Saturday, 29 June 2013

Essential Rawhide Kid volume 1

I originally prepared this post to appear a little later but here in London today it's Pride. In honour of that I thought I'd take a look at an Essential starring an LGBT character. However there haven't been that many with their own series, and none with runs that have been Essentialised so far, but there is one featuring the early days of a character who in recent years has been depicted as gay. And without further ado...

Marvel hasn't always published just superheroes. Indeed there were times when they published no superheroes at all. They have long put out titles in many other genres and up until the early 1960s the company tended to follow the contemporary trends in the comics industry and wider American society. And one of those long running trends was the Western.

The company had previously published many Western titles as part of a large and diverse set of books until distribution problems in 1957 forced a massive scaling back of the line. Amongst the books was one called The Rawhide Kid which lasted just sixteen issues. Then in 1959 a new TV series began called simply Rawhide. The chanced to have a comic with that word in the name was too good an opportunity to miss and so the title was revived in 1960 with issue #17 - in those days the market had a very different attitude to numbering and preferred to continue existing sequences rather than have new issue #1s all the time. This was in spite of the series featuring a new and younger character (although in later years there would be attempts to make the previous Rawhide Kid an older version of this one to expand the supply of material for reprints).

Essential Rawhide Kid volume 1 contains issues #17 to #35. As bonus material we get a cover gallery of the first twenty-eight issues of the reprint series Mighty Marvel Western which featured the Rawhide Kid, Kid Colt, the Two-Gun Kid and Matt Slade. All the issues are written by Stan Lee and drawn by a mix of Jack Kirby, Don Heck, Dick Ayers, Gene Colan, Paul Reinman, Al Hartley, Jack Davis and Sol Brodsky. At least that's what the credits on the contents pages say, as this was still an era when crediting creators was far from standard, though a number of the stories are signed by the writer and the artist. However some other stories don't give away the name of their artists and so we're reliant on ancient files that may not always be complete and/or the assessment of latter day experts looking at the artwork and deducing who produced it.

The format of all these issues is pretty straightforward - about eighteen pages of the Rawhide Kid, divided into two or three stories with the longer tales sometimes divided into separate chapters. About five pages are given over to a non-Rawhide Kid story. And finally each issue carries a two-page text story. Annoyingly these were often spread across each issue and this volume doesn't always take the opportunity to reunite them. These tales again don't feature the Rawhide Kid and instead tell of the problems of a succession of one-off characters spread across the west, dealing with everything from water supply disputes to hunting on Indian lands to preventing the theft of gold. Going by the production numbers printed on them they appear to be reprints but I'm not sure where from. If I understand correctly they were included in order to qualify the comic book for a particular status by having some text pages (was it to do with discounted mailing for subscriptions?) but they don't add a great deal. It's easy to see why many readers, both of the original comics and of the Masterworks and Essential editions, have largely dismissed them. I'm guessing that by the time the Marvel Silver Age superheroes were launched either the rules were relaxed or things like the Bullpen Bulletins and letters pages qualified instead.

The issues also contain a non-Rawhide Kid strip story. Such stories could no doubt be prepared for and reprinted in any of Marvel's western titles, allowing for some flexibility. The stories are more general tales of the Old West but several feature a remarkable figure who is revealed at the end to be a famous real person. We meet the likes of Wild Bill Hickok, Kit Carson and Doc Holliday. The trick is also deployed in some Rawhide Kid stories such as one where he discovers his fellow stagecoach traveller is the local sheriff Pat Garrett or another sees him cross paths with Jesse James. The historic accuracy of these stories is suspect - for example Hickok is shown as the old sheriff of a town, whereas the real Hickok died aged 39. The Rawhide Kid's year of birth is normally given as 1850 and the tales start just after his eighteenth birthday, thus his adventures seen here take place in at most a few years from 1868 onwards, but Garrett didn't become a sheriff until 1880. And Doc Holliday never became a sheriff at all. But these stories weren't meant to be a history lesson, though I wonder if any children back in the day reproduced some of the dodgey history in their schoolwork. Not all the non-Rawhide Kid stories feature historic characters, with others featuring one-off characters in general western tales.

But as for the Rawhide Kid himself, his adventures offer an interesting glimpse at the earliest Marvel Silver Age. The first eight or so issues of the title are the oldest continuous Marvel material yet reprinted in the Essential programme, predating even the start of the Fantastic Four. We get some prototypes of what would become familiar concepts. The Rawhide Kid himself is Johnny Bart, an orphan raised by his uncle Ben, and the first story sees Ben's murder and the hero avenging him, then opting to use his skills to help others. Later in the first issue the Kid helps solve a cattle rustling affair, but when he outdraws the criminal an arriving sheriff accuses him of not giving a victim a chance and the Kid flees, to become an outlaw. Like Spider-Man it's his own haste and fear that lead him to flee mistaken authority rather than stay and clear his name (there's even a witness to the shooting who offers to help), but in subsequent stories his actions convince a number of sheriffs, bounty hunters and others that he's no killer.

But why doesn't this lead to his name being cleared? The first issue makes it clear that the Kid would be wandering the west helping fight crooks regardless of his own status so it's not as if being cleared or pardoned would have meant the series would have to end there and then. Of course it's one thing for a local lawman to decide the Kid is no criminal to spend time taking in, and another to go through the process of clearing up the charges. The prospect of a pardon does come up a few times though. In issue #20 a bogus marshal tells the Kid the governor has granted a pardon on the condition he hang up his guns, but later on the fakery is exposed. Issue #29 does see one sheriff offer to lobby the state governor for a pardon if the Kid can capture a particularly nasty outlaw. Unfortunately when he brings the outlaw in he learns the sheriff has died and left no record of the offer. Later in issue #33 a sheriff comes up to him but the Kid assumes he will be arrested and rides off. In fact the sheriff was going to take him to the governor to get a pardon, but fleeing puts paid to that. However wouldn't reports eventually filter through to the authorities and result in the Kid's name being cleared? But I guess such logic and strict continuity wasn't yet a permanent feature of comics at the time. In the same vein the Kid's sole companion in some stories is his horse, Nightwind but the horse isn't in every story and the Kid sometimes instead travels by stagecoach. Where Nightwind is and how the two are reunited after such long journeys is a subject left unaddressed. How easy is it to find the Kid? A story in issue #20, and a remarkably similar one in issue #35, looks at how tall tales have exagerrated reports of his description, allowing him to move about freely. But in many other stories he's quickly recognised in whatever town he comes to. And in issue #34 Mister Lightning has no difficulty in tracking him down by asking a sheriff for reports. Presumably there's no co-ordinated effort to deal with the Kid, but it would be remarkably easy for any bounty hunter, publicity seeker or revenge seeking foe to track him down. However overall we should be careful in expecting too much in the realms of continuity or strict logic. This was still an era when Superman repeatedly "proved" that he wasn't Clark Kent, only for Lois Lane and/or Lana Lang to try again in another story without having learned their lesson. It was supposed to be a timeless world where the status quo existed in perpetuity, allowing for the same type of stories to carry on regardless. Many comics, particularly those from Marvel, would eventually move on from the idea but it persists elsewhere - for example The Simpsons doesn't progress much.

Within the first year of the (relaunched) title there was some signs of good ideas beginning to run out. Issue #22 contains the story "Beware!! the Terrible Totem!!" which sees the series take a decidedly bizarre turn, featuring a living monstrous totem pole, an alien who has been long trapped underground until an illegally deep mine awakens him. It goes on a rampage until the Kid lures it to a cliff and pushes it into a bottomless canyon. This story is certainly different from the norm, but it's a bizarre step outside the whole western genre (and when it first appeared the Marvel universe hadn't even been created, let alone had it incorporated the non-superhero titles). The following issue contains a further sign the series is flagging by presenting a new telling of the Rawhide Kid's origin, drawn by the same penciller and inker as before. And it's exactly the same script as before with the only changes being the trimming of the odd speech bubble and caption, and one scene having an extra panel. It doesn't even add the details from the later story that saw the Kid become an outlaw. The opening page claims the story is appearing by popular demand, but it's still lazy to just redraw a story that had appeared a mere year earlier. I know the expectation back then was that a comic's readership would turn over every few years, but a single year seems rather too soon to present almost the same tale twice over. The story does, however, suggest that the "Marvel method" of plotting, drawing and then scripting a story was not yet universal even for Lee-Kirby collaborations.

There's repetition elsewhere with some issues carrying remarkably similar stories. Both issues #20 & #29 contain a tale where the Kid meets a father & son, and the son wants to be like him so the Kid pretends to be a brutish bully who gets driven off, with the son disillusioned to find out his hero is a bully and a coward but the father seeing through the ploy. Issue #33 has a similar tale where the Kid and a girl fall for each other, but when he's about to seek her hand in marriage it's brought home to him that all he can offer her is to be the wife of a hunted man. So once again he pretends to be a nasty character to get her to hate him. (It's another trait that would later be seen with Peter Parker both times when he broke off with Betty Brant.) On other occasions the Kid takes blame for the crimes of others so as to conceal the identity of masked foes such as the Bat and the Raven in order to protect their families, including women who have fallen for him.

Indeed on several occasions throughout this volume the Kid encounters a woman and there's mutual attraction - this was forty years before the MAX series that presented the Kid as gay. Here the phrase "slap leather" is used just as a call to draw guns. The Kid has no supporting cast or ongoing romance. Instead he's an example of the wandering hero who has no place to call home, no support and no ties. Sometimes this approach can restrict a series - I found the Punisher volumes weakened by their limited development but they're from a different age. Here it allows a degree of freshness and the very setting lends itself to this type of approach. The stories pit the Rawhide Kid against a succession of foes and problems out in the Wild West, dealing with rustlers, thieves, bullies, occasional Indians and other traditional problems in the west, and fortunately the series's dabblings with science fiction are limited to the Totem story, though another tale sees him tackle a master hypnotist. The Kid's skill with a gun is incredible but at least the origin story takes the time to establish he was trained by an expert. Only once does he waiver in his commitment to the righteous path of helping others, but he soon returns when he discovers the truth that Jesse James's gang are criminals rather than some latter day Robin Hood. Otherwise the series stays in the realms of traditional morality - that is the traditional morality of westerns.

Issue #30's non-Rawhide Kid story "This is -- a gun!" tells the story of an individual revolver and the many uses it is put to, ending with captions emphasising that a gun is just a device and it's humans who choose how to use it. There's no caption stating "That was a political broadcast on behalf of the National Rifle Association" but it does feel like a piece of anti-gun control propaganda. Other stories, both with and without the Kid, do skirt on the issue of guns and violence but justify it when used for the right purpose and are very much of the view that the problem is the person, give or take one story where a criminal family is supplying Indians with rifles. A western by definition is invariably a glorification of a life at the edge of rigid civilisation, where the individual often had to fend for themselves and the law was limited, and where it was often shoot-or-be-shot. But there isn't much in the stories themselves that emphasises whether the morality is specific to the setting or more generally appropriate. I doubt this crossed many people's minds at the time (although this is seriously off-topic, the US NRA was politically a very different body in the early 1960s from what it has since become - see How NRA's true believers converted a marksmanship group into a mighty gun lobby) and instead we just had a more conventional series, with the western accents and all.

It's quite surprising to see how some words are spelled in these stories, with the lettering at times putting a stronger emphasis on a phonetic rendition of the accents than on correct spellings. So the dialogue gives us the likes of "Yuh", "Yore", "Hoss", "Ree-ward", "Wuz", "Hisself", "Daid", "Figgered", "Mebbe", "Didja", "Heerd", "Leggo", "Injuns", "Muh" and "Git". And then there are other words with letters dropped - "g"s in particular, giving us the likes of "Capturin'", "Nothin'" or "Joinin'". Now there is a strong convention of emphasised accents in westerns and of literature trying to reproduce those accents. But there's also the issue of just who read the issues, and the way that comics can be a useful educational tool in helping children to first learn to read and then develop their spelling. Comics have always been read by all ages, even if some age groups in some countries have at times been reluctant to admit to it, but they've had a particularly strong following amongst children and this was even more the case in the early 1960s. To use spellings that would likely lose children marks if they repeat them in their schoolwork is a rather questionable decision. I don't have any children of my own, but would I be happy if my cousin's boys read these tales and reproduced these spellings when they go to school? On the other hand would "correct" spellings actually be more accurate and/or realistic? Writing is often more formal and correct than speech and so unless some really good transcribers made a study of speech patterns in the Old West we may never know for sure. But subsequent Marvel non-western titles generally use much more accurate spellings (or I've just not noticed much fancy dialogue beyond some emphasised southern and outrageous foreign accents) even though they were steadily pulling the audience's age upwards.

We don't know for sure who was reading the title at the time, but we can get an idea of how many they were. Issue #28 carried a "Statement required by the act of August 24, 1912, as amended by the acts of March 3, 1933, July 2, 1946 and June 11, 1960 (74 Stat. 208) showing the ownership, management and circulation of", or, as they are better known from later years, a "Statement of Ownership" for the title. Posted at the bottom of the issue's text story it includes the following paragraph:
5. The average number of copies of each issue of this publication sold or distributed, through the mails or otherwise, to paid subscribers during the 12 months preceding the date show above was: (This information is required by the act of June 11, 1960 to be included in all statements regardless of frequency of issue.) 150,162
The precise wording is a little awkward and a literal reading implies the title had an average of 150,162 subscribers. I suspect this is a flaw in the wording and perhaps a case of publishers not quite grasping just what was being asked for or how to state it - this was just a year after the law was modified to require circulation figures to be included. (The main purpose of these statements is to identify the owners and publishers of periodicals, in order to maintain their mailing permits for subscriptions.) I would assume we're thus seeing actual recorded sales figures rather than the total print run including unsold returns from newsstands. 150,000 surprised me as I'd come to believe comics sales were much greater in the Silver Age. However there is a wonderful site called Comichron: The Comics Chronicles which has pulled together a lot of the available comics sales data, most notably the declarations from these Statements. The page for 1961 Comic Book Sales Figures shows that it's the sales on the best selling titles that get talked about the most and at this point Marvel was a long way from being an industry leader, though on the available data Rawhide Kid was its second best seller with Tales to Astonish only about thirty-five thousand ahead. Sales data for Marvel in this period is frustratingly incomplete, in part because it often took a few years to include Statements in new titles, but issue #33 carries another statement, this time giving the average sales as 131,183. Again fantastic by today's standards, but not exactly the huge figures of legend. Then according to 1963 Comic Book Sales Figures Rawhide Kid's average sales were up to 194,390, the highest selling Marvel title for which data is available (at least when I looked). For much of the rest of the 1960s it sold on average just over 200,000 copies, suggesting a loyal and dedicated readership. Was the 1962 figure perhaps an underestimate or a product of flawed data collection? Or did the series suffer a drop and then a rebound?

We'll probably never know. But it doesn't matter too much - there have been some brilliant comics that sold very little and some total rubbish that sold many hundreds of thousands or even millions. Rawhide Kid shows its age in its format of multiple stories per issue, when the Marvel superhero comics launched just around the corner soon settled on a single story per issue or even multi-issue stories. It's also an example of the old style continuity, or rather the lack of it. There are no direct contradictions, although some very similar adventures, but there equally isn't much development. Instead we get a set of stories that could be told in almost any order. The simplicity of the approach and tales actually work to their advantage, and when combined with a likeable starring character the result is a series that's quite pleasant to read. It's also interesting to see the inclusion of both strip and text stories that don't feature the lead character (or any from a supporting cast, not that there is one here), again a sign of an older generation of comics. The earliest issues may be the oldest material so far reproduced in an Essential volume but they hold up well after all this time as a good, light fun read.

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