Monday, May 23, 2016

RAR #16: GREAT WARRIOR

One of the oddest Real American villains is Great Warrior, a supernatural chief who killed himself and thereafter haunted Plastic Man in POLICE COMICS #16 (1943).



The story's curious animus toward Native Americans may be slightly mitigated by the fact that America was at war, and aboriginals were perhaps viewed by some as an "enemy within." I discussed the story in greater length here.

It's somewhat noteworthy that Plastic Man does not defeat Great Warrior's menace, for the villain easily possesses the hero and gets him in dutch with the cops. The hero's perpetual sidekick Woozy Winks is the one who saves the day, by getting Great Warrior's son to exorcise his old man-- even if it is one of the all-time "cheats" in the history of comics.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

RAR #15: RED EAGLE

In my previous post I noted that Red Wolf wondered if villain Devil Mask might be a white guy simply because the villain favored a six-gun.

There's no knowing how many, if any, real Native Americans were capable of using the white man's six-shooter, but for whatever reason, thousands upon thousands of westerns have repeatedly depicted tribal types wielding rifles, but rarely handguns.




"The Last Warrior," written and drawn by Larry Lieber for RAWHIDE KID #71 (1969), is possibly more interesting for this one angle-- given a vivid depiction on the cover-- than for its story as a whole. To be sure, "Warrior" makes a decent read, but that image-- of Marvel's foremost western hero (arguable, I know) being disarmed by a redskin beating him at his own game-- is alone worth the price of admission.

Without going into a lot of story-detail, in essence Rawhide comes to the defense of a reservation-tribe of Apaches being oppressed by intolerant white townspeople and by scheming dastards who want to incite a new Indian war. Rawhide manages to dispose of both threats without much trouble. However, the aggression of the villains convinces the "firebrand" Red Eagle-- who has trained himself in the white man's tool of the six-gun-- to start a one-man crusade against white civilization.

Lieber honestly seeks to elevate the ensuing conflict between the red-haired outlaw and the red man to something more than a simple cops-and-robbers tale, as the author has Red Eagle's chief tell Rawhide: "[Red Eagle] must be stopped... by a lone warrior, as brave as himself-- the Rawhide Kid." Later Rawhide himself glosses this sentiment, thinking that because Red Eagle is a warrior, he should not be stopped "by lesser men, who find courage in numbers." The story culminates in a shootout, and Red Eagle receives a warrior's death-- which might have been easier for readers to accept if he'd been seen to kill anyone during his one-man war. Perhaps because Larry Lieber didn't want to script an overly violent comic, Red Eagle doesn't do anything but rob people-- apparently with no intention of doing anything with the money. All that he says to one of his victims is that he"will take from you, as you have taken from the Apache." It almost sounds like the Native American practice of "counting coup," though any such resemblance is probably mere coincidence.

Friday, May 6, 2016

RAR #14: DEVIL MASK and URSA THE MAN-BEAR

In the very short career of the 19th-century Red Wolf, he accrued two Real American foes.



Devil Mask is the lesser of the two lesser lights. He's in the tradition of "Hound of Baskervilles" villains in that he wears phosphorescent materials to make himself look like a supernatural spirit of Indian provenance, sometimes called "Devil Mask." The hero initially thinks he's a white man posing as an Indian spirit, in part because the villain favors a six-gun, but Red Wolf finally figures out that he's a red man because of the distinctive way he mounts his horse.




Despite having a Roman name that technically means "she-bear," Ursa the Man-Bear at least supplies Red Wolf with a couple of lively fight-scenes. Ursa has a commonplace Tarzan-style upbringing-- that is, he's a fosterling raised by bears-- and as an adult he leads the bears like an ursine army, resulting in raids for which the white cavalry blames the Indian tribes. He appears to perish at the story's end and, to the best of my knowledge, never appeared again.

RAR #14: RED WOLF (II)



I don't know what moved Marvel's editors to remold the recently conceived 20th-century Red Wolf into a 19th-century avatar, before the 20th-century version even received his own feature. However, the result validated the decision.

At the time, the western was very nearly the only genre at which Marvel Comics excelled, as the 1970s slowly demonstrated that the house-style didn't eventuate in good sales for the romance, anthology-horror, and teen-humor genres. The westerns all went into reprints by the late 1970s, but even reprints suggested that the genre still had some life in it at the newsstands.

I wouldn't say that the career of Johnny Wakely, the 19th-century Red Wolf, rates as one of the great western sagas of comic books. Nevertheless, the seven stories comprising the character's career-- one in MARVEL SPOTLIGHT #1, and six in RED WOLF #1-6-- were better than average, particularly when one compares them to an utterly formulaic product like the STRAIGHT ARROW feature from ME comics. Gardner Fox, who had also written Straight Arrow as well as other Real American heroes (such as "Super-Chief), wrote the majority of the Wakeley tales, though Roy Thomas is credited on GCD with dialogue re-writes-- presumably to bring Fox's writing-style more in line with the house-style. Some, though not all, issues contain above-average art from Golden Age penciler Syd Shores, who passed in the same year that the RED WOLF comic came to an end.

Technically, "Red Wolf" was the hero's real name. Born into a Cheyenne tribe in the late 1800s, he was given the same name as a great culture-hero of the Cheyenne, and his parents prophesied that the boy would someday equal his legendary namesake. However, the tribe was wiped out by a cavalry attack. The boy was placed in the care of a kindly white couple, the Wakelys, who raised him with the name "Johnny." This experience engendered in Johnny an appreciation for "white ways"-- but as soon as he reached his twenties, Johnny lost his second family due to an attack by desperados. Grieved by the second loss, Johnny becomes a scout for the cavalry, still hoping to find some way to achieve some personal synthesis between his "two cultures." While scouting a war-party, Johnny is shot by hostiles and falls off a cliff. He ends up in the legendary tomb of the original Red Wolf. There he finds a wounded wolf, with whom he bonds as his ally Lobo, and encounters the perhaps-imaginary wolf-spirit Oywayodata, who charges him with the mission of seeking to unite white men and red men under the name "Red Wolf." As a result of this encounter, Johnny/Red Wolf seems to acquire enhanced skills and senses, though as with the first "Talltrees" version there's no indisputable proof that he has "super-powers," or that the wolf-spirit is a "real god."



In the context of the Old West, though, this relative naturalism was an asset. The stories may be somewhat on the formulaic side, but they feature strong action-sequences, better-than-average Marvel-style emotional conflicts, some decent research into Native American culture, and even a little romantic conflict. This RED WOLF is no classic of comics history, but it is, at very least, a "good read."



RAR #13: RED WOLF (I)



Marvel Comics' first Native American superhero has a complicated lineage.

First, the label of "Number One" stems purely from historical placement. The first Red Wolf guest-starred in issues #80-81 of THE AVENGERS (1970), and he represents himself as a modern Indian named "Will Talltrees" whose family was slaughtered by the henchmen of Avengers-foe Cornelius Van Lunt. He claims to have been given the mission of becoming Red Wolf by a Native American spirit, but the hero boasts no overt super-powers, leaving open the possibility that his encounter with an Indian god was imaginary. Red Wolf does have a real wolf named "Lobo" that follows him around, but this too is given a naturalistic slant, in that Talltrees raised Lobo from cub-hood. Red Wolf joins the Avengers in attempting to bring Van Lunt to justice; Van Lunt disappears and Red Wolf is seen once more in his civilian identity as the story ends.

However, when a Red Wolf starring-feature appeared one year later, the powers that be at Marvel decided to devote it to a 19th-century predecessor of the Talltrees character. I'll address this character in a separate post.

After one tryout issue in MARVEL SPOTLIGHT and six issues of a RED WOLF comic book, the 19th-century version faded out in favor of a modern-day crusader. In the first two issues, written by Gardner Fox, this modern-day character is never decisively called "Will Talltrees," though nothing in the stories makes a correlation impossible.




In the final issue, RED WOLF #9. the letters-column asserts that the editors had been assessing fan-reaction, and that some fans had wanted a more supernatural version of the character. Thus in #9, the 20th-century Red Wolf takes on a new name, Thomas Thunderhead, courtesy of scripter Gary Friedrich (who had also written one issue of the 19th-century version). This Red Wolf believes that the Old West character is his ancestor, and wakes up from a nightmare to find that the wolf-spirit Owayodata has given him several gifts: the Red Wolf costume, the coup stick that the character uses as his primary weapon, and Lobo. Further, the character is made continuous with the previous two issues in that he confers with a character seen in the Fox stories, policewoman Jill Tomahawk-- and yet, the identity-less character of those stories had no real "supernatural" aspects. The Thunderhead version, for his one issue, finds that he can summon his coup stick to his hand across great distances, and that Lobo is now a spirit-wolf, who can shrug off a shotgun-blast to the face.

Such was the end of this version of Red Wolf as a featured character, but he continued to turn up as a guest-star. However, to confuse things further, some writers once more gave him the civilian identity of Will Talltrees, while keeping the supernatural abilities of the Thunderhead version. Not surprisingly, a 2016 version had debuted, and I'm given to understand that it doesn't attempt to dovetail with any of the previous versions. Given the confusing nature of the 20th-century version, this seems eminently practical.


Saturday, April 16, 2016

RAR #12: THE AMERICAN EAGLE



The original version of the American Eagle appeared in 1981's MARVEL TWO-IN-ONE ANNUAL #6, written by Doug Moench and drawn by Ron Wilson. A caption on the first page credits Wilson with sole creatorship, though given that the character only made sporadic appearances after this appearance, I imagine Marvel Comics owns this Real American superhero outright.

I would have to say that Eagle's design, with his colossal and counter-intuitive war-bonnet, strikes me as one of the worst-designed Native American superheroes ever. On his Wikipedia page, one author is quoted as liking the Eagle for not having his roots in Native American mythology, but I think that would have been better than what Moench and Wilson came up with.

In 1981 Jim Shooter ruled the Marvel roost, and he favored very static comics with lots of explanatory dialogue. Thus the story begins with the Thing of the Fantastic Four meeting with old buddy Wyatt Wingfoot to discuss the case of the American Eagle. Wingfoot originally tells a mythic story of two Native American brothers who fight over chieftainship of their tribe, both of whom assume superhuman status. Wingfoot apparently tells this myth-story as a prelude to his real story, regarding a falling-out between two contemporary Native American brothers. Jason Strongbow wants to defend the Navajo people's sacred mountain from a rapacious mining-company, and his thinly-drawn brother Ward wants to play by "the white man's rules." They get into a fight near a complex of machinery in the mine, for as it happens the super-villain Klaw is linked to the mining company. An explosion irradiates both brothers and turns them into superhumans. Only Jason takes a costumed identity, but he ends up fighting his super-powered brother again by the end of the Two-in-One tale, while the Thing, Wingfoot and guest-star Ka-Zar battle Klaw.

Apart from the Eagle's lame costume, I can see why he never inspired many creators. The mere fact that he owes his super-power to Klaw-- a regular punching-bag for the Fantastic Four, Ka-Zar, and the Black Panther-- means that there's no real chance that Klaw will ever really be a big part of the hero's mythos. The best origin-stories don't tie the heroes' beginnings to over-complicated continuity-events; they're at their most evocative when they keep in simple. So as routine as it might be for a Native American hero to get his powers from some supernatural spirit, it would still have worked better than this tawdry exercise in tedium.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

RAR #11: DAWNSTAR

The cover depicting the first appearance of the Legion's first Real American hero (SUPERBOY #226,  1977) is a pretty typical "dump on the new girl (or girl)" schtick.



I reread a handful of Dawnstar's early appearances, and my knee-jerk opinion is that her creator Paul Levitz didn't seem to have much of a story-arc for her, aside from making her the girlfriend to the already established Legion member Wildfire. It may be that Levitz had nothing more in mind than countering the "whitebread" look of the 1970s Legion, for Dawnstar's costume design is largely her best feature. She and her people, Earth-bred Amerindians who were transported to another planet and used in a bio-engineering experiment, hence the wings. In her first appearance she's said to be a mutant, though the later origin suggests that all the powers she possesses are held in common by her people. Her most stereotypical power, as far as her being Native American, is that she can track enemies across the depths of space.

At the time of her appearance, I thought she was largely a feeble attempt by DC to emulate Marvel's mystical-seeming Storm, who had debuted about two years previous. Here's a blogpost that cites some if not all of her major story-arcs; apparently she's no longer a member of whatever Legion exists today.