This was the very last issue of TWO-GUN KID that Marvel published. A string of issues that went back to 1948 (with admittedly several gaps) came to a final end here. I wasn’t aware of that when I got this comic, nor did I get to enjoy this great Gil Kane cover–Kane was doing new pieces for most of the Marvel western reprints, and it’s clear that he had a love and appreciation for the genre. And that’s because–you guessed it–this book came to me in the middle of one of those plastic-wrapped bundles of comics that had been stripped of their covers that my local drug store was then selling. Those stripped books were meant to have been destroyed, but pretty much since the sale of comic books began, less scrupulous retailers would return the cover for credit and then sell the book at a cut-rate price, thus earning an even greater return on it than if it had sold normally.
The story contained in this issue is listed as having come from TWO-GUN KID #93, bu that isn’t the whole story. You see, the publication in TGK #93 had been a reprint as well–this story originally showed up in TWO-GUN KID #68 in 1964. So this was its second reprinting in just a bit over a decade. Unfortunately, as the lengths of the Marvel books had been reduced in terms of story page-count, some material had to be cut out of this latest printing of the story. It was scripted by Stan Lee and drawn as well as likely plotted by Dick Ayers. Moreso even than usual, Ayers as the main driver of this story seems to be a bit of a certainty, given what it’s actually about. It features ol’ Two-Gun battling an old west outlaw who appeared to possess supernatural powers, who could make portions of his body seemingly disappear at will. (Stan had been experimenting in this period in 1964 with introducing recurring foes for his cowboys in the western books. This didn’t last long, and most of those characters were a bit absurd in the old west setting.)
If that description of the Purple Phantom sounds at all familiar, give yourself a gold star. Because that manner of supernatural horsemanship was the providence of an earlier character that Dick Ayers had helped to come up with, and for whom he retained a fondness even years later. This was, of course, the Ghost Rider, who like the Purple Phantom used trickery to make his enemies believe that he was actually a ghost.A few years later, Ayers would inadvertently set the ball rolling for Marvel to simply appropriate the original Ghost Rider character whole cloth. But in 1964, doing this story would be a bit nostalgic for Ayers while also giving him a set-up that he was intimately familiar with, and one that could fulfill Lee’s mandate for more western-themed costumed villains.
The story is relatively thin and basic, though Lee’s breezy copy keeps things moving along at a brisk clip. As it opens, the Two-Gun Kid encounters a strange figure who has been stealing cattle herds from ranches in this territory for some time. It’s the Purple Phantom, who displays his ominous abilities in an effort to confound the Kid. And confound him he does–he’s able to slip away from Two-Gun by seemingly vanishing into thin air after they’ve tussled a bit. Two-Gun doesn’t really have it any easier in his civilian guise as lawyer Matt Hawk. His latest client is Seth Perkins, who made a rich strike but didn’t bother to file the proper paperwork on it, and so is being muscled off of it by the brutal Hunk Hondo. Matt tries to intercede on Perkins’ behalf, but Hondo and his boys don’t have a whole lot of respect for teh law. It’s strength they respond to–and Matt has to play things cool to maintain the secret of his other identity in the way that all costumed heroes did in these days.
The part of all of this that Matt can’t figure out is that, when he returns to confront the gang as the Two-Gun Kid, they tell him that the mine is worthless–there isn’t any silver to be found in it, and they don’t themselves know why Hunk has been so anxious to keep it. Two-Gun investigates (after a bit of running around and one more Matt Hawk scene) and discovers a hidden side tribulary within the mine. It leads to a hidden valley, where the purloined cattle that the Purple Phantom had stolen are being hidden. Given that there are no other viable suspects in this story, with teh possible exception of Perkins, it’s now obvious that Hunk Hondo is secretly the Purple Phantom! And he shows up just in time to catch Two-Gun prowling around his hidden valley!
But this time, the battle is taking place in broad daylight, which puts the Phantom at a major disadvantage. Because like the Ghost Rider upon whom he was based, the Phantom would use his darkened cloak to conceal portions of his body in teh dim moonlight, making them appear to vanish supernaturally. In the daylight sun, most of his tricks are worthless. Once he realizes that the Kid is a much better fighter and a much cleverer opponent than he is, the Phantom retreats to within the darkness of the mine, where his chicanery is still workable. Two-Gun is right on his heels, though.
Unfortunately for all concerned, the fight starts a cave-in that collapses the mine shaft that the pair are in. Fortunately, though, this is a Comics Code-approved story for the 1960s, so only the Purple Phantom is caught in the cave-in, and even he ultimately emerges from it essentially unharmed. But all of teh fight has gone out of him, and in the story’s final few panels, he explains his tricks to the victorious Kid. In the end, Perkins gets his worthless silver mine back–but also the reward money for capturing the Purple Phantom. The Two-Gun Kid insisted that it was rightfully his. Even as a reprint, this story felt quaint and of another era in 1978 when i read it, and it’s no surprise that tales of this sort failed to pull in enough readers at that late date, as the western in general had fallen out of fashion, to keep the book afloat. But Two-Gun would live on, in the pages of Steve Englehart’s AVENGERS among other places. And eventually, he’d even appear in further stories set in his own milieu, the old west.