Mysterious gunmen appear to save beautiful ranch owners from evil villains. Naïfs end up as sheriffs. A one-eyed man receives an eye as a gift, and a curse subsequently falls over his town. Hopalong Cassidy takes on train robbers, and an old man waits for . . . something in an abandoned town in Willa Cather’s “El Dorado.”
The selections in this volume of Graphic Classics are marvelous. The anthology format allowed the editors to pick a variety of stories that show how varied the Western genre can be. There are tales of action and vengeance and romance; tales of humor and horror; melancholy tales, and tales that touch on the spiritual. Thematically, this volume has something for everybody.
Arthur Chapman’s poem “Out Where the West Begins” opens the volume, and a more suitable introduction couldn’t be found. The twenty-one lines epitomize the idealization of the American West and the legendary Al Feldstein’s accompanying illustration is stunning in its beauty. Lowering sky, snow-touched mountains, and colorful trees form the backdrop as a lone cowboy rides the fence, leading another horse behind. It’s almost photo-like; yet there’s a depth and warmth to it that photos can’t quite catch. Frankly, the book would be worth buying for this one page alone.
Tom Pomplun’s adaptation of Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage captures Grey’s style while successfully abridging the novel. Riders of the Purple Sage is the quintessential Western. Mormon rancher Jane Withersteen is trying to retain control of her land while fighting off the advances of the powerful Elder Tull. Into her life rides the gunman Lassiter. His arrival becomes the tipping point in her life.
Cynthia Martin’s art perfectly complements Pomplun’s script. She captures the beauty of the West, and her characters are both epic and human. The panel where Lassiter first reveals his identity accurately encapsulates his personality. The reader is looking up at him from below, seeing his figure outlined against clouds and a purple-hued sky. His hands are above his holsters, and there’s something hard, honest, and weary about him as he stands there. He’s the image of a man who has seen some of the worst of humanity and yet he refuses to be cowed by it. It’s gorgeous work.
The contribution of colorists Benjamin Wright, Alicia “Kat” Dillman, and Mark Simmons must also be mentioned as they do a stunning job breathing life into the pages. Their interpretation of the skies above the rocky canyons is especially nice–with variegated violet, red, and tawny gold creating a sense of Heaven and Hell meeting.
Robert E. Howard’s Westerns aren’t as well known as his fantasy stories, and that’s a shame. He had a sure touch for the comic tall tale. Ben Avery’s adaptation of “Knife River Prodigal,” the story of Texan Buckner J. Grimes’ trip to California, keeps Howard’s story-telling voice intact. Comic exaggeration and action combine in just the right proportions as the naïve Grimes falls in with some bad characters, gains a sheriff’s badge, and earns it the hard way. George Sellas illustrates the story in a Batman: The Animated Series style, which suits the material perfectly.
The Hopalong Cassidy of “The Holdup” is the original Clarence E. Mulford version, not the smoother William Boyd movie version. This Hopalong and his crew are a little rough around the edges, and they like nothing better than to run into trouble. While Tim Saliuta’s adaptation is marvelous, it feels a bit uneven. It’s a slow build-up to a fast resolution. Still, it’s enjoyable, and Dan Spiegle’s art is beautiful. The action is dynamic and easy to follow.
Though Spiegle drew the Hopalong comic strip for over five years, he presents a different looking Hoppy here–one that is more in line with the original stories. Everything looks a bit grittier. There’s more detail and depth to the backgrounds. In some ways it’s similar in appearance to Mobeius’s Sergeant Blueberry.
I won’t rhapsodize over the other four selections in this volume, though I will say they’re equally as good as the ones I’ve covered. Graphic Classics Volume Twenty: Western Classics belongs on the shelf of every Western fan as well as every fan of well-told stories.