Aficionados of the art of Western art displayed on paperback and pulp covers have long known the axiom regarding the cover art being the sizzle that sells the substance of the Western stories inside. For the Western pulps of the ‘30s and ‘40s, a brightly colored, action filled, cover—and a few black and white line drawing accompanying the stories inside—was the extent of the art each issue had to offer. For the paperback original Westerns, art only extended to the front cover and perhaps another illustration on the back. However, it is undeniable how important cover art was to the sales of the Western pulps and paperbacks. The appreciation of cover art is also a big reason why these items remain popular with collectors. However, there was another form of Western storytelling which relied on the skill of the illustrator as much as the stories from the wordslingers—Western comic books.
Stories of six-gun justice have been hungrily devoured by a near insatiable audience since the first frontiersmen and women opened the Wild West. Every gunslick, cowpuncher, tin star, wagon train, cattle drive, and owlhoot who followed only added more to the menu. At the peak of their popularity—the late ‘30s through the ‘60s— Western related pulps, paperbacks, and newspaper comic strips had a massive readership.
Syndicated Western comics strips first appeared in newspapers in the late 1920s. United Features Syndicate introduced Young Buffalo Bill in 1928. Red Ryder, Little Joe, and King of the Royal Mounted hit the dailies in the 1930s and were syndicated in hundreds of newspapers. In 1937, Centaur Publications released the first stand-alone Western comics—Star Ranger and Western Picture Stories. These paved the way for the over 250 Western comics—series and one shots—to come.
The real explosion of Western comics, however, began with the end of World War II. All the major comic publishers launched their own Western comic books, which entertained eager readers for the next several decades.
Real life Western movie stars such as Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Rex Allen, Lash Larue, Rocky Lane, Bill Elliot, Johnny Mack Brown, Rod Cameron, Tim Holt, Ken Maynard, Buffalo Bill Jr., Bill Boyd, Tom Mix, and many others—some still remembered, others now obscure—parlayed their popularity into Western celebrity comics. Photos of the stars in their Western regalia (often sporting six-shooters or hugging their horse) were splashed in full color across the covers.
The illustrated storytelling inside the Western celebrity comics, however, was largely sub-par. These Western celebrity comics were aimed at kids who idolized the celluloid singing and shooting cowboys who appeared on the covers, and who they watched during Saturday matinees at the movies. As a result, many a parent was badgered into parting with the nickel or dime needed to ransom these comics from drug store spinner racks. Comic publishers knew Western celebrity comics would sell based on the covers alone, so spending time, effort, and—more importantly—money worrying about the interior art and storytelling was a waste.
With the rise of television, Western celebrity comics morphed into comics tied to popular television shows. Have Gun Will Travel, Wanted: Dead or Alive, Rawhide, Laramie, Laredo, Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Bonanza, The Rifleman, Colt 45, Lawman, Maverick, Cheyenne, Zorro, and many of the other popular Western TV shows of the ‘50s and ‘60s struck merchandizing deals—most often with Dell Comics or Gold Key Comics—to keep viewer interest high. Western movies (especially those starring John Wayne) were also transitioned into Western tie-in comics. The Searchers, El Dorado, War Wagon, and other major Western films all received the comic treatment.
As with the Western celebrity comics, the Western TV and movie tie-in comics all took advantage of full color publicity stills for their eye-catching covers. But, the interior art beneath the covers—while mostly static and unimaginative—was a major step up from their forbearers. The comic likenesses of the actors who stared in the TV Westerns and movies was often suspect, but always had enough of an identifiable resemblance for a reader to recognize their heroes.
Marvel Comics was one of the first and definitely largest publisher to recognize the growing adult readership for comics after WWII. The popularity of superheroes was on the wane, so Marvel turned to original Western comics to capture this more sophisticated audience. Marvel rapidly became the most prolific publisher of original Western comics—starting with Kid Colt Outlaw in 1948. The popularity of Kid Colt Outlaw spurred Marvel to initiate many other long running Western comics—including Rawhide Kid, Two-Gun Kid, and Wild Western.
The latter title was created by Stan Lee and was home to the first appearances of Kid Colt, Two-Gun Kid and Arizona Annie. Lee also created both the Rawhide Kid and the Two Gun Kid for Marvel. Originally appearing in 1955, Rawhide Kid was a heroic gunslinger who is unjustly hunted as an outlaw. Two-Gun Kid, the alter-ego of cowpuncher Clay Harder, premiered in 1948.
Two-Gun Kid was Marvel's second continuing Western character, following The Masked Raider. In 1962, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby sought to revitalize the character. They turned Clay Harder into a dime novel hero who inspired their latest hero, vigilante Matt Hawk, to become the Two-Gun Kid. Lee and Kirby accomplished the reimagining of the character as a superhero with a secret identity, in order to stimulate sales.
DC got into Western comics with the long-running series All-Star Western and Western Comics. Other publishers such as Charlton Comics, Dell Comics, and Fawcett Comics contributed many other popular titles, such as Billy the Kid, Cheyenne Kid, Outlaws of the West, Texas Rangers in Action, The Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy, and Black Fury—a horse roaming the West righting wrongs. Western comics were also created starring Jesse James, Wild Bill Hickok, and other Western historical figures.
With the continuing popularity of Western comics, Marvel turned loose Black Rider and Phantom Rider in their own comics. DC kept pace with such Western characters as Johnny Thunder, Nighthawk, Pow Wow Smith, Tomahawk, The Trigger Twins, and Vigilante. In 1965, Dell Comics debuted the Western comic Lobo, which featured the first African-American character to headline his own series (it lasted for only two issues).
Western characters whose names began or ended with Kid were legion. There was Kid Colt, Rawhide Kid, Ringo Kid, Two-Gun Kid, Outlaw Kid, Kid Cody, Western Kid, Prairie Kid, Arizona Kid, Apache Kid, Texas Kid, Chinatown Kid, Wyoming Kid, Billy the Kid, Cheyenne Kid, Cisco Kid, Durango Kid, and enough others to tame the Wild West ten times over.
While Western comic titles proliferated, the quality of the writing and the art varied as wildly as the characters they depicted. However, since Western Comics were such a popular genre in the 1950s, many of the of the illustrators and wordslingers who contributed to their pages would go on to receive great recognition—even adulation.
These are a few of the greats who showed of their talents in many of the Western comics: Early Western comics Star Ranger and Western Picture Stories featured the art of the legendary Will Eisner. Fawcett Comics’ Tom Mix gave tenure to longtime artist Carl Pfeufer. Over eleven years, writer Paul S. Newman and artist Tom Gill collaborated on 107 issues of Dell's The Lone Ranger. Writer and illustrator Larry Lieber handled Marvel's Rawhide Kid for nine years. DC's Tomahawk displayed the talents of writer France Herron and illustrator Fred Ray over many issues. And Gaylord DuBois handed the writing chores for the entire run of The Lone Ranger's Famous Horse Hi-Yo Silver.
The Durango Kid had a long run with artist Fred Guardineer. Most of Kid Colt's early stories were illustrated by Pete Tumlinson, who would go on to handle he artistic chores for Outlaw Fighters, Two-Gun Western, and Wild Western. Mike Sekowsky illustrated The Apache Kid, The Black Rider, and Kid Colt, as well as the Gunsmoke and Buffalo Bill, Jr. TV tie-ins. Wild Western, All Western Winners, Arizona Kid, Black Rider, Western Outlaws, and Reno Browne: Hollywood's Greatest Cowgirl were all roped and tied by Russ Heath.
From cowboy celebrities to movie cowboy heroes and TV westerns, to the many characters who originated in the four-color version of the Wild West, Western comics had a long and gloriously entertaining run. By the late ‘60s, however, superheroes, horror, and science fiction comics were the new reader darlings, pushing Western comics to the fringes. By the late ‘70s even the most popular and long running Western comics had been gunned down.
There have been mildly successful attempts over the decades to resurrect Western comics, but their success has never been sustained. However, a spin-off from the Western genre known as Weird Westerns—which blend tales of the West with the supernatural, vampires, werewolves, and various other haunts and monsters—has enjoyed limited success riding the range and bringing readers back to the form.