Golden Age Western Comics, edited by Steven Brower, powerHouse Books, Brooklyn, N.Y., 2012, $24.95
Yes, the golden age of Western comics was long ago, but not as long ago as one might think—and mighty brief to boot. Even though silent motion pictures were already popularizing and romanticizing the Wild West, newspapers in the 1920s ran few Western comic strips. By 1935 things picked up with the introduction of such popular strips as Red Ryder. The first Western comic book, titled Western Picture Stories, appeared in February 1937. But as Steven Brower points out early in this 143-page book: “It wasn’t until 1948 that Western comic books came into their own. After the war, interest in superheroes diminished as real heroes returned home, and publishers were scrambling for new material. Soon, matinee Western stars had comic series based on them.”
Brower presents a few colorful examples here—Tom Mix Western No. 15 (“Tom Mix and the Desert Maelstrom”), circa 1949; Gabby Hayes Western No. 17 (“Young Falcon and the Swindlers”), April 1950; and Lash LaRue Western No. 56 (“The King’s Ransom”), July 1955. But missing are such Western stars turned comic book heroes as Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Tex Ritter and John Wayne. Historical Western figures also made their way into comic books for fun and adventure. Appearing in this volume are the likes of Daniel Boone, Kit Carson, Jesse James and Annie Oakley. Comic illustrators also created original characters. Here we get “Tenderfoot,” who looks like Clark Kent; “Little Lobo, the Bantam Buckaroo,” who fights for justice after seeing outlaws murder his father; “Little Eagle,” who has magic wings that allow him to soar like an eagle; and “Buffalo Belle,” billed as “the rope-twirling, rough-riding redhead who brought justice to the range.”
All told this collection offers—and you’ll wish there were more—20 Western comic book stories from the years 1948 to 1956. After that, things slowed down. “The superhero came back with a vengeance in 1956,” explains Christopher Irving in the foreword, “as the Flash was revamped for a new generation of National Comics readers, bringing the rest of his his superheroes back to life in a superhero revival.” Actually, still to come in the late 1950s were Western comic books based on such popular Western TV series as Maverick, Wagon Train and Have Gun Will Travel. But those, too, would disappear when, at least in the comic book world, superheroes and their arch villains rode roughshod over old cowboys and Indians.