Atlas’s Western Comics: An Old Idea with Some New Twists

In American comic books, which tend to glorify the actions of well-meaning vigilantes, it just makes sense that a few cowboys would come out of the woodwork. Along with the hard-nosed and often-masked detective archetype, the cowboy — with or without bandana — was a popular source of inspiration for a number of caped crusaders.

Although these dusty cowpokes didn’t generally possess laser vision or the ability to defy gravity, to call them powerless would be a misrepresentation. One particular leather-slapper of the 1960s that springs to mind when thinking about superhero prototypes is Atlas Comics’ own Rawhide Kid, AKA Johnny Bart, who first appeared in Rawhide Kid #17 (cover date August, 1960).

Western Comics: Look Who’s Rawhiding Now

Western comics
“Time to clean up this Hollywood set…”

As the issue number implies, Johnny Bart isn’t Atlas’s original Rawhide Kid. Rawhide Kid #1–16 tells the story of a blonde cowboy, only ever referred to as “Rawhide Kid,” who rides from town to town righting wrongs. And, although an entertaining Western comic in its own right, there just wasn’t enough to this character to give him staying power.

The second Rawhide Kid, however, obviously did have what it took to keep readers interested, and has enjoyed intermittent publication since the ’60s — most recently in Rawhide Kid: Sensational Seven (August–November, 2010).

Johnny Bart has defended his nearly 60-year intermittent tenure without the use of super-strength, telepathy, super-breath, or any other such power: instead, the Rawhide Kid draws and sights his guns faster than the speed of light, and I’m not being hyperbolic. Johnny Bart’s draw, as demonstrated in his first appearance in 1960, is so fast that it’s invisible to the human eye. On more than one occasion, Johnny even manages to shoot first even though an aggressor already has his gun drawn and trained on Johnny’s chest.

Perhaps more impressive than his faster-than-light draw, though, is the Rawhide Kid’s phenomenal sense of aim. In his first story, the Kid manages to fire backwards over his shoulders and disarm an adversary by shooting the gun out of his hand. He lines this amazing bit of gun-play up simply by locating his target in a mirror. Now that’s a pretty slick hombre, pard.

But before exploring how influential this particular hombre has been, let’s take a look at one who set the stage for the Rawhide Kid…both of them.

Western Comics: The Masked Raider

Making his Timely Comics debut alongside big names like Jim Hammond the (original) Human Torch and Prince Namor the Sub-Mariner, the Masked Raider first appeared in Marvel Comics #1 (cover date October, 1939). In a scant four pages, Al Anders, working as both writer and artist, tells the Masked Raider’s humble origin story…

Cal Brunder, “the real power in Cactusville,” and his gang of roughnecks terrorize ranchers and coerce them into selling their land to him. This is bad news for Jim Gardley who owns a ranch just outside of the Cactusville limits. Gardley refuses to sell, and he puts up a good fight when Brunder’s thugs come calling. But catching him from behind, one thug pushes the barrel of his revolver into Gardley’s back, and the hard-fisted rancher is forced to surrender. The gang takes him to Brunder who frames Gardley for cattle rustling.

Gardley is brought to the local sheriff’s office and takes up residence in a jail cell while awaiting trial. Using the old “Help, I’m dying” act, Gardley tricks the grey-haired sheriff into opening his cell, and delivers a knockout blow when the sheriff comes to his aid. Gardley then flees town on a stolen horse.

Western Comics: Lightning Never Strikes Twice

Western comics
“Damn, I really should’ve cut eye-holes into this thing.”

Concerned that riding a stolen horse will draw suspicion, Gardley abandons his mount after clearing town, and raids his own ranch for supplies. He spends weeks perfecting his shooting talents, but no sharpshooting cowboy is complete without his trusty steed. So when Gardley sees a wild white stallion, he resolves to tame him. Gardley accomplishes this feat over the course of eight panels on a single page, and names his new steed “Lightning.”

All the Western narrative devices in position, Gardley covers his entire face in a black bandana and swears to “forever fight the lawless … bring justice to the oppressed, and help the poor” as the Masked Raider.

Western Comics: Shades of the Lone Ranger

Although the Masked Raider isn’t an original idea, the Lone Ranger having been introduced to the radio-listening public about seven years prior in early ’33, the Masked Raider marks Timely/Atlas/Marvel’s original foray into western comics, an on-again-off-again affair that has lasted 79 years.

Over this nearly 80-year span, there have been several Western characters to grace the pages of Timely, Atlas, and Marvel comics, but one of the most popular and influential — and recently controversial — was the aforementioned (second) Rawhide Kid.

Western Comics: The Familiar Origin of the Rawhide Kid

Western comics
“Cut ’em out, ride ’em in…RAWHIIIIDE!!”

Hailing from Rawhide, Texas, Johnny Bart is the adopted charge of Ben Bart. Ben is an ex-Texas Ranger, and in addition to his regular guardianship duties Ben also teaches young Johnny to shoot.

Borrowing from stories of gunslingers who came before and providing the groundwork for a certain webslinger’s origin, Johnny Bart’s sad story is a well-told composite, written by Stan “the Man” Lee and penciled by Jack “King” Kirby. One day after Johnny has gone to town to sell some grain, two glory-seeking gunslingers amble onto Ben’s ranch. One sneaks behind the brave ex-Ranger while the other man, Hawk Brown, confronts Ben. Brown introduces himself as “the hombre who’s gonna out-draw” the famous Ben Bart.

Bart tries to reason with Brown but to no avail. The two men reach for their guns, but the second thug employs one of the oldest tricks in the book: he calls Ben from behind, making him look over his shoulder. This moment of hesitation is all Hawk Brown needs. Brown fires and kills Ben on the spot. The dirty deed complete, the two bad hombres resolve to go into town to brag about the deed and solidify Brown’s dishonest reputation as the fastest gun in the west.

Western Comics: O.G. Uncle Ben

If the murder of Johnny Bart’s non-parental legal guardian isn’t a strong enough indication that Lee — consciously or not — borrowed from this origin story to furnish that of Spider-Man, the fact that Johnny refers to his guardian as “Uncle Ben” throughout the tale should destroy any doubts that true believers might have.

Character traits that the Rawhide Kid shares with Spider-Man continue to mount throughout the various stories told in Rawhide Kid #17. In addition to his youth and the senseless murder of his father figure by a random goon, the Rawhide Kid, much like Spidey, runs afoul of the law quite quickly.

Not even making it to Rawhide Kid #18 before becoming a wanted man, Johnny Bart is continually on the run. Always morally upright and virtuous, as any Western hero should be, the circumstances of Johnny’s legal issues are all the result of a simple misunderstanding. Sound familiar?

So the next time some troubled fan of the Distinguished Competition tells you that Spider-Man is just a nerdy boy-scout type from Queens, you can tell them that they’ve got it all wrong; he’s really the Lone Ranger.

Western Comics: Final Thoughts

Jokes aside, I don’t mean to say that Stan the Man ripped himself off. Much like his continual collaborator Jack Kirby, a little overlap is to be expected in a creative career as prolific as his. The fact that Spider-Man’s origin story is less than original shouldn’t surprise anyone, and it shouldn’t spoil anyone’s opinions of the ol’ webhead either.

Hero-based comic books, super-powered or gun-powered as the case may be, tend to explore power dynamics between character types, e.g. hero vs. villain. These explorations are augmented when writers take time to flesh out characters’ motivations by way of intriguing origin stories. The senseless murder of one’s father figure is obviously a narrative device that resonated with Stan Lee, as it undoubtedly continues to with most people.

Western comics
“If only I’d been bitten by a radioactive spider or something!”

The fact that Spidey’s origin story contains elements from Rawhide Kid’s shouldn’t bother people anymore than the fact that the Rawhide Kid’s origin story contains elements from the Masked Raider’s — both wrongfully accused outlaws who developed their sharpshooting skills by shooting cans. These characters, no matter their similar origins, end up in very different circumstances.

Just as the Masked Raider never fought a giant living statue, the Rawhide Kid never did battle with an octopus- or goblin-man. Though they might have started off in similar positions, it’s the situations these characters end up in that makes these stories unique and worthwhile.

Michael Bedford
Michael Bedford
Under intense scrutiny by the Temporal Authorities, I was coerced into actualizing my capsule in this causality loop. Through no fault of my own, I am marooned on this dangerous yet lovely level-four civilization. Stranded here, I have spent most of my time learning what I can of the social norms and oddities of the Terran species, including how to properly use the term "Hipster" and how to perform a "perfect pour." Under the assumed name of "Michael Bedford," I have completed BA's with specialized honours in both theatre studies and philosophy, and am currently saving up for enough galactic credits to buy a new--or suitably used--temporal contextualizer ... for a friend.