Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Unearthed: Rawhide Kid#94

Having invoked Larry Lieber's Rawhide Kid two days ago, I feel the need to examine some of his work a little more closely - especially for the benefit of those of you who haven't read his Rawhide Kid stories; so, let's turn back time to 1971 and "Day of the Outcast," written and drawn by Larry Lieber.

"Don't make me slap leather!" Rawhide declares on the cover; he must have had premonitions of being written by Ron Zimmerman. One is quickly drawn to the African-American cowboy on the right - definitely an unusual sight in popular fiction, especially in 1971. To remind you a little about how comic books were at the time, Larry's brother Stan had developed numerous major black characters in his Marvel titles of the day: Gabe Jones, Black Panther, Bill Foster, Joe Robertson, the Falcon; Stan had affected some genuinely thoughtful stories about race in the 1960s (Daredevil#47's "Brother, Take My Hand" and Avengers#32's "The Sign of the Serpent"). In just a few months, Luke Cage: Hero for Hire would become Marvel's first black hero with his own book (followed by Gunhawks, another problematic Marvel western series). Given the standards brother Stan had raised, one would expect something of a smiliar stature, based on the cover.

Am I spoiling the journey by telling you right now, this book does not deliver?

We open on a typically pastoral western scene as Rawhide Kid sees a man thrown from his horse. The ever-helpful Kid rides up to assist the stranger, but the fallen man - Rafe Larsen, the black man from the cover - recognizes him as a famous outlaw and comes up from the ground swinging, assuming Rawhide is trying to rob him. Rawhide hits him back, then asks, "why it's so hard for you to believe that I only wanted to help you?" Rafe answers, "Because yore white -- and I'm black!" Rafe proceeds to lecture Rawhide about how the Civil War ended slavery, but not oppression. "I've been freed -- but not from hate, bigotry, and cruelty!" In flashbacks, we see white men firing their guns at Rafe's feet to make him dance; he resolves to carry his own guns and practices until he's a perfect shot. "From here on out, men will call Rafe Larsen 'Mistuh!'"

Hearing Rafe is bound for Paradise Flats, Rawhide asks to accompany him but Rafe still sees no reason to trust him. "Yore still a white man! And I don't trust white men!" Riding into Paradise Flats, Rafe immediately draws attention from the locals; three of them demand Rafe drop his guns. "If yuh want muh hardware, try takin' it," Rafe rejoins. Rafe shoots at all three men, killing one and blasting the guns from the hands of the other two (a typical comic book western hero trick). Witnesses affirm to the sheriff how Rafe wasn't the one who started the fight, but the sheriff suggests Rafe should abandon his guns all the same. Rafe ignores the advice; the two surviving men begin plotting their revenge.

Rafe enters a hotel where a clerk declares he "won't rent to black men!" Rafe points a gun at the clerk until he supplies him with a room. The two stray gunmen set out and murder a man who just won a poker game; they take his money and watch, plant just the watch in Rafe's hotel room and claim to the sheriff they saw Rafe murder the man. The sheriff searches Rafe's room and finds the watch; he demands Rafe turn himself in, but Rafe leaps out the window and runs for his horse. Just then, Rawhide comes into town (it's not clear why he fell hours behind Rafe). Rawhide has no idea what's going on, but decides "Runnin' away won't help you!" So he shoots Rafe's guns out of his hands and lets the sheriff arrest him.


The same Rawhide Kid who runs from the law every other issue doesn't think other outlaws deserve the same consideration? Even though he had no idea Rafe was running from the law in this instance? For all he knew, Rafe was being chased by a gang of thieves. It's a fairly common trope in these western hero books for the outlaw protagonist to convince another young outlaw to turn himself over to the law and avoid the same mistakes the hero once made, but in this case Rawhide is completely ignorant of the situation.

Rafe is locked up in the jail, but the two murderers start riling up the townsfolk into a frenzied lynch mob, declaring they should "save the town the expense of a trial." The sheriff tries to defend Rafe, but he's knocked out and the mob drag Rafe from his cell. Fortunately, Rawhide Kid butts in again and with guns drawn, forces the mob to let Rafe go (back to his cell). "Every man, white or black, is entitled to his day in court! It's just as simple as that!" By now, Rawhide has a suspicion of who killed the man - the two men who survived the gunfight with Rafe earlier. Somehow the sheriff hadn't thought of this, even though he was on the scene immediately after the first killing and saw the two survivors, then thought nothing strange of it when those two men pinned the second murder on Rafe. Rawhide chases down the first gunman, but before he can confess, the second gunman shoots his pard in the back (apparently that was easier than ambushing Rawhide? criminals are a stupid, cowardly lot). Rawhide catches the second gunman and receives a full confession.

In the wrap-up, Rafe is set free. "But only until the next town... and the next passle of haters!" As Rafe rides away, we discover the sheriff knew all along the Rawhide Kid was also an outlaw, but didn't do anything about it. There are some unfortunate implications there...

Parting thoughts: On the one hand, Rafe's distrust of white people is justified in that every white man we meet hassles him (or tries to kill him). On the other hand, his introduction to Rawhide at the start of the story - his utter paranoia preventing him from trusting Rawhide - paints Rafe in the wrong. Throughout, Rawhide Kid is never in the wrong; fair enough - it's his book. But the story doesn't challenge him or his beliefs in any way. He wants to be Rafe's friend; he wants to keep Rafe from running from the law; he wants to keep a mob from killing Rafe; he wants to prove Rafe innocent of murder. The aforementioned "Sign of the Serpent" milked some good drama from the Avengers reacting to racism, but Rawhide only cares to see Rafe receive his day in court. The racism of the mob and the killers does nothing to alter Rawhide's reactions. The Rawhide Kid is fine the way he is - it's Rafe who needs an attitude adjustment, as if he'd only been friends with the Kid he'd have presumably had an easier time in Paradise Flats.

Finally, there's the closing moment where the sheriff reveals he knew who the Rawhide Kid was. So, the sheriff arrests Rafe after two white men with reason to hate Rafe deliver an unlikely testimonial; but the notorious white man outlaw Rawhide Kid comes to town? Heck, he's no problem - he even helped the sheriff arrest Rafe! Just a good ol' boy.

Given Marvel Comics' track record with race at the time and how marginalized the western comic books had become by 1971, there was a real opportunity here to let something fly in under the radar - something a lot more explosive about race, given the real world time frame the story was set in (and real world events influencing popular culture). Ultimately, I'm afraid all the story seems to say is, "Racism is bad; but, uh, we're cool, right? You know I'm not racist, yeah?"

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