How About Those Westerns

I was sorting through piles of old comics for some eBay listings last week and came across a big fat pile of Westerns. There were some really old ones going back into the 40s and there were lots of 50s and 60s photo cover Westerns as well. I was trying to make listing lots for eBay that were big enough so it would be at least worth the time and effort to list them, pack them etc. I found myself adding more and more to each pile because as a genre the Westerns are slower than slow, pretty near dead if you ask me.

Will the Western genre ever have a collecting revival? There have been plenty of attempts at publishing revivals but I’m not focusing on that in this here post, I’m talking about a collecting revival.

What would it take for us to covet those early Gene Autry’s and Lone Rangers? I really don’t see it coming but if I’ve learnt anything over these decades of collecting comics it’s that things you don’t see coming sometime come. Another pattern seems to be that things tend to come around.

Are there Western grail books? Is it Gene Autry Comics #1? Is it the first Western comic, Western Picture Funnies #1 from February 1937?

Are there original comic book characters created in the Western Comics genre that have pop-culture appeal and that have the potential for even broader appeal? Lobo from Dell Comics? Jonah Hex from DC Comic? Rawhide Kid from Marvel Comics? Or someone else?

A big thing working against Westerns is the subject matter, fighting Native Americans into submission is not a great selling point today. But there is no denying the allure of the Wild West, the whole world ate up American Cowboy folklore for decades, there was obviously a massive global market for Westerns.

How about covers? Covers have been a big driver in comic collecting for a few years now, are there any iconic must-have Western covers? I think I’ll do a Top Ten Western Covers soon, my goal is to keep you guys interested and awake all the way until #1.

Would a good movie or series of movies to it? Could Marvel develop something exploiting the deep and rich history of their Rawhide Kid/Two-Gun Kid/Kid Colt Outlaw properties? Or Could Warner DC do something first with Hex and Tomahawk, Johnny Thunder? Or maybe Dell’s Lobo can conquer today’s audience?

The thing is Westerns are such a massive chunk of comic book history, its a huge genre going back to before superheroes and teeming with characters after characters after characters that were once very popular. We’re not talking about some little fringe sub-genre here. And Westerns had the greatest creators in comics working the genre for decades, Frank Frazetta, Will Eisner, Jack Kirby, Neal Adams and on and on all worked on Westerns.

Could a successful adaptation of a property like DC’s Scalped help? I don’t think so, I think we need a revival of the old Western characters, its the only way to ignite interest in the old books.

I do think there could be some gold mining right away with covers. Westerns have been dead so long I think collectors aren’t even looking at the massive library of covers available to them. Actually I think cover mining of Westerns has already begun, take a look at the prices some of those great Neal Adams Tomahawk covers are getting!

So Western covers are already a go and maybe this is what the genre needs to start clawing back onto the collector’s radar.

It might be a good time to snag some nice John Wayne Comics and some nice early Lone Rangers and Two-Gun Kids. I’d focus on scarcity of grade and strong page quality and build myself a little Western Comics corner in my collection, the good news is at today’s prices all I have to do is sell off a couple of Amazing Spider-Man #300 doubles and I’m well on my way.

Anybody give Westerns a chance? Anybody have some nice Westerns?

Walter Durajlija
Walter Durajlija

Walter Durajlija is an Overstreet Advisor and Shuster Award winner. He owns Big B Comics in Hamilton Ontario.

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  1. Oh, yes indeed. A favorite topic!

    While I have no interest in some titles, such as Gene Autrey, Bob Steele, etc. many others are fun and bargains, even easy and relatively cheap to upgrade to FN and VFN copies, Atlas westerns are my favorites, with covers by John Severin, Jack Kirby, Joe Maneely, Russ Heath. And inside art by those boys plus Syd Shores, a few Jack Davis gems, Al Williamson occasionally…

    Black Rider was a good title and he ran in another anthology title. Wyatt Earp are nearly all top notch, 28 issues or so. And of course Kid Colt, Two-Gun Kid and Rawhide Kid, up until about 1962 or so, But there’s some killer new Gil Kane and Severin covers even on lame 1960s and 1970s reprints. Wild Western is a sleeper. The very earliest Atlas, circa 1948-51 can be pretty lame. Even Russ Heath, who got his start there, was pretty crude sometimes. But he developed fast. By 1953, they were mostly solid books, with their heyday from there until 1962 or 1963.

    Dell westerns are up and down, some are very readable, like Maverick. Some have good Russ Manning. Some are terrible inside. But a great many have wonderful painted covers, as we’ve touched on here. Indian Chief, Sergeant Preston, King of the Royal Mounted (I assume Mounties count as westerns?).

    DC’s Western Comics and All Star Western, with Carmine Infantino, Gil Kane. All-American Western with superb Alex Toth covers and art. Inside you’ll find the same artists as were drawing Strange Adventures and Mystery in Space at the time…Infantino, Kane, Dan and Sy Barry, Giacoia, Sid Greene, etc.

    Tiny pre-code Orbit’s Westerner, with Syd Shores, Mort Leav and Mort Lawrence, are solid excellent books, a bit harder to find in nice shape. The same company’s Wanted Comics, with iconic Buscema covers, are now demanding premium auction prices, as are Love Journal and Love Diary. Rae Herman (yes, it’s Rae, not Ray, she was a rare female editor and publisher) edited these and had better than average stories AND art, throughout the line.

    Walter already mentioned Frazetta. Frank’s White Indian run in Durango Kid today seems solely prized for the issues with Frank’s covers…the other issues with 6 or 8 page stories sell for practically nothing. And the short-lived White Indian run, which reprinted these Durango Kid stories are dirt cheap. I just sold a Durango Kid set and was surprised at how neglected these are, and how good. I’ve had my set since the sixties, every Frazetta collector back then sought these out.

    ME (Magazine Enterprises) did solid, well written and well drawn pre-code westerns across the board…Durango already mentioned, Tim Holt, Red Arrow, the female Black Phantom, Best of the West, Bobby Benson’s B-Bar-B Riders. And of course, the top-tier character was the original Ghost Rider, Dick Ayers’ best work. And one he was most proud of, rightly so. Incredibly popular in its day and still great…the horror issues are hottest. AC comics revised or reprinted much of the ME line. And Frazetta did the occasional cover thru many of these titles.

    ME’s Straight Arrow, drawn by the talented Fred Meagher, is a sleeper, with backup stories in every issue by Bob Powell. And these are politically correct, with the Indians as heroes. Another high point in both regards is John Severin’s American Eagle in Prize Western. These also put the Indians in a better light, and Severin was doing knockout work here, a run he was very proud of. When his sister Marie did a homage to John’s work for a 1990 for a charity benefit, American Eagle was a prominant character included there.

    Fred Meagher also drew the Ralston Giveaway Tom Mix series, 12 issues…these were holy grails back in the sixties and seventies, but today are also ignored. Tom Mix’s own Fawcett title is generally forgettable, aside from more Norman Saunders painted covers. And he rated several Big Little Books, which are pretty good. Tom is now forgotten, but no matter… these Ralston issues are GREAT. I recently upgraded most of mine at little more than what I might have paid for them 30-40 years ago. Meagher is really under-rated. We talked in another column about his sci-fi strip Wings Winfair, that ran in the giveaway Gulf Funnies Weekly, circa 1936-42. Never, ever collected and a shame it hasn’t been.

    Even Hopalong Cassidy is a strong title, in parts. The very first early 1940s Fawcett issues can be fun and have decent covers. Then it went downhill for a decade or more, except for a run of Norman Saunders painted covers. But around #86 DC took it over, and none other than Gene Colan began a run of fine work, along with Ray Bailey (who drew the early silver age Jimmy Olsen), a polished, talented inker. Then Gil Kane came on board for the last 20 or so issues and these are knockouts, both covers and inside art.

    Lone Ranger was nearly always a solid, readable title. Reliable good art on the stories, and wonderful painted covers for much of the first 100 issues. Plentiful and cheap.

  2. About 17 years ago I wanted to expand on my 50’s horror collection with some Non E.C. books. The foray led me to M.E. westerns who crossed genres in books like Bobby Benson and Ghost Rider… which in turn led me to other westerns by that company which had, as Bud points out, a great bullpen of artists! I also have in more recent years picked up a couple of Two-Gun Kid issues with Kirby monster crossovers. Yes, and I have those first few Hex books as well from my teen years… great stuff!
    The problem with American western comics, with a few exceptions, is that they were really two dimensional stories. European creators, to whom the genre seemed much more exotic I assume, really created more multi-faceted stories which were on a cinematic scale ( think: The Searchers, Shane, or The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly). For the most part our comics were relegated to fighting indigenous people, cattle rustling, and street gunfights, all similar to radio and t.v. themes. Again there were exceptions, but a vast majority were fairly limited in the story department. That is not to say it won’t get picked up again… just needs the right creators that can make stories that appeal to whatever current Generation they are appealing to.

  3. Yes westerns can appeal to the younger generation

    As a fellow collector and former employee of Bud Plant, I agree with all he said about the western comics. He certainly knows it well and summarized the state of western comics as well as anyone could. So I would like to elaborate on a couple things that Walter said in his post.

    Are we really going to reduce western comics to just their covers?? We need to let people know about the storylines, who wrote them, the characters themselves and how some of the issues touched on topics or subject matter that would be relevant today. My son watched westerns with me when he was young. He loved Zorro, Have Gun Will Travel, Lone Ranger and Wanted Dead or Alive. Now my grandson and granddaughter watch Zorro with my wife and I. In fact this past weekend my grandson watched Rifleman and Wagon Train with us. He loves history, so probably an easier sell to him than most of the kids his age. I believe my son and grandkids enjoyed watching the older westerns because they fell in love with the characters in the shows. It may be hard to get the younger generations to watch or read westerns, but if we tell them about the characters and then they identify with those characters, then we build up an audience of people who will enjoy a western.

    Yes, westerns involved Native Americans, but I will go out on a limb and say that most of the story lines were about robbing banks and trains, greedy big land owners, gold/silver mining and corrupt bankers. I have about 2350 Lone Ranger radio episodes on a flash drive that is in my car. A very low percentage involves Native Americans (except for Tonto).

    I’m not sure a theatrical movie is the way to go. I believe a TV series is a better way to introduce westerns to a newer audience. My wife, son and I loved the 2 seasons of “The Magnificent Seven”. Movies cost so much to make and if the return isn’t huge, then it is considered a flop. Consider the garbage that Disney & Johnny Depp did on the Lone Ranger. I believe they almost ruined the character!!!!

    One of the best westerns ever made was made in 1977. It went on to be one of the biggest things ever developed. Now it is at Disneyland!!!!!!! Yes, I’m talking about Star Wars. When that came out, I was working at Comics and Comix and I saw it that first weekend before the long lines started. I remember telling people (so they would go see it) that it was just a western set in space. But didn’t we fall in love with the characters??? Which reminds me, how cool was Charlton’s 6 issues of Space Western. Let’s tell others about the characters, storylines and concept, not just the artwork. Now don’t get me wrong, I love good art!!!

    One last thing. It is very hard for new readers to fall in love with Roy Rogers, Tom Mix, Tex Ritter, etc., as they played themselves. No one else can play Gene Autry. Those in my opinion are a hard sell. But the western characters with a mask or ones developed for comics can reach a new generation if presented well.

    I lied, now one last thing. Walter mentioned the first western comic “Western Picture Stories” and it came out in Feb 1937. But there was another western comic that came out that same month & year, Star Ranger published by Harry Chesler.

    Long live the westerns!!

  4. Jeff, if you like the old radio shows I recommend the radio version of Gunsmoke as it was one of the best and melded noir with the wild west! Also great are Fort Laramie (very sympathetic to native Americans) Have Gun Will Travel, and Frontier Gentleman. There are a couple of western Internet radio stations that play them all as well as others!

  5. Gerald, good point about the greater depth of the European westerns. The Blueberry series by Moebius comes immediately to mind. Besides all the television shows, I grew up on a lot of western films, as it was still a popular film genre in the sixties. The Spaghetti westerns remain among my favorites, I am with you Gerald. Eastwood’s The Unforgiven really re-upped the power of a great western film.

    Jeff’s emphasis on characterization rings true to me also. The TV shows really sold on the strength of the actors playing in Gunsmoke, James Arness and Amanda Blake; The Rifleman, Chuck Conner; Marverick’s James Garner; Rawhide’s Eric Fleming and Clint Eastwood; Bat Masterman’s Gene Barry; Have Gun Will Travel’s Richard Boone; Wanted Dead or Alive’s Steve McQueen… that’s not to say these hold up today, few do, but new series might be done with the right writers and actors. Firefly, like Star Wars, is another space western and beautifully done.

    The list is long of actor-centered series. Tom Mix, Gene Autry, they didn’t have much to attract readers without the men out there in the news, playing the role. A generation later they were unknown to new youngsters, and always will be. As Jeff points out, westerns without the star power but with a great hook have lasted longer…Lone Ranger, Zorro, Ghost Rider… just like various actors play Superman and Batman, a good storyline can carry on when the character is not the star, too.

  6. Bud and Jeff have perceptive, accurate comments about Westerns. I have loved and collected Westerns since 1956, the year I began buying comics at age 8. I have well over 2,000 Westerns. Early on, I purchased mostly the Westerns from Dell, since by 1956 Dell licensed the most Western characters in the wake of Fawcett’s withdrawal from newsstand comics late in 1953. (Fawcett had the most licensed Western characters in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when the B Western and Fawcett comic books both disappeared from first-run theaters and newsstands by 1953 as the result of the exponential growth of television by that time.)
    As Bud pointed out, publisher Vincent Sullivan’s Magazine Enterprises and editor/writer Stan Lee’s Timely/Marvel/Atlas Comics generally produced the most artistic Westerns in the late 1940s and 1950s until ME gradually went of out business by 1957 and Atlas suffered a huge implosion that year, although the post-Atlas Marvel continued to publish several good Western titles such as Kid Colt. I have everything DC did in the way of often beautifully drawn and well-written Westerns, starting in 1948 and continuing through 1961 when they finally dropped All-Star Western and Western Comics, although DC did continue to publish Tomahawk, which is technically what they call an “Eastern” set during pre-Revolutionary War days. (And yes, the Canadian Mounties do count as Westerns, since the vast majority of their adventures in comics, pulps, film and TV take place in the Canadian West.)
    Western comics were primarily marketed in the 1940s and 1950s to youngsters who saw many of the more than 3,000 American Western movies made from the beginning of sound Westerns in 1929 through the 1960s. The marvelous book “The Western” by Phil Hardy (Morrow, 1983) lists all of them, including hundreds of year-by-year highlights from 1929-1983 and a fabulous list of what the book calls “All Other Sound Westerns.” If my counts are correct — they they’re awfully close, if not exact — 2,913 Westerns were made in the three decades from 1929-1959 and 380 more were made in the two decades from 1960-1979. Obviously, Westerns took a huge, quick drop in popularity in the 1960s, especially since by that time the only “series” Westerns were on TV, including the classic one-hour “series” westerns that dominated the 1940s.
    I own most Roy Rogers Westerns and have seen all 81 features he made for Republic in 1938-1952 (he also did several cameos) and I own all 66 Hopalong Cassidy westerns with Bill Boyd. I have seen 45 of the 65 Durango Kid Westerns that Columbia made with Charles Starrett in 1945-1952 after beginning with one in 1940, although 20 of them are tied up in legal wrangles and not available on DVD or YouTube. There were dozens of other series westerns and serials from Republic, Columbia and Universal.
    By far the two most prolific pulp genres were western pulps (more than 10,000, about a quarter of all pulps in the 1900s through the 1950s) and romance pulps (more than 9,000) and the genres were melded in often immensely popular western-romance pulps (more than 2,000). Beginning in the 1940s and 1950s, 25-cent paperback books were dominated by westerns and (mostly later) romance novels. Whereas students in grades 2-12 primary read comics, adults read the vast majority of the pulps.
    Led by “Gunsmoke” and “Bonanza,” westerns were so popular on television in the 1950s and 1960s that more than 6,000 episodes were filmed of various Western characters (which, like the comic books, featured numerous horses and dogs).
    Westerns offer a treasure trove of great material in comics, pulps, films and TV programs. Westerns, by the way, offer the only genre where today’s population never lived (or dreamed of, in the case of science fiction and fantasy). Thus, I can turn to a Western when I sometimes get seriously depressed watching or reading about a city scene, a sports event, or a detective case of the 1940s or 1950s because the pandemic has upended all of civilization so severely. Watching or reading so much vintage material (except Westerns) seems like fictional accounts that take place on a different, much better world. We can only hope and pray that world may someday be ours again.

  7. It should also be noted that while western themed comics cane relatively late… the pulps had been printing western stories for years prior! Always love plugging for pulps!

  8. So much to take in here. I had to go make a sandwich half way through Bud’s 1st comment. All this shows me just how big Westerns were, how important they are as American folklore and as a genre that has added so many new characters to popular culture. Michelle, your comments especially really reinforced this.

    Jeff, thanks for the insights. If covers are where it will have to start, let it be so, hopefully it will open up the genre to new fans in much the same way Gerald was drawn in through his ME Horror cross overs.

  9. Walt, in my opinion, Western Comics, from 1949 to 1962, Native Americans such as Straight Arrow,
    Did more for cultural relations and acceptance, then anything in comic history.

    Straight Arrow, Steve Adams, was a Comanche Indian who was taken in by ranchers very early in life. There was a Comanche legend telling of a great warrior who would come to right wrongs and do good, riding like the wind and relentless in his aim. He lasted 7 years in his own title, he had two comic strips, and also appeared in Best of the West and Great Western.
    The Straight Arrow radio program was a Kids western radio series which was broadcast, twice weekly,292 episodes were aired. Also available was a fan club and merchandise. What a great example of creating truths and heroics about The Native people of North America.

    And Dell comics had The Cisco Kid and Indian chief

    The Cisco Kid had 8 years of Comic book adventure and 6 years of Classic TV and film. He was presented as a heroic Mexican caballero.

    The Indian Chief had perhaps the Best of any Dell painted covers. And the stories are great too. Published quarterly, his series lasted from 1950 to 1959, almost ten years. What a legacy of acceptance and tolerance Walt. Collect them in fine grade just for the covers.

    Zorro lasted for years in comics . He was a New Spanish / Mexican dashing masked vigilante who defends the commoners and indigenous peoples of California against corrupt and tyrannical officials and other villains.

    Such unexpected diversity , humanizing, and cultural acceptance, from the 1950’s. We could use a little of that today.

    Those are just a few of dozens such titles from this period.

  10. Westerns, I loved ’em. There were quite a few great issues of Monte Hale’s western drawn by Bell Features alumni Edmond Good.
    More recent amazing westerns I have to mention as I don’t see them here are of course Lt. Blueberry by Jean Giraud (Moebius) and Rio by Doug Wildey. Such wonderful art.

    Personally I’d add that the Cisco Kid was a ‘friend of mine’. As a youngster I was given a black and white photo by Duncan Renaldo when he made an appearance at the C.N.E. grandstand in Toronto. It’s beat up, but I still have it.

  11. Dave, thanks for the insight on Straight Arrow. I knew he was on radio, but wow, almost 300 episodes! I need to read them now, not just look at the art.

    Jim b, nice to see you mention Canadian artist Edmond Good. I only got turned on to him in the last few years, but now I look out for his work anyepwhere I can find it. Solid, appealing stuff cross several genres, glad he got into U.S. comics after his start in the WECA books.

    Another even more obscure talent is Rick Fletcher, who drew the adventure strip Jim Ellis in Super Comics for about 30 issues. And he did at keast a couple covers. Polished, appealing ink work, good action, cute girls, and though it was done to look like newspaper reprints…he often signed every page…it was an original strip done among the mostly newspaper strips in Super. Dick Tracy was their lead feature.

    Fletcher did a bit more, but I think all for Eastern Color (Famous Funnies), without checking GCD. I really like him. Ted Van Liew (Superworld) turned up a short run of high grade (vfn) Super Comics 3-4 years ago, at Comic-Con in San Diego.. in the #30s to the 50s. I got to talking to Ted about them, curious to see a run like this. It turned out Ted bought them from the Fletcher family! Once I knew that, I think I bought every one he had. No documention, and even Ted didn’t know who Fletcher was until we put two and two together.

  12. I usually think of Cowboys when the western is mentioned but there were the ‘Indians’ too.
    One of these, by someone we now know was a Canadian artist (born in Toronto), is a contender for the first graphic novel. It is Jimmy Thompson’s Red Eagle Comic Book (Feature Book #16) from David McKay 1938. This guy was such an awesome artist!

    I would be remiss if I didn’t shamelessly plug the western comic and tv series by my old pal from the Flying Fist ranch and the last ‘real man’ in comics …Beau ‘La Duke’ Smith and his Wynonna Earp. If you haven’t seen this, check it out. I thought he was just an amazing sales rep for Eclipse Comics back in the day, little did I know he would be a wonderful writer too. Must have been all those letters that he wrote to comic books that gave him practice.

  13. Yessir, Beau gets to live the dream. I knew him as an Eclipse rep, too. Good to know he’s doing Wynonna, I need to check her out. We gave away a Free Comic Book Day comic on her, but I still didn’t read it. Next time it surfaces….

    Jim, thanks so much for bringing him up, but don’t get me started on Jimmy Thompson, I could write a column on him. Or three. I love the guy, and I collect ALL his work, the other Indian serials in the reprint books (his work was original), his stunning work at Timely on The Angel, Sub-Mariner and the Torch (though Roy Thomas doesn’t like him there), on Club 16, Robotman in both Star Spangked and in Detective Comics, in Heroic Comics, DC’s Western Comics…

    Didn’t the idea of a reprint of that Red Eagle get floated by a while back? It’d be easy, it’s in b&w inside and large sized, 9×12, like all the Large Feature Book series. Thompson was always very respectful of Indian traditions, heroes, tribal life, in the several strips he did.

    Thompson also did (probably wrote AND drew) at least two illustrated text serials, five or six issues each, in Ace Comics. “Wrath of Montezuma” and “Lone Eagle”s Revenge,” a bit like EC’s Picto-Fiction with big color illos. Around #38 into the early #50s.

    Darned if I knew he was Canadian, I missed that one, Jim. You already have Hal Foster, jeez, guys. Another bonus point for up north.

    Maybe I will dig put some favorite splash pages and run them by Walter, heheh. What about it? Oh, heck, you guys just need to Google “Jimmy Thompson + comics” and hit IMAGES and there’s a great sampling, I just looked. Top notch penciller AND inker. He also nearly always lettered his own work, he has a distinctive style using larger initial letters in captions. You’ll quickly recognize it.

  14. And one more thing

    Great comments one and all. Gerald, I do love listening to the radio shows that you mentioned. Sometimes I think radio was more interesting to listen to than watching a TV episode.

    I want to throw in one more western character. How about Warren Tufts “LANCE”???? Great art and great story, even though it was a daily and Sunday strip. I got the complete collected 5 years from Bud and WOW!!!!!! Even better than Blueberry, and I really love Blueberry. Lance is the western version of Prince Valiant. If you like a great western, then you have to check out Lance.


  15. Bud, I’m awesomely ignorant to how many great comic artists there were. Thanks for helping me discover more. This is what makes comic collecting great, endless possible reasons to collect

  16. Ok, I can do that, Walter.

    Dave, you are welcome. My pleasure. I am a junkie for artists, at least interesting artists. Live reading about comics and illustration history.

  17. Bud, re: “Didn’t the idea of a reprint of that Red Eagle get floated by a while back’ yes I believe that it did.

    I think it sank for the same reason that Comic Book Plus can’t have it on their site, there was mention of copyrights still being held for the David McKay books. I don’t know the problems involved in finding out who holds ’em and how to get a book like this published again.
    I would love to see it though.

  18. None of us mentioned the great work from Jerry Robinson and Mort Meskin on DC’s Vigilante. And he wore a mask suitable for these strange times even. I remember seeing an absolutely incredible b&w splash page from those two in an issue of Comics Interview magazine.

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