Friday, May 27, 2022

Go West: the Classicals

In this thought-experiment on reinventing DC's Western IPs, I have no illusions that DC could maintain a large stable of horse-opera comics.  What I imagine is one anthology title where all such characters live (and, one hopes, thrive synergistically). 

This isn't DC's usual M.O. They usually will go ALL IN on some new IP trying to convince the reader that it's the Sensational Character Find of 20XX. DC gives them their own title, the entire JLA parades through the book, John Constantine and Harley Quin show up, and Lex Luthor nods that this is someone he needs to keep an eye on.  Who popped into your head when you read that sentence? Aztek? Naomi? Stargirl? Starman? Captain Atom?

The Wyoming Kid, perhaps...?


No wonder so many such characters fail: too much burden of expectation is loaded on them too fast. Foals do not win the Preakness.  It's easy to say that the Justice League, Young Justice, and Brave & Bold cartoons were simply 'well-written' and that's why their characters were well-liked, but it's an oversimplification.  It overlooks the contribution of the form of those shows, which allowed their characters to develop as ensembles or in smaller doses over time, without ever having to serve as the sole load-bearing element of the story.  

There's something modern reader forget about the Golden and even Silver Age stories that gave us the basic roster of classic DC heroes: they were short and there were a LOT of them.  That's how they built up the 'strength' of those characters; not through gigantic sweeping arcs where those new characters were the key to saving the multiverse, but through a steady drumbeat of stories consistently tell you who they uniquely were, what they could do, and how and why they did it.  

That's what new--or re-newed--characters need to develop staying power: a steady drumbeat not a brash fanfare. That's what I imagine an anthology title could do for DC's Western characters.  DC did this a bit ten years ago with All-Star Western. But it almost immediately became "The Jonah Hex Show" because Palmiotti and Gray were writing it and who can blame them? A proper anthology title, however, would contain three stories: one with a Classical Western character, one with a Revisionist/Weird Western character, and one with an ancillary western character.

First, let's review DC's Classical Western characters.

Vigilante (or, the One You've Probably Heard Of)

The original Golden Age Vigilante isn't a "Western" character; he's was a modern Western-style character. Not a cowboy, but a country western star/singer (of which there were a great many in the 1940s).  DC simply took that currently popular archetype, put him on a motorcycle (the modern day 'horse') and made him a vigilante, imaginatively called "Vigilante".  He had an action sidekick, a Chinese kid with the weird name of "Stuff", who was mercifully stereotype-free. 

Although he did speak with a strong "sidekick" accent.

Vigilante's main drawbacks are that he's a very generic type and it's hard to imagine anyone NOT figuring out his secret identity.  But the first almost makes it easier to reintroduce him because he's such an easy concept to grasp and cowboy-heroes are no longer common. As for the second, well, that's one issue that after 80 plus years, DC's got a handle on.

Maybe his secret identity could be a gay South African punk bank drummer.
That'd throw Lois Lane off the trail.

Any reintroduction of Vigilante should take advantage of his historical association with Green Arrow by connecting the two.  Reviving Oliver Queen's ORIGINAL origin as an expert on Native American culture and Roy Harper's upbringing by a Native tribe could provide the ideal "cowboy/Indian" link to help explore the complex history of Americas incursive and indigenous peoples.  

Nighthawk (i.e., Cowboy Batman).

He's Cowboy Batman. What more is there to say?

I mean, he's actually Hawkman, but we just aren't going to talk about that.

Unlike Vigilante, Blackhawk actually was set in the old west, so a modern reinvention would probably need a spooky black car as well as a spooky black horse.  But a vigilante who's not Vigilante doing the Batman routine without being Batman with a Western flair without being in the Old West could work.  The Zorro references practically write themselves. Owlhoots are a superstitious, cowardly lot. Give him some superficial nods from Batman and Hawkman to keep fans happy and he's all set.  

El Gaucho will be SO jealous.

We can ignore the generic characters who overshadowed Nighthawk back in the day. That absurd clown the Wyoming Kid was ALWAYS on the cover of Western Comics, but neither you nor anyone else remembers him because there was nothing unique about him (other than the fact that he's one of the 70 people born in Wyoming).   

The Wyoming Kid was very much one of those characters DC tried to convince you was key to saving the multiverse by having all the Justice Leaguers show up to his high school graduation. Yet people barely remember WYOMING, let alone the Wyoming Kid.

The Trigger Twins (a.k.a., "Starring Hayley Mills")

The Trigger Twins is about two twins, one a sheriff, one a civilian, who use their twinship to their advantage in crimefighting. Their last name is actually Trigger. 

Just like it says on the tin.

That's it.  It's simple. It's stupid.  (And therefore) it's foolproof and highly adaptable.  I guess that's why the Trigger Twins have already been modernized repeatedly, usually as (semi-comedic) villains.

I hope that some artist just got confused and didn't intentionally draw them as The Rawhide Kid, which is Another Company's character.

Just as we don't pick our relatives, we can't dodge the fact that we have inherited the Trigger Twins and must make do with them.

Case in point. In the 10 million hours of the CW-verse, there are Trigger Twins jokes and NO "Wyoming Kid" jokes.

The 'brothers as detective partners' bit is pretty reliable.  The trick in this case would be making it Western-relevant. Either both would very steeped in Western culture and the twin-bit would merely be incidental or one would have been educated 'back East', giving him a complementary worldview and skill set.  It's not the most original idea in the world, but it's a concept that's seen more time on television than on the comics page. I think an endearing and non-cartoony version of the Trigger Twins could be become, if not runaway favorites, at least enduring comfort food reading for those who don't need to see the multiverse saved every week.

Those people can always read The Wyoming Kid instead.

Main stories that alternate between a colorful public hero (Vigilante), a dark shadowy avenger (Nighthawk), and a pair of adventurous gumshoes (the Trigger Twins), would form a solid backbone for a modern Western anthology comic.  

Does DC have other Classical Western characters? Yes. Do they matter? No.  As Siskoid pointed out in his discussion of Why The Wyoming Kid Sucks, basic western characters with no unique hook to distinguish them all got forgotten. There's no point in reviving them if they bring no name recognition, history, or unique angle to the table.

Next time, our next tier: the revisionist weird Western characters.

5 comments:

Steve Mitchell said...

No love for Bat Lash? I think the Old West has room for at least one anti-hero type.

Scipio said...

As he was introduced in 1968, Bat Lash is he is a later, revisionist Western character, not a Classical one. Therefore my lack of love for him will be covered in my next post rather than this one.

Anonymous said...

Scipio, LOVE the idea of a Western anthology. It's actually what I'd like to see DC do with ALL its characters. Drop the ten thousand and forty-nine Batman books; streamline to one Batman Family anthology, Superman Family, a Team anthology w/Teen Titans and Legion of Superheroes, a horror anthology, and so on. There have to be SOME people out there who like short stories that build up a cohesive world, right? A world that isn't based entirely on the super-powered, save the universe every arc model.

I see lots of Johnstone, Cotton, and Braun Westerns at Wal-Mart. If you could slap a couple DC Western-themed anthologies up near them, it seems like they'd sell. Or am I being too optimistic?

Would The Trigger Twins work as a type of Longmire series? Lawmen in adjacent counties confusing the heck out of drug runners and other nefarious bad guys? Or would Vigilante be more in the Longmire mode?

REALLY looking forward to your thoughts in the next posts!

Anonymous said...

I'm a long-time fan of the anthologies. "World's Finest" ... ? Yes please. "Detective" #500 ... ? Read it over and over, with its roster of probably a dozen vaguely detective characters. "Marvel Comics Presents" ... ? Marvel knew how to do anthologies too. The anthologies were great because they left you wanting more; but even if you weren't much invested in that Red Tornado story in WF, a couple pages later there'd be something more to your liking.

Allow me to offer an unlikely way to tie Western heroes to the greater DC Universe: Wally West. I opine that he would do much better if transplanted to the Southwest; give him an opportunity to be his own man, rather than a now-redundant stand-in for Barry Allen. The wide open spaces of the Southwest would suit him well, and what's more, it could provide a mechanism to re-introduce the stable of Western heroes that tend to not make the news the way that your Supermans and Aquamans do.

There is a problem with my Wally West plan, namely, I have trouble coming up with a threat that can be defeated only by the combined talents of a god of speed and a singing cowboy. But of course, the best threats are not simply physical, so I leave it to someone smarter than me to sort this out. (Disclaimer: my idea might be congenitally flawed but I thought I'd put it out there in case it's not.)

michaeljpastor said...

I'd like to add to your list of anthologies with a 1950s '60s and science fiction space Opera theme.