Monday, May 04, 2009


I know everybody checks out Bully every day, so you've undoubtedly already seen the latest installment in his classic "Ten of a Kind" feature. I looked earlier today and I saw the above cover - and I haven't been able to get it out of my mind since. Look at it a moment: what the hell is going on? That's a comic? Like, a real comic people paid money for at some point in history? Really?

I'm no expert on Marvel westerns - and now that I think about it, I don't know anyone who is - but every time I come across anything from the line it invariably seems a little odd. This is particularly true for the mid-60s books published after the company had already found success in the revitalized superhero market. It's obvious that by the time the above comic was released (1964) the company was retooling everything in their line on the fly. People who accuse Marvel of shameless pandering and the unceasing pursuit of any passing "trend" of even dubious commercial value should remember that those two principles have underlined their business model from the very beginning, all the way back to when Martin Goodman occupied the corner office. In many ways, the current contemporary comics world is a product of this mentality: as soon as Marvel smells anything remotely resembling a hit, they flood the market with a dozen things that look just like it. The did this with superheroes in the early 60s - because, famously, DC's Justice League was monumentally popular - and the Marvel Age of Comics was born from this fecundity.

Therefore, just a quick glance at the series' covers reveals that Kid Colt was hardly a western book for people who really loved westerns, it was a western book that was willing and able to be everything else under the sun if it meant hopping on a potentially lucrative bandwagon. Case in point:

This hit the stands in November 1962, on the tail end of Marvel's brief obsession with the Kirby / Ditko monster comics that kept the company alive in the late 50s and directly spawned Fantastic Four. Now, from any perspective, this looks pretty awesome: kids love cowboys (or, at any rate, the did in 1962), but if there was one thing kids loved even more than cowboys it was giant monsters. Putting the two together was a natural fit for Marvel.

Just a few months later in May of 1963, with the "Marvel Age" (what a great marketing tool - an advertising slogan that doubles at a period marker) well under way, Kid Colt became a de facto superhero. Which is not to say that he hadn't always been a kind of superhero (secret identity and all, although that probably owed as much to the Lone Ranger and Zorro as Superman), but now he even had supervillains to prove it:

Also, this next one is a great cover. It's a striking design, with great use of color - look at the way the bright orange pops out against the greyscale Native Americans in the background. But the captions ruin what would otherwise by a fearsome image: Warroo? Seriously? You're celebrating 100 consecutive issues of publication and the biggest arrow in your quiver is Warroo? I guess all the good monsters were being used over in Journey Into Mystery.

But back to the Fat Man. If we can all agree that cowboys and monsters are great, and cowboys with supervillains are good too, well, that still doesn't explain this. For all the good ideas Marvel was putting out at this time, we must remember that early Marvel villains weren't exactly winning any beauty prizes: for every Dr. Doom and Green Goblin, there were thirty Kurrgos and Miracle Men. Hell, you can easily make the argument that despite their subsequent importance, the Puppet Master and the Mole Man are hardly that great, either. (And since we're talking about the first ten issues of Fantastic Four, let's not forget that fully half of these issues featured either Doctor Doom, the Sub-Mariner, or some combination thereof.) For that matter, who remembers a single villain the Hulk fought in the first six issues of his own book? Anyone?

Sure, Fantastic Four and Amazing Spider-Man had great villains, but reading any random pile of Silver Age Marvels, besides these two "flagship" books, you get the feeling real quick that they were throwing up anything just to see if it would stick - and the least important element of the story was often the antagonist. It's blind luck (and a heaping dollop of Ditko's great eye for character design) that Spidey's early rogues gallery was so damn strong: it took Spider-Man about five years (from ASM #1, with the first appearances of J. Jonah Jameson and the Chameleon, to ASM #50 and the first appearance of the Kingpin) to build one of the top-two rogue's galleries in comics. The only other contender, Batman, took thirty years to accrue as many good villains, and even then some of his better villains didn't arrive until the late 60s and early 70s. With this in mind, is it any surprise that the westerns got the dregs of the villain sweepstakes? If Stan Lee thought up a great new villain like Mysterio, where was he gonna put him? Amazing Spider-Man or Kid Colt? So, we've got the Fat Man.

And just in case you think I'm picking on Kid Colt, I should point out that by the standards of the day Kid Colt was relatively tame. Let's look and see what the Rawhide Kid was up to in spring of '64:

Amazingly, given the context, Two-Gun Kid seemed positively sedate in comparison. To judge by these covers, his book actually stuck fairly close to the Western template through the 1960s, with just a slight diversion for this modern classic:

I suspect no one has read most of these comics, because just a quick glance at the GCD archives hints at a veritable treasure trove of undiscovered wackiness. If you are someone, like me, who believes that the Platonic form of all comics blogs exists in the act of mocking old issues of Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane, you will join me in salivating over the possibilities inherent in such unmistakably weird books. I wonder if there's a torrent anywhere . . .

But anyway: Fat Man. Boomerang. Is this supposed to be threatening? Were boomerangs some exotic artifact back in the early 1960s? I mean, you've got Captain Boomerang at DC, and this guy - was there a famous boomerang dude on Ed Sullivan or something that got all the kids excited about the open-ended play possibilities of a stick that would return to the owner once thrown? You don't really see these kinds of one-object specialist villains anymore. If I were 8 in 1964, would I have been excited by the images on display in this cover? Would I have wet myself in anticipation of the resolution of Kid Colt's pulse-pounding battle to the death with the Fat Man? Really, Kid Colt doesn't seem that concerned - you can tell by the look on his face that this is just another day in the office.

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