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Golden Age Western Comics

Steven Brower, ed.

(Powerhouse; US: May 2012)

Powerhouse Books, publishers of Golden Age Western Comics, would have you believe that there are some forgotten gems of graphic art and storytelling in this collection—some genuine moments of wonder or impressively rendered scenes. As the back cover copy puts it, “The action flies off the page.” But reading through this volume, it quickly becomes apparent that nothing is going to fly off the page except nostalgia. This is a kitsch-laden romp through eye-rolling material that could have remained safely forgotten.


That’s not to say that the book isn’t fun. Sure it’s fun, the way corny old movies are fun, or sitting through reruns of your favorite childhood TV shows is fun. What it is not, however, is particularly siophisticated in any sort of surprising way. Unlike last year’s outstanding horror-comics comp Four Color Fear, which reprinted long-overlooked horror material from roughly the same time period, the cowboys ‘n’ injuns here offer no moments of geniune surprise, no plot twists worthy of admiration, no startled recognition that, hey, some of that old stuff was geuinely twisted, and even good on its own merits. Nope: the cowboy stuff here is campy and kitschy and very little more.


All of which is to say: if you enjoy campy, kitschy cowpokes ‘n’ redskins, you’ll love this.


Editor Steven Brower has pulled together a wide-ranging selection of stories originally published from 1948 to 1955, and they rely on many familiar Western tropes: bandits and gunslingers, sherriffs and posses, cattle rustlers and train robbers and Indians both good and bad. They are male-dominated with occasional exceptions like “Buffalo Belle”, and all the heroes are white, reflecting the bias of the era. Indians are allowed to be deputy heroes, but only if they are “good”, meaning that they solve problems for the white man.


The art is variable, ranging from the merely competent to the occasionally elegant, with frequent detours to the insipid. The pages here look to have been reproduced directly from the source material, with little or no digital cleaning up or tweaking of the colors. This lends a pleasantly nostalgic feel to the whole enterprise, as yellowed pages are allowed to remain yellow, and the original color mix remains. However, this also means that the discoloration of the intervening decades has brought the reds, pinks, oranges and yellows into greater prominence, lending an overall brightness to the page which grows wearisome after a short time.


Art styles range from the sketchy dynamism of the “Kit Carson” story included here, with terrific artwork by Jerry McCann, to the stiff line work and almost psychadelic colors and layouts of Manny Stallman’s “Little Eagle”. Artists and writers were often not credited at that time, so it’s difficult to assign credit—or blame—where it’s due, but Christopher Irving’s brief forward offers a few names, and gives an overview to the development of Western comics in general. Some of the artists and writers are credited on the contents page.


Sometimes, even when the artwork was impressive, the low-cost, disposable nature of the comics industry took its toll. In the “Kit Carson” story, the fine line work and inks are undermined by poor color separation that renders many of the images muddy and unfocused. It’s something like watching an out-of-focus movie, and about as enjoyable.


What sets the bulk of these stories apart from their modern-day offspring isn’t so much the art as the writing. Both dialogue and captions routinely relied upon overwritten ruralisms and fake lingo to try to conjure up an image of the Old West. One story is introduced with the caption: “The law faced all comers with ready six-guns back in the days of the Cherokee strip! This was the time of Buffalo Belle—the rope-twirling, roughriding redhead who brought justice to the range!” Hilarity ensues.


Dialogue fares no better, as characters are constantly saying things like, “If thar’s anything worse’n a squawkin’ spinster—I want tuh know it!” or, “I’ll kill the varmint!” or, “Wal, son, yuh did just what us lawmen have been tryin’ to do fer years! But do me one favor—don’t tell me how yuh did itI Yuh’d make me plumb jealous if yuh did!” Naturally, Indian dialogue contains quirks of its own: “Man who can fight arrow too much for me!”


It’s all rather cute, in a way, but its relentless nature grows tiresome fast. Despite this being a fairly slim volume, it takes considerable patience to wade through the stories, which tend to share tendencies toward breathless overstatement. In terms of plot, they are entirely predictable. This is, again, in contrast to the horror comics of the day, which often sought a surprise twist ending, some of which are startling even now.


This book is not without its pleasures. As a time capsule from 60 years ago, it offers a glimpse into a pop culture landscape which has largely faded away for today’s audiences. In their determination to provide a happy ending, in which virtue triumphs over evil and the scallywags are put in their place, the writers reveal a sense of order that is almost touching in today’s comics landscape. Ultimately, this lack of cynicism (some might call it a lack of sophistication) is both the strength and weakness of these stories. Perhaps a young child would enjoy what they offer, but it’s tough to imagine an adult reader getting anything from them besides a sense of nostaliga.

Rating:

DAVID MAINE is a novelist and essayist. His books include The Preservationist (2004), Fallen (2005), The Book of Samson (2006), Monster, 1959 (2008) and An Age of Madness (2012). He has contributed to The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, Esquire.com and NPR.com, among other outlets. He is a lifelong music obsessive whose interests range from rock to folk to hip-hop to international to blues. He currently lives in western Massachusetts, where he works in human services. Catch up with his blog, The Party Never Stops, at davidmaine.blogspot.com, or become his buddy on Facebook (or Twitter or Google+ or whatever you prefer) to keep up with reviews and other developments.


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