By Joe R. Lansdale, Lewis Shiner, Neal Barrett Jr., Sam Glanzman, Doug Potter & many and various. Edited by Richard Klaw (Mojo Press)
Once upon a time, not that very long ago, nearly all of fiction was engorged with tales of Cowboys and Indians.
As always happens with such periodic popular phenomena – such as the Swinging Sixties’ Super-Spy Boom and the recent Vampire/Werewolf Boyfriend trend – there was a tremendous amount of momentary merit, lots of utter dross and a few spectacular gems.
Most importantly once such surges have petered out there’s also generally a small cadre of frustrated devotees who mourn its passing and, on growing up, resolve to do something to venerate or even revive their lost and faded favourite fad…
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’s a thought for another time and different review.
Even though comic books had encompassed 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.
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…
Despite minor re-flowerings in the early 1970s and mid-1990s, Cowboy comics have largely vanished from our funnybook pages: seemingly unable to command enough mainstream commercial support to survive the crushing competition of garish wonder-men and the furiously seductive future.
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. They still make the best straight Western strips in the world.
Happily however an American revolution in comics retailing and print technologies at the end of the 20th century allowed fans to create and disseminate relatively inexpensive comicbooks of their own and, happier still, many of those fans are incredibly talented creators in other genres. A particularly impressive case in point is this captivating lost treasure from independent creator-led outfit Mojo Press, which published some amazing and groundbreaking horror, fantasy, Western and science fiction graphic novels and books between 1994 and their much-lamented demise in 1999.
Released in 1996, The Wild West Show was Mojo’s sixth release, a black and white anthology which celebrated the classical iconography of the genre whilst gleefully playing fast and loose with the content and running roughshod over the traditional mythology of the medium.
After the informative and educational ‘Two Fists, Four Colors and Six Guns’ – a history of Western comics by Scott A. Cupp – the wide-screen wonderment begins with Joe R. Lansdale’s beguiling short story ‘Trains Not Taken’ (adapted by Neal Barrett Jr. & John Garcia) as American Ambassador-to-Japan Bill Cody strikes up a casual conversation with businessman James Hickock on a Iron Horse trip to the Dakotas.
Among the many topics are the captivating single woman both find impossible to ignore, the Japanese/American union and recent massacre of a combined US Cavalry/Samurai force by Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull,
The tragic loss of both Custer and Yoshii and other matters of great import pass the time, but the weary Hickock is too distracted to concentrate fully. His mind is filled with the troubles of his aging alcoholic wife and the disturbing dreams of another life: one where he was a buffalo hunting scout and deadly gunslinger. But those are just frustrating fancies of trains not taken. It’s all too late now – or is it…?
Lewis Shiner’s ‘Steam Engine Time’, illustrated by Doug Potter, is another glorious genre-bending snippet set in Austin, Texas in 1898, where an anonymous lad with a dream and a guitar tried to get the white folk interested in his new kind of music. Even though the far-more-welcoming Negroes in the Colored Quarter hadn’t heard of “The Blues” they accepted his unique squalling and bizarre pelvis-led dancing and understood his impatience. The kid wished that somehow he could get electricity into his guitar. Someday, maybe…
Veteran comics craftsman Sam Glanzman then turned in a silent masterpiece of action and bleak, black humour in ‘I Could Eat a Horse!’ after which Paul O. Miles and artists Newt Manwich & Michael Washburn adapted Donn Webb’s hilarious saga of a far from ordinary sidekick in ‘Cowboy Dharma’, whilst Norman Partridge & Marc Erickson revealed the West’s affinity for grotesque horror in the terrifying tale of The Head – but not much else – of murdering bandito Joaquin Murrieta in ‘For Neck or Nothin’…
Short and bittersweet, ‘Custer’s Last Love’ is a smart parable of the battle of the sexes from Steve Utley & Kevin Hendryx, and the whole shooting match ends on a lyrical high with the fact-based historical drama of settler Maggie Gosher whose ‘Letters from Arizona’ in 1889 are here transformed into a powerful and memorable strip by Joe Preston, John Lucas & Martin Thomas.
The Western tale has long been a part of world culture and perhaps that fact has relegated the genre in too many minds to the status of a passé fascination of a bygone generation. However these fresh looks at an overexposed idiom prove there’s still meat to found on those old bones, and cow-punching aficionados, fans of nostalgia-tainted comics and seekers of the wild and new alike can all be assured that there’s a selection of range-riding rollercoaster thrills and moody mysteries still lurking in those hills and on that horizon…
Black hats, white hats, alternate worlds, great pictures and macabre twists – what more could you possibly ask for?
The Wild West Show © 1996 Richard Klaw. All material contained herein © its respective creators. All rights reserved.