If you love Western comics, this is so much the book for you. This new book from New York publisher powerHouse Books collects 20 cowboy yarns from the late 1940s and early '50s that feature cowboys great (Tom Mix, Gabby Hayes, Annie Oakley) and obscure (Magic Arrow, Masked Raider, Little Lobo the Bantam Buckaroo). If you love this kind of stuff — if your mind spends much of its time on the plains, wandering the wide open West and searching for truth and justice — this is the kind of book that you really can't wait to read. But if you don't know Tom Mix from Tom Corbett Space Cadet, there's really probably nothing in this book that will make you a fan of the Old West.
All of these stories are very much of their specific time. Each story has a pretty clear sense of morality — the bad guys are terribly, terribly bad and the good guys are wonderfully, wonderfully good. It's no surprise that heroes like Dan'l Boone and Buffalo Belle, "the rope-twirling, roughriding redhead who brought justice to the range!" are agents for fun, by-the-numbers type stories. That's what readers of the '40s and '50s wanted from their Western heroes, and those were the tropes that these stories explore.
After all, in that era, the cowboy ruled all media. Strange as it seems today, horse yarns were all over TV and movies at that time, dominating the public's perception. Characters like Jesse James weren't seen as complex antiheroes in the way that we think of them today; rather, they are deeply moral hero. James, for instance, is a clean-shaven crusader for justice in the four-page reprint from a 1955 Charlton Comic reprinted here. It's kind of funny to see a character that we're used to seeing as a dark and complex man treated instead as a good guy, but that's part of the charm and wackiness of this book.
It should be no surprised that Native Americans — well, when I discuss this book I guess I have to call them Indians — aren't treated especially well in this book. For instance, 1952's "Chief Black Hawk and his Dogs of War" presents some almost campy stereotyped Indians, complete with a lust for scalping the white man and a funny, primitive way of talking.
The art in this book is a pleasing mix, too. We get some very slick art by John Certa and Dick Giordano in this book, next to the wonderfully quirky and odd art by Manny Stallman, next to gorgeous work by Leonard Starr, next to a slew of mediocre pieces by artists whose names are now lost to the mists of time.
If you're of the right mindset to love this book, you will absolutely love it. It is full of wonderfully escapist comics. The very old-fashioned aspects of these characters and stories are exactly what many people will like about them. On the other hand, if you want a bit of depth in your characters, or if you're looking to pick up this book to find some long-lost hidden Western gems that fit our modern sensibilities, this is probably not the book for you. I liked this one well enough, but I did keep finding myself aching for a touch of Clint Eastwood in some of these stories.