(Ron Zimmerman/John Severin; MARVEL COMICS FIRST EDITION Hard Cover, 2010 – collecting RAWHIDE KID Volume 3, Issues 1-5, 2003) A REVIEW FROM THE VAULTS
The Rawhide Kid debuted in 1955, a time when parents (and a few United States Congressmen) were worried that the horror and crime comics of the day were seriously warping the fragile minds of America’s youth (much like the thought Nazis decried the violence in the Looney Tunes cartoons and forced all of the best parts to be edited out for television viewing during the ’80s). But I digress. Comic historians have debated who actually created and wrote those early issues, but betting men usually cite either the legendary Marvel mastermind, Stan Lee or his brother, Larry Lieber. We do know that as Atlas Comics was becoming Marvel Comics, Stan and artist Jack Kirby relaunched the Kid, giving him something he hadn’t had in the previous 16-issue run: a background story (an origin, if you will… or at least as much of one as a western gunslinger can have).
Now, writer Ron Zimmerman has taken that back story, fleshed it out and, in doing so, has given us a much different Johnny Bart than we’ve ever seen! I’d seen a couple of news stories and read a couple of reviews about this “revision” of the Rawhide Kid character when the strip was first announced in 2003. Apparently, there were some folk who were more than a bit upset about the character’s sexual orientation. What? The Rawhide Kid was gay?
I wasn’t too sure how I felt about that. Not that I cared one way or the other if a writer from the HOWARD STERN SHOW had taken a relatively minor (and presumed hetero-sexual) comic book character and “turned” him or “outed” him or however you wanna phrase it; it just reeked of that bastion of capitalists the world over – exploitation! Just one more character being transformed or revisioned for the sake of change or for the shock value. Maybe managing editor Joe Quesada knew that the Marvel brand may take a hit for this one, so when Zimmerman brought the idea to the powers-that-be, they foisted a third-stringer in the Marvel Universe on him to try it out. I don’t know. And, to be perfectly honest, I really didn’t care all that much. The Rawhide Kid – gay, straight, celibate (which, I guess, he seemed to be in all of his previous incarnations) – was never high on my list of must-read books.
Anyway… I wrote all of that so I could get to this: Nearly ten years after the fact, I decided to check out the hard cover collection (published in 2010), partly because I’d remembered reading something about the series and primarily because it was in the 80% off rack (which made the final price somewhere south of five dollars American). I wasn’t expecting much, aside from amazing artwork from the legendary John Severin. Boy, was I wrong! Not only is Mister Severin’s art exactly what I expected, but SLAP LEATHER is one fun-filled ride from first to last! Yeah… it is a bit cringe-worthy in spots (the Kid in blue speedos, the Kid in buttless chaps and trap-door long johns… you get the idea), but the story is also filled with enough gun-totin’ action and over-the-top, laugh-out-loud comic moments to excuse those. Some of the asides regarding the Kid’s style sense reminds me of the hilarious (and sadly overlooked) 1985 Tom Berenger movie, RUSTLER’S RHAPSODY.
Built around a solid plot with a great message, SLAP LEATHER, takes the Rawhide Kid mythos (if such a vague thing actually existed before) and fleshes out the Stan Lee “origin” story, to show a young Johnny Bart as a harassed and bullied “sissy,” both at home by his drunken father and at school by the bigger boys. Obviously, the diminutive young lad, having taken all that he could stand, finally took matters into his own hand and a legend was born.
Fast forward to… uh… I don’t know, somewhere between the early 1870s and the late 1880s or so. The sleepy little town of Wells Junction has been set upon by an ornery gang of desperadoes and ne’er do wells, with only a single, untried sheriff to stand up to them. Obviously, things don’t go well for Sheriff Morgan, much to the dismay of his young son, Toby. Of course, as in any good Western yarn, in rides our hero. Always dapper and well-dressed, the Kid really just wants to have a nice hot bath, a good meal and a few drinks. He doesn’t want to get involved and only does so when he’s provoked by the villainous horde of marauders riding roughshod over the town-folk (and making fun of the Kid’s clothes). The story is enhanced by the inclusion of several very recognizable characters, drawn from such classic TV shows as BONANZA (Michael Landon and Dan Blocker as Little Joe and Hoss in one of the funniest sequences in the whole book), GUNSMOKE (Milburn Stone as Doc), BAT MASTERSON (Gene Berry) and an unlikely LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE storyline (Melissa Gilbert’s Laura Ingalls). Heck, Zimmerman even throws in Don Knotts’ character from THE SHAKIEST GUN IN THE WEST!
So, if ya ain’t read this’n yet, saddle up, pardners, there’s a laugh-riot goin’ on down ta Wells Junction and you don’t wanna miss the fun! I understand that there’s a sequel out there somewhere and if I ever see it, I will own it! I might not even wait for it to hit the 80% off rack!