BHOC: TWO-GUN KID #126

This was another comic that came from the drug store’s Big Bin of Slightly Older Comics, this one selected by my younger brother Ken. He never got into comics quite in the same way that I did, but he dabbled with them throughout his youth in a way that was common for kids of that era. And his tastes were wider than my own–he would indulge in war and mystery and western comics just as often as he might pick up a super hero title. Eventually, all of these books ended up with me after his interest in them waned. I’ve never been all that interested in westerns as a genre, even to this day (HAVE GUN, WILL TRAVEL notwithstanding) so the issue didn’t make all that much of an impression on me.

By 1978, TWO-GUN KID was on its last legs as a series. It had been around in one form or another since the 1940s, but like RAWHIDE KID and SGT FURY, it was being continued at this point as a reprint title, with no cash being spend on producing new stories. I assume that this was to give Marvel some kind of a presence in the genre since DC and others still seemed to move a decent number of western-themed books, most notably JONAH HEX. At a certain point in the early 1970s, Dick Ayers sued Marvel for unfair competition, claiming that the reprinted stories in SGT FURY (which didn’t pay any sort of reprint fee at the time) were interfering with his ability to make a living–in effect, he was being forced to compete with himself. The end result was the institution of the earliest reprint fees at Marvel. They didn’t amount to a whole lot of money, but at least now if somebody’s older work was being printed again, they’d see a little bit of a return on it.

In the same manner that the stories in SGT FURY weren’t at all a realistic depiction of life during the second World War, but rather an exaggerated movie-style heroic look at those events, the Marvel westerns largely followed the same sort of conventions for the old west. Also, like SGT FURY, despite the fact that absolutely everybody carried firearms and used them, pretty much nobody could get shot. This made it difficult to create genuine drama or stakes and lent these books a feeling of fanciful unreality. They weren’t even trying for verisimilitude, they took place in a universe in which the laws of physics and reality were completely different. TWO-GUN KID was the most overtly super-heroic of the Marvel mainstay westerns, the lead character maintaining a masked identity when he wasn’t plying his trade as Matt Hawk, frontier lawyer.

The western titles also suffered a little bit in not being considered especially important for most of the 1960s. Consequently, they became a place to either break in new talent, or where established creators who were a bit out of step with the new Marvel style could be parked and find some semblance of regular work. This is kinda what happened with Larry Lieber, Stan’s brother, who spent years both writing and illustrating stories for these books. To hear Larry tell it, though, he preferred things this way. There wasn’t any pressure to perform on these titles, and he could pretty much do whatever he wanted to on them. The same was true of Dick Ayers, who could almost always be found on one book or another in the western line during that time, especially after slicker, more polished inkers entered the Marvel fold. Here, he’s inked by Vince Colletta, the “great equalizer”, who effects a bit of a zero sum game: he doesn’t really improve Ayers’ pencils, but neither does he notably detract from them.

In this particular installment, the Two-Gun Kid is on the trail of a group of owlhoots who’ve been raiding in the area. But he’s drawn into an ambush, and it’s only through the sudden appearance of his old buddy the Rawhide Kid that he lives to tell the tale. One of the outlaws is Burt Larson, whom the Rawhide Kid had put away once before, and so now Larson sees a chance for revenge. In the battle, he’s able to get his hands on one of Rawhide’s distinctive arm bands, and so he and his gang attack and destroy an army payroll wagon, leaving Rawhide’s armband at the scene as evidence of his involvement. While Rawhide eats lunch with his friend Matt Hawk, not realizing that Matt is also the Two-Gun Kid, the army shows up to arrest him for the payroll robbery and the murder of the men guarding it. Matt Hawk offers to take on Rawhide’s defense as his lawyer.

Matt’s a good lawyer, but not that good, and so Rawhide is found guilty and sentenced to be shot by a firing squad at dawn the next day–the law moves quickly in the old west, apparently. Knowing that his friend is innocent of the charges, Matt suits up as the Two-Gun Kid and breaks Rawhide out, foiling his execution. But now both men are outlaws. Still, Rawhide has recognized the man who has framed him, and he and Tw-Gun concoct an absurd scheme to get him to confess. In a move stolen directly from the earlier western character Ghost Rider (whom Marvel hadn’t yet adopted and come out with) Two-Gun and Rawhide use some glowing herbs, a black cloak and some other trickery to make the gang believe that they’re being haunted by the wrongfully-executed spirit of the Rawhide Kid. Artist Dick Ayers was one of the key creators in the Golden Age Ghost Rider, so I’m thinking that this plot development was probably his idea.

Working in tandem to pull off their ghostly feats, Two-Gun and Rawhide rout the bandits and capture Larson, coercing him into confessing his involvement along the way. And so, the status quo is maintained, and Rawhide and Two-Gun part ways as the story comes to a close. It’s a solid enough adventure, but not really a stand-out one. It did its job, though, which was to entertain for a few minutes. But it wasn’t enough to get me to begin following any of the Marvel western books on a regular basis–any more than I did with the DC ones.

This issue also reprinted this character design page from Jack Kirby, explaining how the Two-Gun Kid was able to make his transformation from lawyer to masked crusader so rapidly every time. It’s a wonderfully insane bit of nonsense, claiming that Matt can affect this transformation in as short an amount of time as four seconds. This is the most outlandish and science fictional bit of writing in the whole issue, but these sorts of behind the scenes descriptions of the characters and their gear were part of what made the Marvel heroes more believable than their fellows, and which eventually led to the creation of the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe.

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