Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Comic Book Review: Weird Western Tales (2001) #'s 1 & 2

Weird Western Tales
by Various
Vertigo Comics 2001
(Review originally posted on Feo Amante's Horror Thriller)

The Tall Tale came out of the period of United States western expansion in the 1800s, and is considered a legitimate American literary form. Told around campfires, passed down by word of mouth, these tales gave birth to such recognizable fictional figures as Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, and Deadwood Dick. Thanks to dime novels, real-life frontiersmen such as Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill Cody, Jesse James, and Billy the Kid were depicted as superhuman. The wild exploits of both the real and unreal people of the Old West have become legendary. These myths—combined with the superstitions derived from European forefathers—resulted in a genuine folklore that could only come from an American identity.

DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint acknowledged this with the publication of Weird Western Tales. Originally a series that ran in the 1970s (featuring gunslinger Jonah Hex), the stories were action-packed adventures without any hint of the fantastic. Each issue of Vertigo’s series demonstrates that the possibilities inherent in the Western genre are endless.

Copyright © DC Comics, Inc.

The cover art of the first issue by Darwyn Cooke is a definite eye-grabber, informing the reader that this ain’t no pony ride ‘bout Cowboys and Indians they may be used to seeing. Covered in black widow spiders with a tentacle emerging from the ground beneath her, wrapping itself around her, stands a rather busty gunslinger. Five holstered six guns drape off her hips, and pinned to her flowing duster is an array of sheriff’s and marshal’s badges. Instead of a revolver, she’s firing from a machine pistol while the frontier town behind her (and some fleeing horses) are engulfed in flames. Cooke’s style reminds me of Bruce Timm (who I thought was the artist of this cover), and it’s easy to imagine this animated.

Unfortunately, there is no story in this issue relating to the cover, but “Tall Tale” by Paul Pope, “Serial Hero” by Dave Gibbons, and “This Gun for Hire” by Greg Rucka and Rick Burchett lead off this series with many entertaining surprises.

In “Tall Tale”, writer/illustrator Paul Pope sets the tone and background of the series in a great introduction by referring to those legendary names mentioned above as “the original American superheroes.” Some, like Wild Bill Hickok, drew his share of enemies as well as admirers thanks to the exaggeration of his skills by dime novelists. A mangy badman by the name of Charles E. Bowles arrives in a frontier town screaming for Hickok’s head. He believes Hickok faked his death and has been hiding out as a saloon owner. Sure enough, his target looks like Hickok, goes by the name of Bill Hickson, and insists Bowles is mistaken. And in finding out his true identity, Bowles gets more than he bargained for.

This is a good story with the most unexpected twist of the three in this issue. Pope’s illustrations are gritty—appropriate for the Old West setting, and it’s obvious he referenced pictures of Hickok. However, the coloring by Lee Loughridge was too dark (black, gray, and dark red) and muted some interesting details Pope drew. For example, Bowles’ cowboy hat is made out of an animal, and I couldn’t tell if it was a raccoon, beaver, fox, or skunk. It’s a minor complaint, but it’s these unique touches that stand out and deserve a little notice.

Dave Gibbons’ “Serial Hero” concerns a Lone Ranger-type silver screen vigilante by the name of “Jeff Justice.” Too much booze and an affair with the wrong woman ended his career. Now, Arnold Janowski makes his living doing odd jobs for a Wild West Rodeo. But when the daughter of the show’s owner is kidnapped, and Arnold becomes a suspect, he decides to don the mask and become “Jeff Justice” for real. In his search to find the girl and clear his name, the path he follows takes a dark turn.

A prose story heightened by Gibbons’ realistic illustrations (rendered in movie-tone black and white), “Serial Hero” is a great character study. Justice/Janowski is a combination of Hollywood’s stereotypical cowboys—the white-hatted lawman, and the anti-heroic gun-for-hire—but revealing a humanity rarely portrayed in western films.

Winfred Bartlett heads west to realize his dream of becoming a self-sufficient farmer in “This Gun for Hire.” Writer Greg Rucka puts his meek protagonist in conflict with ranchers determined to run him off his land. With the law unwilling to protect him, Winfred mail-orders a six gun, and despite practice, remains a lousy shot. But when the inevitable showdown occurs, Winfred has more of an edge than he imagined. Illustrator

Rick Burchett has some fine work here, especially his mountain landscape at the start of the story, and his use of silhouettes throughout.

Copyright © DC Comics, Inc.

Issue two cover art by Dave Taylor looks like it could have come from the brush of Old West painter C.M. Russell. A lone, long-mustached cowboy sits astride a white horse in a desert under a blue sky. It took me a moment to notice the two dozen arrows sticking out of the horse.

Joe Pruett and Marcelo Frusin’s “First Among Men” features a gang of outlaws whose crimes are planned by a greenhorn they barely tolerate. To go into further detail would spoil the story, but the greenhorn is the key to the outlaws’ livelihood more than they know. Pruett’s dialogue between the bandits is full of deadly humor (including a funny reference to Time Life’s Old West series of books), and the blend of Frusin’s illustrations with Nathan Eyring’s colors is a wide-screen spectacle featuring blood-splatters worthy of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch.

In “Palomino” a young journalist from the east is assigned to find the west’s legendary heroes. Instead he finds himself surrounded by a group of men who’ve seen too many sunsets, but have some good stories to tell. An ex-outlaw reveals how a horse he loved saved his life—under very unusual circumstances. Darko Macon writes a solid tale, and Paul Gulacy’s illustrations are exceptional, especially in panels without dialogue balloons where the expressions of the characters speak volumes.

An almost completely dialogue free story, the surreal “Devil’s Sombrero” by Joe R. Lansdale and Sam Glanzman [they collaborated on such weird western comics as Jonah Hex: Two Gun Mojo, Jonah Hex: Riders of the Worm and Such, Jonah Hex: Shadow’s West, and Red Range] presents an unnamed Mexican, dying of heat exhaustion and thirst in the desert. From out of a cave sails a sombrero that lands on his head, transforming him into a handsome and healthy bandito, endowed with skills Clint Eastwood would envy. Even with minimal dialogue, Lansdale is able to combine both humor and pathos. What can be said about Glanzman’s art? He is a consummate western illustrator and its easy to hear the creak of batwing doors, the jingling of spurs, and the clatter of poker chips just by gazing at his work.

For those seeking something different from the spandex-clad majority cluttering up the racks at your comic store, look no further. Weird Western Tales is full of mucho talent and mucho fun.

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