Sunday, May 29, 2022

Go West: The Revisionists/Weird Westerns

In cinema, there was a last gasp for Westerns--perhaps better described as a second wind, I supposed.  The golden age of Westerns had both high-brow and low-brow movies; there were plenty of singing cowboys and ladies tied to railroad tracks, but there were grand epics and insightful films. Stagecoach and The Searchers still rank high on my list of most impressive films.  

This one doesn't. It's also known as The Wyoming Kid.

But after all that had seemed to wind down, after the genre had seemed a bit played out, it roared to life in hands of furreigners (eye-talians!) who brought a fresh, if sometimes deconstructed, perspective to this American genre. So strong with the effect of this reimagining on the genre that for many people, this BECAME 'the Western' and they have little sense of what a subversion it was at the time.

So in the comics, where revisionist spins on Westerns began to appear about the same time.  One of the first was Sergio Aragones' Bat Lash, which promoted him as an 'anti-hero' but was basically just a comedic parody of Western, similar to the television show Maverick; Aragones was a famous Mad Magazine humorist, after all. It ran only seven issues, during which it went from this:

First issue (Bat Lash #1)

to this:

Final Issue (Bat Lash #7)

presumably because after about 4 or 5 issues, it was already painfully clear how poorly received the comedic approach was.  Pretty sure the next time Bat Lash was seen was when Mrs Gofooey threw him on his ass is in the street in Final Crisis.  Bat Lash was a short-lived misstep even at the start, so I can't imagine there's much place nowadays in comics for a '"loveable rogue" parody of the very genre we're trying to update.  What place there IS, however, I will suggest in a later post.

The real headliner of comics's revisionist Western period is, of course, the man, the myth: Jonah Hex.  Odds are if you are reading this post at all, you already know who Jonah Hex is and, well... that's kind of the point. If you ask someone to name a DC comics Western character and they can, the odds are a million in favor of them saying "Jonah Hex." Land's sakes, the man's friends with Superman.

Here they are discussing moral and civic philosophy, like pals do.

And Batman.

Who's quite friendly, after all.

I mean, how many Western characters are famous enough can you say THAT about them?

TARNATION, I hate that guy.

So, although I feel little need to explain who Jonah Hex is, or even his central role the Weird Western era, he remains problematic.  He BELONGS in the Old West.  That is, except when he's in the present, or the future, of course.  

We...just don't have time to go into it.

But that only works because it's a fish-out-of-water situation.  If you "updated" Jonah Hex as a modern person, I'm afraid he's simply not Jonah Hex any more.  So my solution for how to reinvent Jonah Hex for a contemporary Western anthology is simple, elegant, and unique:


Leave Jonah Hex exactly as he has always been. He can be the one feature still set in the Old West. And of course, being Jonah, if you happen to want to tell a story set in the present--or the future--just go ahead, plop Jonah in it, as is, with next to no explanation. Or maybe a throwaway line. After all... it's Jonah Hex. He's just visiting.  Weird though it is--or perhaps precisely because it IS weird--Jonah Hex is  the connective tissue of the DCU's Westernverse and from the Westernverse to everything else.  

Like here, where he's dead and fighting a dragon with milk. Because Jonah Hex.

Next up is a personal favorite: El Diablo.  

Fortunately Zorro is in public domain, because lightning demons cannot protect you from lawsuits.

He was a mild-mannered bank teller who kinda-died but got brought back to life when merged by a shaman with a lightning demon. Hey, it was called Weird Western for a reason, you know.  The original El Diablo was sort of a Deadman/Phantom Stranger/Ghost Rider type, but then there was a '90s version who was a more standard politician/vigilante in the southwest, and of course there is the Suicide Squad version. I say, lump 'em all together in one big mythology, the way James Robison balled a bunch of stuff together for his Starman series and, boom, there's El Diablo, ready to bring some supernatural, political, or Hispanic flair to a Western anthology.

I might go more full Zorro, the Gay Blade myself, but, as the recipes say, 
"season to taste."

Speaking of James Robinson's Starman, one of the "stuffs" he balled into his Opal City mythos was our final revisionist Western character: Scalphunter.  

The link explains all that, so I won't. But Robinson's done a lot of our advance work for us. Let's just agree that using his real name, "Brian Savage", will have to do.  

It might be fun to retain some of his unique fashion sense, though.

Like Bat Lash, Scalphunter was created by Sergio Aragones, but with no comedic tone or intent (although, honestly, he still looked a little funny; there's just a cartoonishness to Aragones' style).  Originally, his essential schtick was "orphaned white boy who was raised by Indians".  Just like Jonah Hex.  

And Roy "Speedy/Arsenal/Red Arrow" Harper, a fact all of DC has conspired to whitewash, rather than using HIM as a Western character instead of a drug addict/douchebro/human-anti-Montevideo-bomb-and-NO-I-have-not-forgotten-that.

I'm not sure I'd make Brian Savage a 'white boy raised by Natives'--that trope's a bit creaky and inutile at this point--but a lawman stationed on or around a reservation is certainly ripe with storytelling possibilities, particularly if he still retains his traditional connections to other parts of the DCU.  There are so many resources, native cultures wait to be shared with new generations in new media, that a Western anthology comic would be poised to handle.

So, as we promised as the beginning, we've set up a Western anthology comic with three principal story elements: 

1.   The Classical Westerns

  • Vigilante (the public hero)
  • Nighthawk (the shadowy vigilante)
  • the Trigger Twins (the gumshoes)

2.   The Weird Westerns: 

  • Jonah Hex (the Old Westerner)
  • El Diablo (the supernatural avenger/Hispanic American)
  • Brian Savage (the Native American); 


3.   a mystery element we'll discuss in our next post!


Anonymous said...

I am intrigued!

Sharp eye, how Jonah Hex is the connective tissue for the Western heroes. That's a lot more useful than my Wally West idea (although, I will mention in passing, that Max Mercury was originally a white guy who was on terms with Native Americans in the 1800s, and got his speed powers from a shaman).

About Brian Savage, I would swear that Apache Chief (who was neither Apache nor a chief) was visually modeled on Brian. The similarities are just too striking, and I can easily imagine the conversation at Hanna Barbera going like this:

HB: So DC Comics, do you have any Native American heroes we could use?

DC: Why yes, take a look at this guy!

HB: Oh he looks magnificent! Yes, let's use him, what's his name again?

DC: Scalphunter.

HB: ::record scratch::

HB: Let's, um, let's call him "Apache Chief" and give him super powers of some kind.

Anonymous said...

Hey Scipio, glad to see you posting regularly again!

Re Bat-Lssh: the stories in those seven issues were decent, the humor hit-or-miss at best (maybe don’t hand the scripting duties to Denny O’Neil if you want your comic to be funny?), but the art… ggggorgeous! Nick Cardy did a great job with Teen Titans and other books, but the last three or four issues of Bat-Lash are possibly his best work. I’m sure that’s the main reason the character has popped up anywhere since 1975.

Re Scalphunter: I don’t know if you know, but M****l has a character who used that code name. He barely made appearances after the ‘80s, but came back using his last name, Greycrow, in the pages of a recent X-Men spin-off called Hellions. Zeb Wells made him a compelling character by giving him a personality beyond “bad guy”and it’s one of the simplest and best comebacks I’ve seen in a comic.

Anyway, I don’t know how modern audiences would respond to a Native American character called “Savage,” unless the writer found a way to properly contextualize the name.

Looking forward to part 3!

- Mike Loughlin, former regular commenter

Scipio said...

Good to hear from you again, Mike.

I read ALL seven issues the night before that post, just in case anyone objected that I was misinformed about Bat Lash. I wasn't. :-D.

" I don’t know how modern audiences would respond to a Native American character called “Savage,”"
A lot better than they would to one named "Scalphunter". Fact is, "Savage' IS a last name. A line or two about how his family chose to wear proudly a name given to shame them would probably put it to rest. Or have the name instead what it usually is: an English one (that his family happend to have married into). Irony is not unknown in comics!

Scipio said...

Anon. It's an interesting theory. But Scalphunter appeared only scene only a couple of months early than Apache Chief did (in 1977), and given the necessary lead times for the cartoon creation process, it's pretty unlikely.

Steve Mitchell said...

Despite your brutal takedown of Bat Lash, I'm really enjoying your focus on DC's Western heroes. I'm a big fan of Western movies and fiction, and I wish the comics would do more with this genre than they are currently doing. Do you remember that Brian Savage was retconned at the father of Steve Savage, the Balloon Buster? (Hey, maybe you'll do something similar with DC's war heroes!)

Anonymous said...

Bat Lash got by on guest shots/team-ups, and the occasional backup story, in JONAH HEX and WEIRD WESTERN TALES.
Shortly after WWT died in 1981, Gerry Conway wrote Jonah, Bat, and Brian, along with feisty female gunfighter Cinnamon(a casualty of the 'DC Implosion' into a two-parter in JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #s 198-199, featuring 4 Leaguers trapped in 1878 Arizona, with amnesia, pursued by cowboy robots, at the behest of recurring JLA villain the Lord of Time. The real westerners took out the robots, as our heroes got their memories back in time to savw the Earth from a premature ending.

Scipio said...

"1878 Arizona". Have you read today's post yet...?

Anonymous said...

Appreciate you doing the fact-checking on Apache Chief; there is a special place in heaven for people who bother to fact-check.

I was getting into comics about 1978 or 1979, so Brian Savage was a long-time fixture in comics, I'd assumed. I'd assumed wrong!

Scipio said...

" there is a special place in heaven for people who bother to fact-check."

I'd be happy if there were just a special place on the internet!