Comics: Essential Rawhide Kid Volume 1
by Stan Lee (writing), Jack Kirby et al (artwork)
Marvel Comics, 2011
When Atlas Comics first published the adventures of the wrongly-accused Old West gunfighter-fugitive Johnny Bart (aka the Rawhide Kid) in the late 1950s, he was the very picture of a heroic stereotype. As drawn by industry vet Dick Ayers, he had a rackful of perfect white teeth jutting forward like Gaston in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, shoulders so wide you wondered how he got through doorways, and a steely gaze that would have done Batman proud (if the Batman at the time had been given to steely gazes, which he wasn’t – he was more likely to be found running from a giant egg-beater or dodging death by razor-tipped bowler hat). He was stringently impersonal, visibly heroic, and poundingly dull.
Years later, after Atlas had painfully metamorphosed into Marvel Comics, the character was revived for a new comics run starting in 1960, when incredibly long-running TV westerns like Gunsmoke and Bonanza were at their peaks. A workhorse writer and artist team was picked for the relaunch – a pair named Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.
Each had already developed hallmarks. Lee’s writing was mellifluously melodramatic, and he invariably favored heroes with catches (and often – and very amusingly – ranted about the heroes of his competition over at DC, who had no catches to speak of): a character might be super-strong, but he’s hideously deformed; one might have super-senses – but only to compensate for being blind; one might be a master telepath – but be confined to a wheelchair. And Kirby’s artwork, even in static scenes, was composed purely of raw motion, motion bursting out of each panel in all directions, everything exquisitely under his control and designed to look unchoreographed.
The two were a stunning, perfect comic book team who would quickly go on to revolutionize the whole field by creating the Marvel line of super-heroes (although fortunately, it was poor bitter brilliant Steve Ditko who did the starting artwork on Spider-Man and Doctor Strange), and readers got a taste of what was to come in these early pages of Rawhide Kid, here reprinted in a thick, satisfying volume in Marvel’s “Essentials” line (complete, alas, with botched cover – contrary to your first impression, this book is not about “The Rawhide Id” – that would be an adventure of an entirely different sort). The volume very wisely (no doubt for legal reasons) skips the earlier Atlas incarnation of the character and instead gives us nearly twenty issues of the revitalized run. These issues mark the high point of Marvel’s extended pandering to the Westerns market, although the volume weakens its ‘essential’ claim by confoundingly including makeweight filler material (single page short stories, three-page vignettes with inferior artwork and no Rawhide Kid anywhere to be found, etc.).
In Lee’s remaking of the character, Johnny Bart is still an orphan and an justly accused fugitive from justice, but now he has catches – one in particular: he’s tiny. In the old Dick Ayers portrayal, he was Superman in buckskins; in the new relaunch, we get a lean little red-haired young man who often doesn’t look any older than 17. Time and again in these issues, villains and bullies decide out of the blue to pick on the Kid because he’s a skinny runt no more than five feet tall. And although the Kid is a classic Lee-Kirby living tornado in a fight, he spends many an encounter in these pages getting the stuffing beaten out of him, mainly because he refuses to draw his guns (my favorite of these stories is the one in which the fight erupts over the Kid’s decision to walk into a saloon and order a glass of milk). And the reason he refuses (at first, anyway) is due to another Lee hallmark: he knows that if he pulls his guns, his sheer speed and skill will alert everybody that the Rawhide Kid, wanted by the law, is in their midst. His reflexes and accuracy are more than once referred to as superhuman.
Of course he ends up pulling his guns anyway, but not before Kirby treats us to quite a few splendid, often masterfully minimal fight-sequences – virtual mini-seminars in how to evoke motion and impact by body-positioning and perspective rather than motion-lines and lazy trickery. Late in the volume, Kirby’s work gives way to that of Jack Davis, who would later go on to become a commercial artist and even here shows a very different style from Kirby’s: far more cartoonish and refined, but lacking in the immediate power that was Kirby’s most recognizable trait. The volume concludes with a few pages showing the original cover-art for the Western reprint-titles Marvel launched decades ago – and Dick Ayers’ enormously muscular, jut-jawed hero makes a brief return:
Marvel could have worked a lot more Rawhide Kid into this ‘essential’ volume if they’d taken out the filler, although I suppose there’s an argument to be made that such material helps to convey the original pulpy feel of these western comics. In any case, there are plenty more adventures in the Marvel vaults, waiting for a second volume and maybe a third.