From their inception in the 1930’s until a little after the end of World War II, the comic book medium was dominated by the superhero. From Superman to Captain Marvel, the Sub-Mariner to the Blue Beetle, the comic book reading audience devoured stories devoted to costumed heroes.
After the war, readership for superhero comics dropped significantly, and comic publishers were looking for alternate types of stories for their audience to spend their money on. The publishers started branching out into styles as varied as horror, romance, crime and westerns. The readers responded.
When superheroes made a return to prominence in the late ‘50s, the genres that replaced them shifted into the background, partially because of a McCarthy-esque censorship campaign led against supposedly obscene comics. Instead of dominating the market as they once did, these categories, many considered to violent and/or sexual for kids, took a back seat to the superheroes.
Superhero stories dominate the comic book industry to this day. But much like after World War II, the comic industry is experiencing a decline in readership. Comic sales today are lower than any time in the past. The decline in overall comic readership in today’s market makes comic companies willing to try different styles of stories, much like the companies in the ‘50s did. And they are looking to the same story types as the publishers did in the ‘50s: horror, romance, crime and westerns.
The western is experiencing the most notable push. But these aren’t your father’s western comics. The renewed interest in the western started in 2003 when Marvel published its Rawhide Kid mini-series (PopMatters review). But while previous versions of the character were not much different than other western characters of the day—somewhat bland heroes who tried to protect townsfolk from evil men—the latest Rawhide Kid was different. Marvel made him gay.
This change got Marvel a lot of publicity from the mainstream media, but that did not translate into sales or critical accolades.
So when DC announced two western themed books on its schedule, Jonah Hex, a revamp of their 1970’s western character, and Vertigo’s Loveless, you wonder how they would be presented. Would they be traditional takes on the comic book western or new and daring looks at the cowboy?
Being that Loveless is published by Vertigo and written by Brian Azzarello of 100 Bullets fame, one would expect that the book would not be a carbon copy of the western books from the ‘50s. It’s not. But it’s not as far from them as Rawhide Kid was, and that’s a good thing.
You might say that the comic book westerns of the ‘50s reflected what was shown in the movie westerns of the time. The Searchers, High Noon and some other aside, the movie cowboy was a one-dimensional character. He was honest and forthright, always shot straight, and was polite to women and respectful of his elders. If Loveless takes its inspiration from any movie western, it takes it from the Spaghetti westerns of the 1970’s, right down to its lead character’s more than passing physical resemblance to Clint Eastwood.
Loveless #1 tells the story of Wes Cutter, a Southern Civil War veteran, fresh from a prison camp, who returns to his hometown of Blackwater to find it infested by Union forces, his wife gone, and his land occupied by those same Northern soldiers.
The partnership of Azzarello and Frusin, last seen in the Vertigo book, Hellblazer, creates a pervasive mood across the issue. You get the feeling you are watching the first half hour of a good, latter-day movie western. An air of mystery abounds. Characters exist in ambiguous shades of grey and not in clear-cut black and white as in the westerns of old.
Loveless is a stunning example of the potential the western genre has to offer in the hands of the right creators. It is a great first issue, leaving the readers looking forward to the next issue to see where the story takes us. Whether or not the western genre will replace superheroes as the dominant genre, or if Loveless will prove strong enough to spearhead the change, remains to be seen.