Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Behind the Scenes of Marvel Westerns: Outlaw Files and "The Captain from Texas"

Volunteering at the Grand Comics Database, I've recently come back to one of the comic books I myself oversaw: Marvel Westerns: Outlaw Files. It was one of the first books where I received the "head writer/coordinator" credit (which was essentially that of a junior editor). I selected the team of writers, I determined which characters would be featured and I judged how many pages each one should receive. This particular book was assembled as a sort of "scrapbook" which would give us some freedom in pushing against the borders of the Marvel Universe, enabling us to reveal new details about various Marvel characters - for instance, I decided to establish Tex Dawson had inspired a series of early Hollywood western films and lived long enough to see the rise of western pictures, just like Wyatt Earp. I'm not sure why I established that, but there it is.

In the spirit of behind-the-scenes data, since 10 years have passed I'm going to reveal the secrets of "The Captain from Texas," a 2-page text story of mine which appeared within.

The format

"The Captain from Texas" was an homage to the 2-page text stories which appeared in so many Marvel Comics up until the 1960s. Although originally they featured original artwork, by the late 1950s they would recycle an existing panel from a story and usually place it in the center of one page. Thus, "The Captain from Texas" features a recycled piece of artwork placed in the center of the page.

The image

The image is, of course, recycled from Captain America's Bicentennial Battles (1976) by Jack Kirby, where it appeared as one of several pin-ups by Kirby where he imagined how Captain America would appear in other time frames. For many decades these pin-ups were not considered to be more than flights of fancy, but in 1999, Roger Stern & Ron Frenz were inspired by the pin-up of a Revolutionary War Captain America and established him as part of Marvel continuity (Captain America: Sentinel of Liberty #6-7). It was not my intent to do the same with this story (as I'll detail below), but my Official Handbook cohorts later used this story as a license to do just that.

Title: "The Captain from Texas"

The story's protagonist is, indeed, a former Captain who is now a Texas Ranger, but there were other reasons why I picked this title; in part, it was an homage to my friend "Texcap," an online friend of mine who was both Texan and a tremendous Captain America fan. However, the title was also intentionally chosen as a shout-out to 1950s Marvel western heroes such as the Kid from Texas and the Kid from Dodge City.

Byline: "Holly Martins"

Film buffs will recognize this as the name of the protagonist in the 1949 film the Third Man by director Carol Reed and author Graham Greene (it's my favourite film). In the picture, Holly was a pulp novelist who primarily wrote westerns. I chose the name not only as a shout-out to the film, but as a way of excusing my own prose; although by this time Marvel had published many of my character profiles or makeshift "diary and journal" type articles, this marked the first time I was being paid as true author of fiction - and obviously, I didn't have much confidence in my talents. The byline "Holly Martins" was a means of excusing any defects in the prose as an effort to create an "authentic" piece of hack writing. You must judge for yourself whether I succeeded.

paragraph 1, "Rawhide"

I chose the town "Rawhide" as an obvious reference to the Rawhide Kid; I'm not sure why I did that (see next comment).

paragraph 3, Sheriff Tally

Sheriff Tally first appeared as a character in the text story "The Law" from Kid Colt, Outlaw #73 (1957), where he was Deputy Sheriff Jim Tally of Graysville. I felt he should be promoted to sheriff so that he could play a senior role to my protagonist (implicitly setting this story years after the events of "the Law") but I'm not sure why I moved him to Rawhide. Anyway, Sheriff Tally is a character in this story because he's a Marvel character who had only ever appeared in a text story; by using him, I gave this story some bona fides within the history of Marvel text stories.

paragraph 4, Liberty

The Captain's horse is, of course, a play on the "Sentinel of Liberty" moniker often granted to Captain America.

paragraph 9, the Texas Rangers

Making the Captain a Texas Ranger was another gift to my friend Texcap, who had previously spoken very highly of the Texas Rangers. My knowledge was largely limited to the 1950s radio series Tales of the Texas Rangers, but as a tribute to him I made the Captain a ranger.

paragraph 20, Jack Rhett

Jack Rhett was not named after Gone With the Wind's Rhett Butler, but instead served as a double reference; "Jack" is a nickname for people named "John" and "John" is the Americanized named for Johann - as in Johann Shmidt, the Red Skull; "Rhett" simply sounds like "Red." Essentially, Jack Rhett is the story's stand-in for Captain America's traditional foe, the Red Skull.

The other reference is to "Wild Jack Rhett," a 1933 short story by Ernest Haycox which was adapted to the great radio series Escape, December 17, 1950 (can be downloaded from archive.org here). The plot concerns a town desperate for law & order who hire an outlaw to protect them, but as the situation improves they become quite ungrateful. It was an early example of radio seeking a more mature and adult tone for western stories and the show's director, Norman Macdonnell, cited it as a major influence on his later radio series Gunsmoke. My story's Jack Rhett has no connection to the character of the play outside of the name.

paragraph 22, "Grim Jack"

Having made a homonym of "Red," I wanted to indicate "Skull" somewhere. I decided to reference the "Death's Head Grin" which skulls are supposed to make. Somehow, "grin" became "grim," perhaps because I had been thinking of the Grim Reaper. Fortunately, I never stopped to think I was one spacebar away from John Ostrander & Tim Truman's Grimjack!

paragraph 23, "Sounds like a bad hombre."

My first draft read "bad dude," but someone in production thought it was an anachronism. I knew it wasn't (especially in the context of a hack pulp story), but rather than argue the point I changed it to "hombre." That was typical of my time at Marvel - I only seemed to pick fights when I couldn't win.

paragraph 33, milk

In western stories where the hero is a righteous, morally upstanding fellow, his choice of drink often says much about him. Those heroes who spurn alcohol for milk (as in the 1939 film Destry Rides Again) then find themselves bullied by would-be tough guys. It's a scenario which played out in many Marvel western comic books, although the specific one I thought of at the time was Rawhide Kid#28's "When a Gunslinger Gets Mad!" (1962) by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby, wherein the Kid ordering a glass of milk led to a chaotic bar brawl. In my story, the bartender's restrained reaction was my own concession to the typical "milk causes bar brawl" scene.

paragraph 47, the shield

Being a Captain America analogue, naturally he had to throw the shield eventually.

paragraph 52, Captain Roger Stephenson

The name I chose for the Captain is an exact match for the version of Captain America who appeared in Peter David, Ron Frenz & Mark Bagley's Marvels Comics: Captain America #1 (2000). That story was supposedly what a licensed Captain America comic book within the Marvel Universe looked like (as written by Cap's former sidekick Rick Jones!), and thus it gave the Captain a different secret identity to protect Steve Rogers' anonymity. Utilizing that same name here was my extremely subtle way of indicating that this story likewise existed as a piece of Marvel meta-fiction, rather than an event from the Marvel Universe proper. To my mind, Holly Martins hacked out this two-pager and sold it to Timely when they were trying to transition from super hero comic books to western books in the post-war environment.

A final observation: it's been ten years since I wrote this story. Last year I resumed writing fiction (for fun) and believed I had grown a lot as an author. Now that I've seen these pages again I realize my characters' delivery of dialogue and the paragraph structures haven't actually changed much at all. I'm still a hack, but I'm trying harder!

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