Monday, July 13, 2009

"This mighty warrior whose heart beats to a distant drum."

Yep, I decided to make this its own blog post. It just seemed buried at the end of the big one yesterday, plus I wrote more than I expected to about this subject so it now seems like an adequate-size entry. So here 'tis!

I'll be reviewing the contents of my next DCBS shipment, which should arrive Friday, as soon as possible. In the meantime, I've been checking out the odd comic via...alternative means...and one such was the early 1970's attempt by Marvel to launch a series starring their then-new character Red Wolf. Marvel had introduced Wolfy as a modern-day character in the summer of 1970, in the pages of Avengers #80, part of the same diversity movement that gave us the Black Panther and the Valkyrie. I remember owning that issue, and kinda liking the character as a 10-year-old, but I did not follow him when they launched him in his own series, first via Marvel Spotlight #1, and then as the star of his own book. At some point, finding the shamanistic Native American trappings somewhat anachronistic when placed in the modern-day Marvel Universe, the decision makers decided to launch Wolfy as a different guy, and set his adventures in the Old West, at a time when Western comics were dying a slow death in the marketplace. Rather than Roy Thomas and John Buscema, who had drawn his original appearance, they assigned the scripting to the washed-up Gardner Fox, who landed at Marvel after he was kicked to the curb by DC (Mike Freidrich pitched in and scripted a fill-in issue), and drawn by another veteran, Syd Shores, who had primarily served as an inker at 60s Marvel. Shores inked himself on some of the stories to the best effect, but he was also saddled with Vince Colletta on several issues. Chic Stone and Wally Wood (on Spotlight #1) also assisted during the short (ten issues, counting Spotlight) run.

The premise was this: Wolfy was now Johnny Wakely, a Native American man whose parents were killed when he was a child by Pony Soldiers, and who was subsequently given to a white family to raise. Fortunately, the Wakelys were (mostly) good people (Fox often went out of his way to let us know that most of the crude and rude white folks were prejudiced against Injuns, even Mr. Wakely), and Wakely grew up relatively happy if quite a bit conflicted. Unfortunately, his foster parents are killed by renegade Indians, and he finds himself trapped between two worlds, both of which were responsible for the deaths of his loved ones. Eventually, he prays to "Wakan Tanka", I assume a NA name for God, and is led to try to get a job as a scout for the U.S. Cavalry at their nearby fort, and of course encounters more hostility and prejudice, especially from a Bluto-like Sergeant that picks on him every chance he gets. To Fox and Co.'s credit, the Colonel in charge of the fort is a more open-minded and reasonable sort (I think he's a character that appeared in another Marvel western title at some point), and he helps Johnny out every chance he gets. In the introductory story, Johnny finds himself on a desperate quest to return a sacred buffalo hide to a Chief and prevent an all-out range war; and it is while on this quest that he falls into the burial place of the last Red Wolf, complete with faithful wolf companion (lying there wounded) and the spirit of the Red Wolf itself, who informs him that he is now his Earthly avatar, with enhanced speed, strength, wisdom and agility, and also gets the now-recovered super wolf Lobo to help him out. Oh, and he also gets a badass coup stick (that's what they call it), which enables him to wreak havoc in a brawl. He spends the next few issues dealing with menaces both white and Native American; due to his background, he feels as if it's his duty to try to promote tolerance and keep the peace between his peoples. He faces threats such as Ursa, a strapping big buck who is to the bears as he is to the wolves, and a hired gun (who reminds me a bit of the character that Lance Henrickson played in The Quick and the Dead, except he's really as good as he says) who dresses in a hideous green ensemble. As if that wasn't duality enough, he gets two girlfriends of a sort; a white, redhaired young lady who hates injuns but has a yen for Red Wolf, against her nature, and a Native American princess. This sort of thing, along with his relations with the soldiers in the fort, makes up the first seven issues. In the hands of a more, shall we say, nuanced writer, this could have really been interesting; as is, as stiff and stilted as Fox's plots and dialogue can be, the stories move along at a pretty good clip and they're as good as much of the Marvel Western line of the time, for what it's worth. No living totems or invisible men, but diverting just the same. The real revelation is Shores' old-school art; he really shines on several of these stories, especially when he inks himself; the three pages I've posted here are examples of that. His work reminds me a lot of the stuff you'd see in pre-Marvel Atlas/Timely comics, but with more of a Kirby influence than Maneely- no surprise because he worked for them as well, along with doing some art with the King on early Captain America comics in the 40's. If anything can be described as "underrated", it's Shores' work on this book. Click the panels to see them all bigger.

At some point, someone decided that it might be better to get back to the contemporary Red Wolf character that we first met in the pages of The Avengers, and to that effect (and without warning), we get just that- in issue #7 we meet Johnny Wakely's descendant, who is fighting crime in the mean streets of the city. He gets involved with a full-blood Cherokee policewoman named "Jill Tomahawk", and it looked like Fox and co. were ready for another run...but unfortunately, #9 would be the final issue. Guess the sales boost just didn't happen.

The character's been used here and there in the MU over the last three decades, but to the best of my knowledge he hasn't headlined a book of his own since this. In the hands of a sympathetic writer, such as Jason Aaron (who does modern-day Native Americans so well in Scalped), Red Wolf might be an interesting character, I'd think. Aaron might not want to risk getting pigeonholed (probably not as likely since he's branched out with books like Ghost Rider), but heck, I'd buy it.

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