Reviewing The Rawhide Kid #17, August 1960
Slapping leather, drawing irons and facing down owlhoot hombres, Jack Kirby rebooted Atlas Comics’ The Rawhide Kid in August 1960. Kirby worked on drawing the title between #17-32 – until February 1963 – probably using the “Marvel Method” which meant Stan Lee would give him a rough outline of the story and Kirby would draw the panels, returning the artwork to Lee for dialogue and captions. In many respects – along with Kirby’s monsters, Ditko’s anxiety-fueled fantasy stories and the endless 50s alien invader tales – juvenile Westerns like The Rawhide Kid fed directly into the formation of what became the Marvel comics universe. Its titular hero demonstrates traits that would be found in the early 1960s superheroes – particularly characters like Spider-man, Hulk and Ben Grimm whose unsettled, outsider personalities can be traced to this proto-Marvel comic.
In the introduction to Marvel Masterworks Vol . 63, Stan Lee writes that:
“just before recreating the Rawhide Kid, Jack and I had been doing a ton of crime, horror and monster strips with no continuing heroic characters. I suspect the Kid was probably our first attempt to get away from one-shot stories and start creating a hero we could turn into a successful series. So, in a sense, you might consider the Rawhide Kid as the forerunner of the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Spidey and the rest.” (vii)
Johnny Bart, The Rawhide Kid, is an orphan whose Uncle Ben is killed, forcing him into a life of fighting villainy. The original Kid of the 50s was tall, blond and more like a matinee idol. Kirby’s rebooted Kid is short (five foot two), skinny and a red-head. The buckskin shirt is replaced by a smart uniform. As a fighter he’s cool and calculating: able to quickly evaluate situations and decide on an appropriate course of action. As a teenager he exhibits both an impetuous, fiery nature as well as a juvenile melancholy that dogs him throughout the run. He’s a loner, unable to settle, misunderstood and chased by authorities. Kirby draws him like a 50s edgy teen outsider with his hat tipped over his face, half-hiding from the world. Like Peter Parker, he spends much of his time lying low and hoping no one recognises him but is compelled – arguably by guilt and revenge – to go out of his way to help others . From time to time he allows others to think of him as a “badman” to help them out. He protects women (and the occasional admiring child) think that he is unreliable or a coward in order to protect them. It’s no coincidence that both Johnny Bart and Peter Parker have Uncle Bens that are gunned down.
The Rawhide Kid #17 has three short RK stories that combine to reboot the character (plus one non-RK non-Kirby & Ayres story). By the end of the first tale, Johnny Bart has become RK but is not yet considered an outlaw – or even mistrusted and feared in the way he is later in the series (in issue 23 Kirby completely redraws the origin story panel-for-panel with some interesting changes – that he completely pencils the story afresh rather than simply reprint it indicates how engaged Kirby was with this title). The second shows him defending a small group of stagecoach passengers even though they distrust him. The third explains how RK becomes known as an outlaw.
Action in this Western is exaggerated and slightly comic. RK’s shooting skills are almost unbelievable: so precise he is able to shoot the masks off villains. In later issues he is able to shoot out the flames on candles from a distance and the corks from whisky bottles without even hitting the mirrors behind bars. He becomes an outlaw only because he rides away from a sheriff who knows he is innocent. In subsequent issues RK tries to come to terms with his life as an outlaw: he tries to avoid recognition and being drawn into fights as well as considering the morality of honesty when he is treated as an outlaw. He drifts wretchedly from town to town, constantly challenged by other gunslingers and using his fists and “irons” to protect the innocent.
This tragic aspect leads Jerry Boyd in “The King and the Kid” (Kirby Collector 16) to suggest that
“Stan [Lee] was beginning to understand and use the appeal of the tragic hero; a person who sacrifices himself for the common good. (Silver Surfer’s and Spider-Man’s later characterizations would reflect this, among others.)” (p.34)
RK is a Western hero of the late 50s. He is a model of resolve and courage. In almost every story in the run, RK defends hard-working people threatened by predatory “jaspers”. These one-dimensional villains (there is no sense that Kirby explores the nature of villains, they are simply bad) are also referred to as “owlhoots”, outlaws who travel at night along trails where the owls hoot. Gun fights are invited by calls to “slap leather”. Despite being on the run himself, RK helps to restore justice, law and order to the communities he drifts through. The simple plots of the comic are modelled after B-movies and popular cowboy TV (Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry). Like those heroes, RK never kills villains; he shoots guns out of the hands of the bad guys and handed them over to the law. (The Comics Code would have also factored into the low-level -mostly fist-fighting that takes place in the comic).
Kirby’s art is strong in all three stories in #17. There’s a feeling that he’s enjoying drawing this – and it’s certainly much better than the early issues of FF. Characters are typically Kirbyesque: squarish and striking, a little Hogarthian. Kirby represents the landscape of the West iconically: rocky mountains, homesteads and classic one-street Western towns populated by recognisable Western-types. Much of this looks directly lifted from movies and TV. Horses are particularly drawn marvellously with a real sense of power and dynamism. The supporting characters, often an assembly of townsfolk are like the anxious crowds of the cities that were so evident in the comics of the 50s: faces contorted with terror and disgust. Ayres’ inks are thickly defining and there are some clever uses of silhouettes that add drama (very Spielberg). Colour is flat and simplistic and a definite weakness of the comic. This issue also features Stan Lee’s characteristically bombastic narrative voice. He even signs the captions.
The cover is classic. RK fires his gun while spinning a revolver. “Beware the Rawhide Kid!!” is capitalised across the bottom. Even though it’s issue 17 we are told “In this great first issue… See how the Kid became an “outlaw!”” and questions lure readers in: Is the Kid REALLY a cold-blooded gunman??” and “Why do they fear his guns from Abiline to Tombstone??” The punctuation seems to be doubled to emphasise the drama. Behind the Kid a young woman recoils in shock while an assortment of recognisable Western characters – the old man, the slick gambler, the honest sheriff – are all caught in dramatic poses. It is a terrific, striking cover.
Beware! The Rawhide Kid!
“Beware! The Rawhide Kid!” is the first 7 page story in the issue. Dramatic, the plot is tight and purposeful. It opens with a splash page that continues the same situation presented on the cover: RK walks dejectedly through a town while the townsfolk turn in fear away from him.
They perform a choric function: providing the reader with a sense of the awe and distrust RK is held. The reader is told that his presence means gunplay. Respectably dressed characters tell us that they should stay off the street while on a rooftop a gunman fears he will be RK’s victim and is dissuaded by someone else who insists that even at this distance he would not have a chance in hitting the Kid.
RK appears a lonely and dejected figure. He is smartly attired: a tight black, almost military looking outfit with aflash of blue trim detail. He wears a crisp, yellow hat and neat turned-up white gloves (later in the run the hat becomes white). Strapped around his waist and thighs is his serious-looking gun belt.
At the bottom of the first page is a large caption box signed by Stan Lee. It provides a personalised narrative voice. Lee invites the reader to learn how 18 year-old Johnny Bart became the most feared gunfighter.
On the very next page three panels set the scene: a Texas town called Rawhide “one of the wildest places in the untamed west”. Each panel gives a snapshot of this lawlessness. We then see ex-Texas Ranger Ben Bart showing his nephew how to shoot.
On page 3, 14 year-old Johnny shows off some of the skills his Uncle Ben had taught him: the Road, Agent’s Spin and the Border Shift. Gunslinging is portrayed as a discipline as controlled as any martial art. Johnny shoots cans off a fence but is told by Uncle Ben to practice his accuracy (he is a little off centre!). Uncle Ben tells Johnny he is twice the gunslinger Ben was and the two spend three peaceful years together farming and learning gunmanship. Readers are in no doubt that Johnny is morally good as he promises only to use his guns for self-defence.
Move forward four years and on page 4 Johnny leaves the Bart Ranch for provisions. Two rogues – Hawk and Spade, provoke Uncle Ben into a gunfight-on the grounds that one of them wants to become a famous gunslinger.
At the moment of the draw – at the top of page 6 – Uncle Ben is distracted by the second rogue which allows the first to shoot him dead. They plan to use their fame as gunslingers to ensure that no one stands up to then during bank robberies.
There’s a moving panel of Johnny standing at sunset next to Uncle Ben’s freshly dug grave and promising Vengence. He rides into Rawhide town on his horse, Nightwind, and explains aloud that he knew the deceitful way Uncle Ben had been Killed by the bullet wounds. In a bar Hawk and spade give their version of the killing of Uncle Ben.
Just as Hawk declares himself top dog, Johnny arrives and challenges the two killers. There is the obligatory panel where others in the bar run for cover. Hawk pulls out his guns and is about to shoot Johnny when…
… On the final page readers are told “And then the legend was born.” Johnny, “In one impossibly fast motion” shoots Hawk in the arm. Johnny also sees Spade about to shoot him from behind and without turning around hits the gun out of the rogue’s hand. As he threatens to kill them, the rogues admit how they had jumped and murdered Uncle Ben. This is witnessed by others in the bar who tell Johnny they will deliver the two to the law. Johnny declares he will never go home and he Vows to use his gunslinging skills to bring “jaspers” like Hawk and Slade to Justice. He also decides to adopt the title Rawhide Kid. The final dramatic panel has RK in silhouette riding away.
Stagecoach to Shotgun Gap!
“Stagecoach to Shotgun Gap!” is the second, 6 page, RK adventure and begins – characteristically begins right in the middle of (what appears to be) action. If this is chronological, following on from the previous origin story, RK behaves quite roguishly already: he shoots at a stagecoach in order to disarm one of the drivers. The set-up is a little like the 1939 John Huston movie, “Stagecoach”, in which John Wayne played The Ringo Kid, where a gunslinger shares a ride with an assortment of Western charaters. The first page is a splash that implies RK is holding up the Stagecoach. Unlike later splashes, it provides the first panel of the story. Later we find he’s being shot at… but that certainly doesn’t explain RK’s smoking revolver.
On page 2, RK shoots the rifle out of the hands of one of the stagecoach drivers. This “dead shot” on a moving horse is described as being impossible. All that RK wants is a ride on the coach as a passenger. The other passengers are a man and his lame son and a panicky old woman. At the bottom of the page there is a decent panel where RK on horse is foregrounded in silhouette.
RK spends page 3 reassuring the passengers that he’s no threat but notices that the stagecoach is going to be attacked. Aboard the stagecoach is a father and son as well as an old woman. The boy is clearly frightened – though a little awed – by RK. There are several panels where masked gunmen hold up the stage is not well sequenced and the narrative is not as clear as it could be.
The gunmen steal money from the passengers on the next page and show their villainy by not caring about the effect it will have on them. They manage to subdue RK.
Readers soon find out that the masked men believe themselves untouchable because they are fearless. They try to shoot RK but he ducks out the way: “Like a bolt of unchained lightning, The Kid hurled himself out of the path of the bullet, drawing his own incredible guns as he moved!” RK shoots the guns out of the hands of the villains, puts his guns away ready to fight. They try to rush him but he quickly RK punches out one of the villains and while the other two make their plans, he hits both of them with one punch. Finally, in a moment of comedy, RK removes the villains’ masks using bullets and they immediately lose their bravado and express their terror.
Strangely, we do not find out what happened to the villains. Perhaps they were set free? The final panel is a longshot of the stagecoach disappearing into the distance with the passengers expressing their admiration for RK. The father tells his son that guns are neither good or bad – it’s the character of the person that carries it that count.
When The Rawhide Kid turned…. Outlaw!
The final 5 page story of the issue, “When The Rawhide Kid turned…. Outlaw!” completes the formative development of the character. It’s the most tightly-packed of the stories in terms of plot. It opens with a half-page splash. Stan Lee introduces the story in a caption explaining how an adventure can suddenly start. Townsfolk have surrounded RK with guns and demand to know his business. RK tells them who he is and they seem to recognise him. One of them, a ranch owner called Clay Rockwell introduces himself.
On page 2 Rockwell tells RK that he has suffered cattle rustling. At that point a thick set cowboy arrives, Sam Barker, another ranch owner. He’s also heard of RK but states that he thought that he’d be older and bigger. Barker reveals that none of his cattle have been rustled.
Barker offers RK $100 on the third page and RK agrees to investigate by riding around the country. He finds it strange that there are no tracks and then he is ambushed and forced to dive from his horse.
RK fires at the top of page 4 and the shooter is revealed to be Sam Barker who says that he thought RK was a rustler. Rockwell and the other ranchers arrive and RK reveals that Barker is the rustler. He shows how the brand R…
And over on the last page readers learn that the brand …can be turned into the Circle-B. Barker does not deny it. Instead he goes for his gun and RK shoots him in the arm. At that point the Sheriff rides up and accuses RK of being a villain. Even though Rockwell tries to explain (plus Barker was only shot in the arm), the Sheriff insists on arresting RK.
The final panel has RK riding away on Nightwind. He exclaims he is prepared to live the life of an outlaw. The Sheriff has the final word and explains “They’ll be no turning back for him!”
Lee’s concluding caption exclaims the foolishness of the act and urges readers to buy the next copy of Rawhide Kid where they will find out what happened next to the “wildest of the Western outlaws!”
The Rawhide Kid #17 by Kirby, Lee and Ayres is found in Marvel Masterworks Volume 63.