Friday, July 13, 2012

The Mighty Marvel Western #44 (March 1976)

It's been far too long since I sat down and did a vintage comic write-up. In fact, I'm currently digging through the archives of this blog and still haven't found one in going back a YEAR. Unacceptable. Since I bought a couple of those type of books on Wednesday, this seems as good a time as any to right this wrong.

In surveying the latest box of old comics at Paper Heroes, I noticed there were several 1970s Marvel Western books. I idly mused that it would be cool if one of them would turn out to be the comic which Gil Kane said sported one of his favorites of his own covers. Not 30 seconds later, I flipped to that very book. Needless to say, I have my own copy now of this intriguing comic.

It's The Mighty Marvel Western #44 (March 1976). This title began life in 1968 as an oversized bi-monthly reprint series. As time went by, it got cut to standard size, and with this issue, it was demoted to quarterly. There would only be two issues after this one before The Mighty Marvel Western shuffled off to cancellation. Since even the regular Westerns were strictly reprints by that point, I'm not sure it mattered so much. However, I will have a little commentary on the Western genre via Marvel after we discuss comic at hand.

First, if you didn't click the link earlier, you should correct this mistake and get a load of that cover. It's a nicely done piece of art that manages to overcome all the logos, blurbs, etc. and just burn itself into your memory. I had no idea of the name or the number of the book I was thinking about as I scoured back issues, but I recognized it immediately when I saw it. That's a powerful image.

The cover is sort of vaguely connected to the lead story, but not really. It's more like an "inspired by" rather than a "based on". Honestly, I don't have a lot of comment on the stories in this issue. All three of them (two scripted by Stan Lee, one unknown) are competent but unremarkable. Seriously, they are standard genre tales, especially the origin of the Two-Gun Kid. This Two-Gun Kid, incidentally, is an earlier version of the character, and not the more familiar masked hero who briefly fought alongside the Avengers.

I will say this for the stories in this book - they all have fine art. Rawhide Kid is by Jack Kirby and Dick Ayers, from a period when both men were just starting to build the "House of Ideas." Matt Slade (who steps in for Kid Colt in this issue, despite the logo set-up that included his name not being used) is illustrated in style by the underrated Werner Roth. And the aforementioned Two-Gun Kid origin is drawn by Joe Maneely, a talent who died much too young. Maneely is possibly the best artist of all from the so-called "Atlas" days.

If these tales are strictly by-the-numbers, you can't fault them for their efficiency. There are THREE stories with only 18 pages of content available! They run 6 pages, 5 pages, and 7 pages. I can't even imagine a contemporary comic book story with an actual plotline and characterization (however rote they may be) running only a scant five pages and being satisfying as a whole. Yet somehow, Werner Roth and his unknown scripter accomplish this.

I am perpetually fascinated by comic book ads, and there are plenty of them. Out of curiosity, I conducted a little survey in this book. If you exclude house ads (including the Bullpen Bulletins hype page), there are exactly two ads in the entire book that aren't for mail order offers. One is a Hostess Cupcakes ad done in the famous comic book story format. The other is for Slim Jim. This tells you pretty much all you need to know about comic books and advertisers in the 1970s. There are plenty of old standbys, though: Johnson Smith Company, Charles Atlas, 100 piece toy soldier set, etc. Looking over the ads is like a visit from an old friend.

As mentioned above, The Mighty Marvel Western #44 (which went on sale December 1975) would not survive 1976. In fact, I'm pretty sure Marvel did not have a single on-going Western comic by the time the 1980s arrived. The same can be said for just about EVERY genre other than superheroes and licensed properties. Heck, I think they had already bailed out of the romance comic biz entirely by 1976. When this is discussed, it's often by people bemoaning the fact that the big companies marginalized everything other than superheroes, neglecting those books so badly that they just died. That's how I understand the fandom meme anyway.

There is some degree of validity to that, but by the same token, I feel like Marvel (which we're discussing today) concentrated where the sales were. Do you think the Westerns would have gone into reprints and then withered and died if they had been selling strongly? I doubt anyone would be that stupid. Marvel had been publishing Westerns for ages by the time they discontinued them.

So, what changed? The audience. Marvel would have probably been shut down eventually if superheroes hadn't happened. Comics fandom was driven by superheroes, so it followed that Marvel grew in esteem with them as the superheroes took hold. Comics fandom as a whole didn't care about Westerns and romance comics, so they died out.

This last development has led to much scolding of fandom over the years, particularly from that contingent who want to see superheroes "stamped out and destroyed." Fandom was never driven by a love of all comics; it was driven by a love of superhero comics. The people who had supported Westerns didn't switch allegiances. No, they had simply STOPPED BUYING COMICS.

Over the years, I've realized that comic books logically should have died in the 1970s like everyone was predicting. The only reason they didn't was because of superhero fans desperately holding onto them and figuring out ways to make them profitable. All the other genres gradually fell by the wayside because the casual buyers deserted the medium. Not all of them, as I'm sure someone will eventually point out. No, but enough that something like The Mighty Marvel Western became expendable.

All was not lost, though. It was only through comics surviving through superheroes that comic books found ways to be relevant again without tights and capes. Something to remember in these modern times, when it seems again like everyone is predicting gloom and doom.

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