Friday, May 6, 2016

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."



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