Sergio Aragonés, Cary Bates & Len Wein.

And that’s not even counting the Sagebrush Satan’s many team-ups with the likes of Jonah Hex in various iterations of the bounty killers own title…

In this moody epic however, the phantom of the plains is more presence than personality.

There’s an awful lot of talking and suspense-building but thanks to the moody graphics of Danijel Zezelj the tension and horror remain intense and when the action comes it is powerful and unforgettable.

The title star is a force but not a presence in El Diablo, but the tale of Moses Stone is nonetheless a gripping mystery-thriller that will chill and intrigue all but the most devoutly traditional cowboy fans.

And let’s be having a proper El Diablo compilation soon, pretty please?
© 2001, 2008 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved

Golden Age Western Comics

By various, compiled and edited by Steven Brower (PowerHouse Books)
ISBN: 978-1-57687-594-0

There was a time, not that very long ago, when all of popular fiction was engorged and saturated with tales of “Cowboys and Indians”.

As always happens with such periodic phenomena – like the Swinging Sixties Super-Spy boom, the more recent Lonely Human/Vampire/Werewolf Boyfriend triangle or the trend for Sassy Articulate Gerbils Training Little Girls to be Sporting Stars and Master Martial Artists (I might have got that one confused) – there’s a tremendous amount of dross amidst a few spectacular gems beyond price.

On such occasions, there’s also generally a small amount of wonderful but not-quite-life-changing material that gets lost in the shuffle: carried along with the overwhelming surge of material pumped out by TV, film, comics and book producers as well as toy, game and record industries.

After World War II the American family entertainment market – which mostly meant comics, radio and the burgeoning but small 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, nihilistic and oddly left-leaning Film Noir genre quietly blossomed alongside that wholesome revolution, seemingly for the cynical minority of entertainment snobs and intellectuals who somehow knew that the returned veterans still hadn’t found a Land Fit for Heroes… but that’s a thought for another time and a different review.

Even though comicbooks had included western heroes from the very start – there were cowboy strips in the premier issues of both Action Comics and Marvel Comics – the post-war years saw a vast outpouring of anthology titles with new 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. To be fair, though, over the next decade a few genuine masterpieces did float to the surface of that crowded pool: Toth’s Johnny Thunder and Doug Wildey’s Outlaw Kid being the first to come to mind…

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

Europe and Britain also embraced the Sagebrush zeitgeist, producing 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 American tales, and as always, the crucial difference was due to the artists and writers involved…

With all the top-line characters and properties such as Tomahawk, Rawhide Kid, or the Lone Ranger still fully owned by big concerns, this delightful and impressive hardback compilation instead gathers a broad selection of the second-string material (call ‘em Sunday matinee or B-movie comics if you want) and, although there’s no Kinstler or Kubert or Kirby classics, what editor Steven Brower has re-presented here in lavish, scanned full-colour is a magnificent meat-and-potatoes snapshot of what kids of the time would have been avidly absorbing.

Sadly, historical records are awfully spotty for this period and genre but I’m cocky enough to offer a few guesses whenever the creator credits aren’t available and I’m relatively sure of my footing…

After an informative introduction from Christopher Irving and introductory essay by Brower, the rip-roaringly wholesome fun and thrills begin with Texas Tim, Ranger (from an undesignated 1948 issue of Blazing West), part of writer/Editor Richard Hughes’ superb American Comics Group line, and a veritable one-man band of creative trend following.

Hughes is an unsung hero of the industry, competing with the Big Boys in spy, humour, western, horror and superhero titles well into the 1960s – and writing the bulk of the stories himself.

In a sadly uncredited yarn (perhaps drawn by Edmond Good), the Texan lawman tracks down rustlers and foils a plot to frame an innocent man in a rollicking 8-page romp, after which movie idol Lash LaRue solves the case of ‘The King’s Ransom’ in an adventure stuffed with chases, kidnapping, fights, framed Indians and prodigal sons, originally from #56 of his own licensed title (July 1955 and perhaps drawn by John Belfi or Tony Sgroi).

Fawcett had a huge stable (Yup, I said it and I ain’t sorry, neither) of Western screen stars, and when they quit comics in 1953 the lesser properties gems not bought by DC – such as Hopalong Cassidy – were snapped up by Capitol/Charlton Comics who purchased the bulk of declining comics publishers inventory during the 1950’s…

Charlton was always a minor player in the comics leagues, paying less, selling less, and generally caring less about cultivating a fan base than the major players. But they managed to discover and train more big names in the 1960s than either Marvel or DC, and created a vast and solid canon of memorable characters, concepts and genre material.

Almost all their stuff was written by Joe Gill or Pat Masulli, although in the 1960s young tyros like Roy Thomas, Nick Cuti, Steve Skeates, Dave Kaler and Denny O’Neil all got a healthy first bite of the cherry there, and I’m fairly certain “King of Comics” Paul S. Newman was the regular Larue scripter…

‘Magic Arrow Rides the Pony Express’ hails from Youthful Publications’ Indian Fighter (1950) illustrated by S. B. Rosen and detailing how the young Seneca chief and all-around “Good Injun” saves the famed postal service from unscrupulous badmen armed only with his quiver of enchanted shafts.

Fawcett also published a certified screen-star in Tom Mix Western and here, from #15 (1949) comes ‘Tom Mix and the Desert Maelstrom’ probably drawn by Carl Pfeufer & John Jordan – as most of the strips were – wherein the legendary lawman braves a stupendous sandstorm to capture bank-robbers and save a wounded rodeo rider from destitution.

Lots of publishers plumped for public domain Jesse James to bolster their output and the one sampled here comes from Charlton’s Cowboy Western Comics #39, (June 1955, probably written by Gill & illustrated by William M. Allison). The always misunderstood gunslinger is framed for a stage hold-up and…

Magazine Enterprises produced some the very best quality comics of the 1950s and from Dan’l Boone #4, December 1955 comes the stirring saga of pioneer America ‘Peril Shadows the Forest Trail’, wherein the mythical scout and woodsman ferrets out a murderous white turncoat in a timeless thriller illustrated by the hugely undervalued Joe Certa.

‘Buffalo Belle’ also comes from the 1948 Blazing West and again displays Hughes’ mastery of short story strips as the miniskirt-wearing agent of justice deals with a dragged-up (no really!: men in skirts!) bandit in a terrific yarn possibly limned by Max Elkan or even Charles Sultan…

Also from that ACG title are the truly lovely ‘Little Lobo the Bantam Buckeroo’ – illustrated by Leonard Starr in his transitional Milton Caniff drawing style – depicting the tempestuous boy’s battle against fur thieves, plus the charming ‘Tenderfoot’ (by a frustratingly familiar artist I can’t confidently identify, but who might just be Paul Cooper) with the sissy-looking Eastern Dude dispensing western vengeance to bullies and bandits alike…

‘Little Eagle: Soldier in the Making’ also comes from Indian Fighter – illustrated with near-abstract verve by Manny Stallman – stampeding firmly into fantasy as a youthful brave equipped with magic wings tackles renegade brave Black Dog before the madman sets the entire frontier ablaze with war…

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 comicbook division as fiercely populist as the umbrella company.

They released over 100 short-lived genre titles such as Atomic Spy Cases, Bachelor’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 illustrated 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 their own magnificently illustrated fictionalised adventures of Jesse James.

‘Terror at Taos’ originated in Avon’s Kit Carson #6 (March 1955, but is reprinted here from Fighting Indians of the Wild West), pitting the famed scout against corrupt officials and traitorous wagon masters in the Commancheria territory; all lavishly rendered by the superb Jerry McCann.

Next up is ‘Young Falcon and the Swindlers’ from Fawcett’s Gabby Hayes Western #17 (April 1950) by an artist doing a very creditable impression of Norman Maurer, wherein the lost prince of the Truefeather Tribe tracks down crooked assayers who bilked him of his rightful pay, after which ‘Annie Oakley’ (Cowboy Western Stories # 38, April/May 1952) finds the famed sharpshooter hunting bandits in a canny 4-page quickie illustrated by Jerry Iger under the pen-name Jerry Maxwell.

Charlton’s back catalogue also provided ‘Flying Eagle in Golden Treachery’ from Death Valley #9 October 1955, wherein the noble brave foils white claim-jumpers togged up like Indians.

‘Cry for Revenge’ (Cowboy Western #49 May/June 1954) then sees venerable Fawcett star Golden Arrow hunt down more murderous whites posing as Red Men to drive settlers off their land in a gripping (Gill?) yarn illustrated by Dick Giordano & Vince Alascia.

‘Chief Black Hawk and his Dogs of War’ was a historical puff-piece also from Kit Carson #6 with artist Harry Larsen delineating the rise and fall of the legendary Sauk war chief after which Giordano & Alascia’s ‘Triple Test’ (Cowboy Western #49 May/June 1954) laconically describes the dangers of marrying in a rare, wry light-hearted tale from an age of mostly shoot-and-swipe sagas…

Gabby Hayes Western #17 also provided an adventure of the World’s Most Successful Sidekick himself (No, seriously: Hayes was the comedy stooge to almost every cowboy in Tinsel Town, from Roy Rogers and Hopalong Cassidy to Randolph Scott and John Wayne).

‘The Big Game Hunt’ is a fun-filled riot as the garrulous old coot takes the wind out of a snobby globe-trotting safari addict and saves the life of a cantankerous moose in a charming rib-tickler probably written by Rod Reed or Irwin Schoffman and illustrated by Leonard Frank.

The last tales in this tome are all from Charlton; starting with the Giordano & Alascia ‘Breakout in Rondo Prison’ (Range Busters #10 September 1955) wherein hard-riding trio Scott, Chip and Doodle are framed for robbery in a pokey cow-town and forced to fight their way to freedom after which the action ends and sun sets with a superb costumed cowboy thriller ‘For Talon’s Nest’ from Masked Raider #2 (August 1955). Here the enigmatic mystery gunslinger is forced to defend his pet eagle’s honour in a classy classic drawn by Mike Sekowsky (and possibly inked by Standard Comics comrade Mike Peppe?)

Sadly, there’s no inclusion of Charlton’s superb and long-running Billy the Kid, Gunmaster or Cheyenne Kid features, but hopefully there’s the possibility of a follow-up volume dedicated to them…?

Within the pages of this sassy full-colour hardback (still no digital edition yet, pardners!), cow-punching aficionados – and no, it’s neither a sexual proclivity nor an Olympic sport – and all fans of charming, nostalgia-stuffed comics can (re)discover a splendid selection of range-riding rollercoaster rides about misunderstood fast-guns or noble savages compelled to take up arms against an assorted passel of low-down no-goods and scurvy owlhoots, and all the other myriad tropes and touchstones of Western mythology.

Black hats, white hats, great pictures and traditional fast gun and flying fists values – what more could you possibly ask for?
Text, compilation and editing © 2012 Steven Brower. Foreword © 2012 Christopher Irving. All rights reserved

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

By Paulo Eleuteri-Serpieri & Raffaele Ambrosio, translated by Alfred Blomgren & Tony Raiola (Blackthorne Publishing)
ISBN: 978-0-932629-03-6

Paulo Eleuteri-Serpieri was born in Venice on February 29th 1944, and grew up to study painting and architecture at the Fine Art Academy in Rome. After graduating in 1966 he became an acclaimed painter and artist before turning to comics in 1975, producing mainly glorious historical dramas of the American West.

Scripted by Raffaele Ambrosio, these were published in Lancio Story and Skorpio whilst the artist further broadened his horizons by illustrating biblical tales in Découvrir la Bible.

From 1980 onwards he embraced science fictional themes and material for L’Eternauta, Il Fumetto and Orient-Express, before creating his landmark signature character Druuna.

Her Junoesque proportions and fantastic adventures have captivated generations of 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”.

Many if not most of the far-out fetishistic adventures have subsequently found their way into English-language translations. As far as I can discover, almost none of his sublime western tales have been similarly embraced. This rare American translation monochrome collection featuring 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’ opens proceedings, detailing the arduous 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.

It’s followed by ‘John and Mary, Mary and John’ which recounts the unique meeting and budding relationship of a grizzled old mountain man and a wild woman hermit. The slow thawing and re-civilising of the traumatised and troubled former squaw and slave is 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, slipshod translation 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.

Loveless volume 1: A Kin of Homecoming

By Brian Azzarello & Marcelo Frusin & various(Vertigo)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1061-8 (Vertigo)             978-1845763374 (Titan Books UK edition)

As an entertainment genre, the Western is a rather odd duck which can be sub-divided into two discrete halves: a sparkly, shiny version which dominated kids’ books, comics and television for decades and best personified by heroes such as Roy Rogers and Gene Autry – and the other stuff: typified by and popularised through the celluloid efforts of Sam Peckinpah, Sergio Leone, Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef or latterly in TV shows such as Deadwood

In comics, that latter kind of yarn – grimy, gritty, excessively dark and overwhelmingly nihilistic – was done best for years by Europeans in such strips as Charlier & Giraud’s Lieutenant Blueberry or Bonelli and Galleppini’s Tex Willer: iconic sagas which have only recently made their mark on US culture…

This book – available in UK and US paperback editions, but still as yet not in digital form – is that sort: recounting bleak, brutal incidents utterly unsanitised and unsuitable for kiddie consumption, but which in the end are probably far closer to historical truth than any six-gun shootout on Main Street or rhinestone spectacle…

The inspirationally iconic trappings of the Western make the milieu well-nigh irresistible to creative folk. We all want a crack at a cowboy story. When the horror-smudged eyes of Brian Azzarello and Marcelo Frusin, who did so much to revive and revitalise crime comics genre 100 Bullets and returned a razor-sharp hard edge to urban supernatural horror in Hellblazer, took a good hard look at the Western the result was sheer dynamite…

This initial volume from Vertigo gathers the first five issues (from December 2005-April 2006) and steadfastly sticks to the sound maxim that “Hell is Other People”…

Down in the battered, deprived South, Blackwater was a nasty little town even before the Secession Conflict. Now that it’s occupied by gloatingly victorious Union soldiers the place is rapidly dissolving into a cesspool and an open sore, with hate and resentment bubbling everywhere.

Moreover, for many in town and throughout the surrounding countryside, the war isn’t over until they say so…

…And then former resident and voluntary stranger Wes Cutter rides back into town with a silent brooding companion nobody recognises…

A defeated Confederate soldier, outlaw and extremely dangerous man, Cutter quickly sets about making all-new enemies to complement those he’s always had in his unwholesome home town.

Is it only coincidence that his return coincides with a growing wave of murder and destruction? And just what did happen to the wife he left behind…?

Blackly violent and relentlessly oppressive; sporting a large cast of broken and intriguing characters and patiently unfolding a dire and deadly mystery, Loveless is an adult tale of revenge powerfully reminiscent of films such as High Plains Drifter and Unforgiven, but this shockingly visceral saga has many more shades and crannies than either.

The compelling enigma of Cutter and his equally deadly companion is as engrossing as the violence is compelling. Here is a very modern Western which will enthral readers whether they like cowboys or not.
© 2005, 2006 Brian Azzarello & Marcelo Frusin. All Rights Reserved.

Walt Disney’s Donald Duck Adventures: Sheriff of Bullet Valley (Gladstone Comic Album #5)

By Carl Barks (Gladstone)
ISBN: 978-0-944599-04-4

From the 1940’s until the mid-1960s Carl Barks worked in productive seclusion, writing and drawing a brilliantly timeless treasure trove of comedic adventure yarns for kids, building a splendidly accessible Duck Universe filled with memorable – and highly bankable – stars such as Uncle Scrooge McDuck, Gladstone Gander, the Beagle Boys, Gyro Gearloose and Magica De Spell to augment the stable of cartoon properties from the Disney Studio. His most exciting works inevitably involved the rowdy, know-it-all nephews of Donald Duck: Huey, Dewey and Louie.

Although catalysts of comedic chaos in other situations when the mallard miser was around, the devilishly downy ducklings’ usual assigned roles were as smartly sensible, precocious and a just a little bit snotty kid-counterfoils to their “unca”, whose irascible nature caused him to act like an overgrown brat most of the time.

Nevertheless, all too often the kids reverted to type and fell prey to a perpetual temptation to raise a ruckus…

Gladstone Publishing began re-releasing Barks material and a selection of other Disney comics strips in the late 1980s and this – still readily available – paperback album is another of the very best.

Whilst producing all that landmark comics material Barks was just a working guy, drawing unforgettable covers, illustrating other people’s scripts when necessary and infallibly contributing perfectly formed tales to the burgeoning canon of Donald Duck and other Big Screen characters. Barks’ output was incredible both in terms of quantity and especially in its unfailingly high quality.

Printed in the large European oversized format (278 x 223mm), this terrific tome reprints the lead tale from Dell Four Color Comics Series II #199 (October 1948) and draws much of its unflagging energy and trenchant whimsy from Barks’ own love of cowboy fiction – albeit seductively tempered with his self-deprecatory sense of absurdist humour. For example, a wanted poster on the jailhouse wall portrays the artist himself and offers the princely sum of $1000 and 50¢ for his inevitable capture…

Titular lead Donald Duck is also an expert on the Wild West – after all, he’s seen all the movies – so when he and the boys drive through scenic Bullet Valley, a wanted poster catches his eye and his imagination.

Soon he’s signed up and sworn in as a doughty deputy, determined to catch the rustlers who have been plaguing the locals. Unfortunately for him, the good old days never really existed and today’s bandits use radios, trucks and tommy-guns to achieve their nefarious ends. Can Donald’s impetuous boldness and the nephews’ collective brains and Junior Woodchuck training defeat the ruthless high-tech raiders?

Of course they can…

Also included here is a delightful comedy of farmyard errors from Daisy Duck’s Diary (Dell Four Color Comics Series II, #1150 December 1960), pitting the well-meaning old fussbudget against luck-drenched Gladstone Gander and consequently suffering from ‘Too Much Help’.

Donald and the nephews then return, finding themselves at odds with the self-same fowl of fabulous good-fortune in an untitled yarn from Walt Disney Comics & Stories #212 (May 1958), wherein our hard-luck hero and Gladstone race around the world in rocket-ships, cheerfully provided courtesy of that feathered modern Edison Gyro Gearloose. The diminutive ducky lads can only watch in nervous anticipation of inescapable disaster catching up to the feuding “adults”…

Even if you can’t find this specific volume (and trust me, you’ll be glad if you do) Barks’ work is now readily accessible through a number of publications and outlets and every one of his works is well worth reading. No matter what your age or temperament, if you’ve never experienced his captivating magic, you can discover “the Hans Christian Andersen of Comics” simply by applying yourself and your credit cards to any search engine.

Always remember, a fan’s got to do what a fan’s got to do…
© 1988, 1960, 1958, 1948 The Walt Disney Company. All rights reserved.