“Guns and Roses Chapter 1: Splendor in the Sage”
Writers: Peter Brandvold, Sergio Aragones
Artists: John Severin, Steve Buccellato (colors)
Publisher: DC Comics
Matthew J. Brady
Not having ever read any previous comics starring one Bartholomew Lash, I was worried that I might be a bit lost here, but luckily that wasn’t the case at all. Instead, this is a straightforward western tale of frontier violence, corrupt lawmen, and evil rich men. Sergio Aragones, one of the original creators behind the character, is on board as co-writer, along with Peter Brandvold, a popular author of western novels. I’m not sure who does what here; in the character’s original incarnation, Aragones wrote the plots with Denny O’Neil providing dialogue. Whatever the case, John Severin brings the story to life in his elegantly ragged style.
This being a six-issue mini-series, we only get the beginnings of a story here, but it’s an interesting one. Bartholomew “Bat” Lash is the son of “mustangers” who are being pushed out of their territory by a cattle baron. He’s also in trouble with the local sheriff for messing around with the baron’s daughter, who has been promised to the corrupt officer. There’s a good amount of action here, including an attempted lynching, Native American attacks, and a flashback to a buffalo stampede. And it all looks quite beautiful coming from John Severin’s pen. He has an expressive, dynamic style that really fits the old-fashioned setting. Characters look appropriately grizzled and dirty, and the expressive characters really sell their situations. I love how pissed-off Bat Lash looks when he is being harassed by the sheriff’s gang, and his girlfriend Dominique is appropriately feisty when confronted with the situation her father has sold her into. And then there’s Two-Moons, a Native American friend of Bat Lash’s who seems tough and capable, but also perpetually amused at the situation.
It’s all an interesting, enjoyable mix, but the best part is the slangy dialogue. I don’t know if it’s made up or not, but lines like “Split the wind!,” “Light a Shuck!,” or “Let’s lift some gravel!” put a smile on my face. It’s different from what you usually hear in western stories, and it adds more of an old-timey air to the story than the usual clichés.
There’s not much to complain about here, although I did think the use of captions to deliver internal monologues seemed awkward and possibly out-of-place. Thought balloons might have worked better, but it’s possible the creators were trying to make this seem like less of an old-fashioned comic, since westerns seem like a sort of antiquated genre. Also, while violence toward women is a trope that usually gets trotted out in western stories, Aragones and Brandvold could have waited beyond the first issue of the miniseries to get to it. On the other hand, maybe they’re trying to get it out of the way early. Whatever the case, it’s kind of distasteful (although I do like that the victim is defiant rather than submissive).
So, while it’s definitely too early to make a judgment on the series as a whole, the first issue shows some promise of an exciting, enjoyable western series, with nicely-drawn characters (in both senses of the term) and some excellent art. Hopefully it will get even better and become a classic story. Or at least a fun romp through a genre that gets little play these days. We’ll see how it goes.
The Western genre is a personal favorite of mine. There’s just something intuitively fun about gunslingers, cowboys, and little boom towns full of outlaws and sheriffs. And when it came to comic book versions of the Wild West, Bartholomew Lash was one of my favorite characters. The idea of a womanizing dandy who tried to avoid fights but could still outshoot anyone was great. The concept was just fun, and the character was always amusing.
Sadly, this new Bat Lash mini-series fails in all respects to capture the fun and enjoyment present in past Bat Lash appearances. Here Bat is the oldest son on the Lash family ranch, helping his parents run their business while still taking the time to seduce the daughter of a wealthy landowner. When the corrupt sheriff, who also has his eyes on the daughter, sees Lash, he tries to hang him. After escaping, there are a lot of thinly veiled threats and some villains introduced, but that’s it. The pacing is terribly slow and Bat hardly a factor in his own comic. Instead of moving the plot with his actions, he is shoved around by the plot. And what happened to him? Instead of being the Casanova of the Old West who dispatched any enemy swiftly, Bat does next to nothing, not even defending himself. Instead he’s been turned into a mother’s boy who seems confused about the events going on around him.
Sadly, this debut issue also feels full of cliches. The evil, corrupt sheriff, the landowner out to get rid of the family run enterprise, and some of the most stereotypical Native Americans in a long while. The stilted, campy dialogue from the Comanche is just bad and cheapens the entire scene where they show up. The closing page was predictable and set up a weak cliffhanger.
John Severin’s art is hit and miss. On some pages he’s able to capture wide expanses of the West and shows really strong skill at conveying action and speed. Other times, however, his anatomy suffers and the characters begin looking generic.
Instead of being a fun, fast paced revival of a great character, Bat Lash suffers from a slow plot, the main character’s lack of action, and a story riddled with cliches. In a time where old Western characters like Jonah Hex and the Lone Ranger can be brought back with a level of enjoyment, Bat Lash got the short end of the stick.
The new Bat Lash mini-series opens in 1875. Bat is in his late teens or early twenties, and he is still living with his parents while working on their mustang ranch (they breed and train mustangs for the United States cavalry). Thus, this series is an “origin” story for Bat Lash that will explain “who he is and how he came to be.”
In that vein, I will first explain that the character was created in 1968 by Sergio Aragonés and Nick Cardy, and he debuted that year in Showcase #76. He quickly moved into his own series where Cardy continued to illustrate (and occasionally co-plot) the stories.
However, after co-writing issue #1 with Denny O’Neil, Aragonés was absent from the title for the second, third, and fourth issues. He then returned to co-write the fifth, sixth, and seventh issues with O’Neil before the series was canceled in 1969.
In the current mini-series, Aragonés is the only connection to the character’s debut in 1968. Cardy has mostly retired from the industry (with the exception of an occasional cover illustration). Instead, DC has brought in John Severin, whose distinguished career has included illustrating war comics for EC in the 1950s and western comics for Marvel in the 1960s.
In terms of “comic book royalty,” it’s quite a coup for DC to have Severin illustrate this western mini-series. However, while I respect Severin’s accomplishments and distinguished career, his work on this issue is not some of his best—neither, though, is it terrible.
It is not as detailed as his work was 40 or 50 years ago, but it’s still better than a lot of the illustrations being used in mainstream comics today—and this is by a man who will be turning 86 next week (December 21). Severin began illustrating when he was 10, and with 75 years of experience to draw on (no pun intended), he knows how to compose his panels, his pages, and his stories.
As for the story itself, with Brandvold’s help (I’m assuming), Aragonés has turned in an adequately written script. There aren’t any passages of bad dialog, and the transitions between scenes work well. However, at this point in the western sub-genre, the main plot is very clichéd in that it concerns an “evil” cattle baron who is grabbing land from the Native Americans and from other ranchers.
These “range war westerns” can probably be designated as a separate sub-genre in themselves by now. There were, of course, actual “range wars” in the Old West—such as the one that occurred in Johnson County, Wyoming in 1892. Since then, the range war idea has become a popular plot device in western novels and films. For instance, in novels, the plot dates back at least to 1902 (ten years after the Johnson Country Range Wars) in Owen Wister’s The Virginian (and probably earlier in dime store pulp westerns of the 1890s).
In films, the range war plot goes back at least to the 1913 silent movie War of the Cattle Range. In fact, the International Movie Data Base (www.imdb.com) lists 61 movies and/or television shows that have involved a range war plot (and I’m sure there are many more than that since that list did not include War of the Cattle Range).
Grafted onto the clichéd range war plot in the current Bat Lash #1 is a subplot (naturally). It’s one I’m sure you know. It’s the plot for Romeo and Juliet, with Bat Lash as Romeo and the evil cattle baron’s daughter, Dominque Wilder, as Juliet.
Within this Romeo and Juliet story, we learn that the ever-present flower that Bat wears in his hatband (see any of the character’s previous appearances) is a tradition that started when Dominque placed it there one sunny afternoon just before the stars began to tragically cross for these lovers. By the end of this series, we will undoubtedly learn that Bat wears a fresh flower in his hat as a memorial to his lost love.
In fact, there is a great deal of predictability in this story. Even if I had not already known that the original 1960s series ended with Aragonés returning to the title to present Bat Lash’s origin story in which he (and O’Neil) revealed that the Lash family had been cheated out of their farm, that Bat’s parents were murdered, and that Bat was wanted for killing a deputy sheriff (he was unable to prove it was in self defense).
It looks like the current series is going to re-tell, but expand upon, that origin story from 1969 (but it looks like the deputy is now “Sheriff Brubaker” in this updating of the origin). I’m sure this tale will be “new” for almost every reader of this series, and I’m sure that the creative team will turn in an adequate job in terms of dialog and illustrations.
However, the plot and subplot have both been done too often, and putting them together in the same story—Romeo and Juliet of the range war—is an obvious notion (and one that has probably been done before in a range war novel or film). Unfortunately, there is nothing in this first issue that suggests that there will be any new twists presented in this story within these tried and trite plots.
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