Winning (and Losing) the West

'Red Wolf #1'

by Jack Fisher

3 December 2015

The Old West gives Marvel a new hero and a fresh shot of diversity.
 
cover art

Red Wolf

Dalibor Talajic

(Marvel Comics)
US: 2 Dec 2015

There was a time when the Western narrative had its own VIP section in the realm of pop culture. Then, Clint Eastwood got old and superhero movies took their place in that VIP section. While Westerns still embody a unique element of the American mythos, it’ll never generate the $1.5 billion box office that a solid Avengers movie makes.

Nobody is going to mistake William “Red Wolf” Talltrees for Eastwood, but he is one of the few remaining embodiments of that Western mythos, albeit in an atypical fashion. He’s not some grizzled old white man looking to thumb his nose at the law. He’s basically the Native American version of Captain America. He embodies the power, spirit, and grit of his people. He has the same commitment to justice, but gets only a hundredth of the attention of Steve Rogers. In some respects, it’s reflective of the limited attention real Native Americans get.

With Secret Wars, Marvel is giving Red Wolf a chance to join the growing pantheon of diversity in comics. It’s becoming a rather crowded pantheon with Kamala Khan, Moon Girl, and Sam Wilson. But there’s still room in this mythos for another hero who embodies another minority. Red Wolf #1 makes the case that William Talltrees can be that hero. He ends up being the hero the stereotypical western town of Timely needs. On top of that, he’s way more hero than they deserve.

There are a great many obstacles that the Tony Starks, the Steve Rogers, and the Peter Parkers of the world have to overcome. Those obstacles have made for plenty of memorable stories. However, these heroes all have one thing in common. Their race has never caused them any hardship. That’s not to make light of genuine patriotism and murdered loved ones, but it’s easy to overlook how much easier life is when you don’t have to worry about racism, slurs, and Fox News anchors.

Red Wolf #1 does not shy away from these racist obstacles. In fact, it’s downright blatant about it. Nobody in Timely calls Red Wolf by his name, his superhero name, or even his title as Sheriff. Instead, they use the kinds of words that went out of style back in the ‘50s. These are words that would get most people crushed by Twitter trolls if they used those words today. Red Wolf shows a level of restraint that makes him unfit for Twitter, but more than fit for being a hero.

Having inherited the role of Sheriff from a John Wayne version of Steve Rogers, Red Wolf is responsible for maintaining order in Timely. He does this despite the people of Timely making clear that they trust him about as much as they would trust Al Sharpton. Red Wolf’s authority is so poorly respected that he struggles to settle a dispute over a couple of cows. There’s little doubt that if Steve Rogers had intervened, the conflict would be resolved without inspiring any new Twitter hashtags.

Yet despite the racism he faces, Red Wolf does his duty. He upholds the law, even when neither he nor his title are respected. It offers a unique perspective that can’t be found, even with Miles Morales or Kamala Khan. At least they live in an era where overt racism gets most people sent to the principal’s office or to sensitivity training. In the old West, six shooters and slurs rule the day.

Red Wolf’s commitment to his duty establishes a theme for his story and his struggles. This story unfolds in the form of a fairly generic murder mystery that would probably fit right into at least two Eastwood movies. But this mystery quickly takes a turn that seems more befitting of Tim Burton.

The main purpose of the story isn’t just establishing who Red Wolf is and the racism he has to deal with. The purpose of the story is to put Red Wolf in a position to become part of the larger Marvel universe. In the same way Miles Morales and Old Man Logan have become part of that universe, Red Wolf is set to join them. Since he’ll be entering a time when minorities can get arrested for simply looking at a cop the wrong way, his commitment is all the more admirable.

While the purpose of this story is accomplished in a way that feels satisfying and compelling, it does feel rushed at times. The mystery that unfolds doesn’t get all that elaborate. It barely has the depth of a Scooby Doo rerun, minus a creepy guy in a costume.

One moment, Red Wolf is dreading some dangerous killer who wields magic that a six-shooter can’t stop. The next, this killer just shows up and trolls him. There’s no duel. There’s no horse race. There’s no whiskey-fueled trash talk. There’s just one of those mysterious villain that Captain America takes out at least once a week.

The battle he has with Red Wolf isn’t going to inspire Steven Spielbergs, but it does provide some action that doesn’t just involve angry cows or racist lynch mobs. It also acts as the catalyst that brings Red Wolf out of Timely and into a Marvel universe that is eager to embrace more diversity.

Red Wolf #1 succeeds in most of what it seeks to accomplish. It establishes Red Wolf as character worthy of respect and intrigue. At a time when characters like Peter Parker and Cyclops keep finding new ways to spit on their superhero credibility, his arrival in the All-New, All-Different Marvel universe couldn’t be more appropriate.

It’s still only a moderately engaging story, but it has the potential to succeed in ways not seen since Back to the Future III. Red Wolf just has to make sure he doesn’t hook up with any of his descendants.

Red Wolf

Rating:

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