Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Marvel Westerns by Stan Lee, et al.

Old stuff: great! New stuff: meh.
Marvel Comics has a long history of producing comics in the western genre, going back as far as the 1940s, before the company was even called Marvel. Some of their most popular gunfighters, like the Rawhide Kid, Two-Gun Kid, and Kid Colt, even hung on well after the superhero explosion of the 1960s, but it’s been a long time since Marvel put any effort into its western universe. In 2006, they attempted to at least harken back to their cowboy glory days by publishing a four-issue series called Marvel Westerns, which combined classic 1960s stories by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby with 21st-century interpretations of Marvel’s classic western heroes. This hardcover volume contains the four issues of that series, along with some supplemental material.

In addition to the three aforementioned Kids, the contemporary writers and artists involved with this book have dug up a lot of lesser-known characters from the past, including the doctor turned vigilante Black Rider, the avenging Indian Red Wolf, and the superhumanly fast gunfighter Hurricane. Some of the stories include supernatural monsters or cameo appearances from Marvel Universe superheroes, which is perfectly fine. There’s a long tradition in pulp fiction of the “weird western” genre, which incorporates sci-fi and horror elements. Yet despite such creative twists, these new stories feel uninspired. Probably the most famous writer involved here is Joe R. Lansdale, but his story is illustrated in such a murky and expressionistic style that’s it’s difficult to even tell who wins the final gunfight. A few of the artists do turn in very attractive work, but despite all the flashy figures and vivid computer color, these new offerings don’t hold a candle to the visual storytelling of the ‘60s stories written by Lee and drawn by Kirby, Don Heck, and Dick Ayers. Given the subject matter, the fact that these stories are a half century behind the times only adds to their appeal. They have the quality of good old-fashioned campfire yarns, and are drawn in a classic style that doesn’t require gimmicks or city slicker razzle-dazzle. These old masters even manage to build an engaging story around the questionable premise of a living totem pole. Unfortunately, the only classic character represented in these older tales is the Rawhide Kid. The rest of Marvel’s western pantheon is left to the new kids on the block.

The book closes with a collection of fictional newspaper articles, letters, interviews, and other ephemera that act as a sort of unofficial handbook of the Marvel Western Universe. Each piece summarizes a plotline from some old Marvel tale. While it’s interesting to learn about all the different characters, there’s just too much of it, and in the end it feels like you just read 50 Wikipedia entries. This section does succeed in illustrating the wide breadth of Marvel’s rich western heritage. It’s obvious there’s a great deal of potential in all these characters and storylines; potential that’s not realized in this volume. It’s too bad Marvel can’t maintain a western series to utilize all this material. If today’s artists and writers can’t come up with a decent western comic, Marvel should at least reprint more of the old stuff. They have published two volumes of the Rawhide Kid in their Masterworks series, but those are now out of print. They should really round up an assortment of their classic western characters and compile a volume or two for the Marvel Essentials series. This collection proves that there’s still life left in these old western tales.

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