Saturday, July 14, 2012

On Joe Simon & Jack Kirby's Boys' Ranch

I'm not particularly fond of the western genre within film, television and literature. However, I have developed something of a fondness for certain comic book westerns. The western genre is based on falsehood - the idea of a rough, Wild West filled with spectacular gun battles and savage combat with Natives, but the real world version wasn't quite as consistently exciting or even as violent. Most of our ideas about the Old West come from Hollywood, subject to many cliches, stock characters and stock plots; western comics books are an embellishment of an already-embellished reality. Perhaps this is why Jack Kirby, the great embellisher, turned out to be well-suited to the western genre.

Jack Kirby's hasn't received as much attention as his popular super hero work; perhaps we ought to consider his westerns a little more seriously, given that Kirby reportedly wished he'd been given more opportunities to create westerns, but the market was seldom in his favour. Kirby's Marvel westerns are certainly lively as he brought a super hero sensibility to the material, such as renovating the Two-Gun Kid into a masked crimefighter with a double life as a lawyer (and thoughtful Kirby diagrams of how his costume functioned; seriously). Kirby's Rawhide Kid delivered memorable foes such as the Living Totem, the space alien who just happened to resemble a totem pole. This may have been unintentionally funny, but I maintain if you check out the Rawhide Kid, you'll find some of the most intentionally funny stories Stan Lee & Jack Kirby ever collaborated on.

Although I'm very strong on Kirby's Marvel career (I've read every single Marvel comic Kirby drew), I'm certainly weak on the other vistas of his legacy, probably most so in the years 1945-1956 when Kirby was starting up his own publishing house with long-time collaborator Joe Simon, only to be put out business soon after the Comics Code-era market crash. Among these Simon/Kirby joints (with art assists from Mort Meskin) was 1950-1951's Boys' Ranch (often given on the cover as "the Kid Cowboys of Boys' Ranch Featuring Clay Duncan), through Harvey Comics. For some reason, in 1992 Simon & Kirby had all six issues reprinted in a deluxe hardcover via Marvel Comics (edited by Tom Brevoort, no less!). I saw a couple of articles advertising Boys' Ranch at the time, but I didn't get a sense of why I should be interested; after all, it was no more a Marvel product than most of their Epic Comics output. Even if I had been interested, $40 was a lot to spend on just six comic books; I bought only a few trade paperbacks in those days and my limit was usually $15.

With the Boys' Ranch hardcover well out-of-print, why would it be worthwhile to go chasing this product down? Credit one Colin Smith, who praised the series to the high heavens in a recent article found at Sequart. I was intrigued and it took only a few minutes of shopping to procure a copy at Alibris (plug: along with a copy of the out-of-print Jack Cole's Plastic Man Archives Vol.1! both at reasonable prices!).

Preamble finished; so what is Boys' Ranch concerned with? The setting is a ranch near the town of Four Massacres. Teenagers Dandy (a young Civil War veteran), Wabash (hillbilly teller of tall tales) and Angel (dour long-haired killer) inherit the titular ranch from a dying man; with the help of their scout friend Clay Duncan (blood brother of Geronimo and hence a man at war with two worlds) and the eventual addition of cook Wee Willie Weehawken, they hope to make Boys' Ranch a safe haven for boys of all sorts. The only Boys' Ranch waif we ever meet is Happy Boy, an infrequently-appearing Native child who communicates with the others using sign language. There were multiple stories in each issue, along with special features such as pin-ups and educational pieces on life in the Old West.

Although the series opens with a strong focus on Dandy and Wabash as they meet and journey out west to Four Massacres, in subsequent issues they tend to fall into the background as Simon & Kirby were seemingly more interested in telling stories about Angel and Clay Duncan. Thankfully, halfway through the series' run Dandy & Wabash each become the central figures in one a story apiece. Compared to the serious drama surrounding Angel & Duncan, Dandy & Wabash are certainly light-hearted fellows.

Dandy is introduced to us in issue #1 with a caption declaring: "This is Dandy! Who finds a fight just as exciting as a pretty gal!" We don't see evidence of this until issue 3's "I'll Fight You for Lucy!" In this tale, Dandy tries to defend Lucy, a young woman, from her abusive father; the father sends a strongarm to beat up Dandy, but Dandy wins the fight. At this, Dandy's friends insist he has to marry Lucy. However, Lucy refuses to marry him; rather than feeling sad, Dandy claims he's happy to be free from her because he didn't want to get married. At the conclusion he even ignores an attempt by Wee Willie Weehawken to get him interested in a local woman, declaring he's more interested in feeding the ranch's pigs than going on a date. Thus, by the end of the tale Dandy has essentially sacrificed his one character hook; that's a heck of a way to gain the spotlight!

The laid-back Wabash is introduced in issue #1 as he begins telling a story about grandfather working as a scout for George Washington and dying at the age of 119. This finally bears fruit in issue 3's "the Legend of Alby Fleezer!" In this short story, Wabash tells the other boys a story about his grandfather, Albion Fleezer. In the grand tradition of tall tales like Pecos Bill, we learn Albion created the Mississippi River by blasting a lake with gunpowder. Although Kirby's work often found room for levity, it's always a treat to see him delving head-first into a comic narrative, made all the funnier by Wabash's insistence that he's retelling a "true" story, even as we witness talking crows and gophers.

As I said, Angel & Clay Duncan receive the most attention from Simon & Kirby. There's little to distinguish Clay Duncan from other comic book western heroes of the time; his significant hook is being blood brother to Geronimo, but such heroes were frequently blood brothers to at least one Native (often a famous one). There is some interest in seeing how Clay's relationship with the gun-toting woman Palomino Sue; he repeatedly tries to keep her out of the Boys' violent affairs, but she keeps recurring in the series to get the others out of tight situations.

The outcry over juvenile delinquency in the 1950s led to some of the hue and cry over the content of comics books, supposedly corrupting the minds of impressionable youths. Some media of the time recognized young people didn't belong on a pedestal, such as how children in Ray Bradbury's stories were benevolent half the time, pure evil the other half. Earlier, Simon & Kirby's various kid gangs came about when film's Dead End Kids were popular and the reckless, long-haired Angel is but a distant cousin to James Dean's later Rebel Without a Cause and his hair in particular predicts the hippies of the 1960s. However, Angel's hair is meant to subvert his nature as a killer - a typically "angelic" length of hair to match his "angelic" face and thus, earn his moniker "Angel."

Angel is outwardly a serious, cold-blood youth, quick to anger and insensitive to the feelings of others Despite this, in issue 3's tale "Mother Delilah," when Delilah tries to set up herself up as Angel's long-lost mother, hoping she can injure Clay Duncan through one of his surrogates. Delilah draws out Angel's softer side, then betrays his trust; it's more than young Angel can bear. We learn at least some of Angel's tough persona is masking the character of a lonely young man who desperately wants to be loved; thus we have a double subversion: the physically gentle youngster is outwardly tough but inwardly soft!

Taken together, we have Angel: a tough young man who isn't really tough; Dandy: a young man who claims to love romance, but doesn't really; and Wabash: a teller of tales, all lies. It's quite surprising to discover character written to be both simple and complicated at a level a 1951 juvenile audience would enjoy. Jack Kirby is always worth your time... even if you've got a few prejudices against westerns.

Want more? Check out some Boys' Ranch original art here.

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