Sci-Fi Comes to the American Frontier
When the popularity of superhero comic books faded in the late 1940’s, one of the genres that filled the void was Western comics. These All-American tales of sturdy cowboys, noble gunslingers and earnest Hollywood matinee stars dominated the newsstands for the next decade. Western comics typically kept their stories within the realm of believability, as these champions of the Old West encountered conflicts and threats that at least seemed authentic, even if historians didn’t quite see it that way.
Despite their huge success, the exploding popularity of science fiction in the late 1950’s forced most Western comics to ride off into the sunset, while the handful of stragglers that stuck around needed to make some rather drastic changes in order to survive. Instead of the traditional Old West threats of bullies, crooks, varmints, owlhoots and polecats, cowboy heroes now faced an almost endless parade of Atomic Age menaces!
Always a magnet for frontier weirdness, Tom Hawk and his Rangers battled “The Alien Indian Chief”, who made the Native American cause his own in Tomahawk #79 (1962).
Kid Colt Outlaw #107 (1962) finds Blaine Colt matching wits with a 30 foot tall space explorer whose spaceship was knocked off course by a comet.
Another crashed spaceship brought the evil Living Totem to Earth, but he was soon conquered by a group of Indian medicine men and banished to a sacred cave. In Rawhide Kid #22 (1961), the Totem was revived and resumed his goal of conquering Earth….until Rawhide dispatched the none-too-agile creature by pushing him off a cliff.
It’s a 19th century spin on King Kong on the cover of Rawhide Kid #39 (1964), as the threat known simply as “The Ape” hoists a helpless Kid above what appears to be a ¾ scale Munchkin town.
The previous year, our pal Tomahawk not only battled the giant gorilla threat of King Colosso….
…but the double-crossing, bow-slinging Gorilla Ranger as well!
Hold on! Is that a costumed super-villain I see in the upper right-hand corner?
Yes, as you might have guessed, along with the science fiction fad came the resurgence of the superhero…which meant that Western heroes were soon “saddled” with their own “rogues’ galleries” of costumed villains!
Lightning-Man wasn’t the only supervillain Tomahawk faced, as the gigantic Chief Iron Hands makes clear on the cover of Tomahawk #114 (1968).
In Two-Gun Kid #77 (1965), our hero faced The Panther, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Marvel’s Black Panther character introduced almost a year later in Fantastic Four #52.
Over in another corner of the Old West, it’s “Dr. Doom in a cowboy hat” as The Iron Mask made his first of many appearances in Kid Colt #110 (1963). The rogue blacksmith’s armor-encased body made him an especially difficult foe for a six-gun slingin’ Kid to conquer.
The cover of Kid Colt #116 (1964) featured the apparent double-threat of Doctor Danger and The Invisible Gunman. “Apparent” because the Invisible Gunman was actually a clever hoax combining magnetism and Doc’s wily ventriloquism skills.
Next issue, the Kid faced the bewitching boomerang of The Fat Man, who (like the Kingpin) made the claim that his enormous girth was “all muscle”. Hence the name “Fatman”.
Before his relocation to Brokeback Mountain in 2000, the straight-shootin’ Rawhide Kid of the 1960’s boasted the largest collection of costumed criminals this side of the Pecos. Rawhide Kid #25 (1961) introduced The Bat, a standard bank robber who, incidentally, turned out to be the owner of the bank he was robbing.
Not likely the inspiration for Edgar Allen Poe’s haunting 1845 poem, The Raven used his boxing skills and bizarrely-colored bird costume to strike…well, not fear, exactly…but puzzled bemusement into the hearts of the town's fair citizens, in Rawhide Kid #35 (1963).
A few issues later slithered The Rattler, an acrobatic villain who would go on to menace Rawhide’s colleague, the Two-Gun Kid.
No relation to the aforementioned Raven, a redheaded bank robber was given a special harness by a dying Navajo medicine man, which allowed him to glide on the wind as The Red Raven. After getting shot by the revenge-starved Red Raven, Rawhide was not only nursed back to health by the medicine man’s son, but was given his own set of wings as well! After a surreal Old West air battle, a flying Rawhide Kid managed to wrestle the Red Raven to the ground! Don’t believe me? Look it up in Rawhide Kid #38 (1964).
Armed with guns that shot special “paralysis pellets”, The Scorpion was actually a humiliated pharmacist who turned to a life a crime in Rawhide Kid #57 (1967).
You can’t help but wonder what might have happened if these assorted costumed criminals had combined their collective might into some sort of 19th Century Society of Super-Villains. Alas, we’ll never know, since it was only a matter of years before the Western genre completely ran out of steam as the surviving titles became either reprint books or were canceled outright.
However, our prayers were answers by writer Steve Englehart in West Coast Avengers #18 (1987), as Dominus sent the team back in time to face some very familiar costumed villains. With an assist from that time period’s native heroes (the Kids Two-Gun and Rawhide, along with the mysterious Phantom Rider), it’s pretty safe to assume the West Coast Avengers didn’t exactly break a sweat defeating this delightfully goofy gang of Old West Evildoers.
In fact, I can’t think of a better book to add to my “Back Issues to Buy” list.