The Hidden S in Phone Booth

The Hidden S Traces the Trail of Western Heroes in the DC Universe... I love genre comics. It is fascinating for me to see the overlap between a conventional narrative like a military story and elements of a superhero comic. Hence you have in the superhero universe characters like Enemy Ace, SGT. Rock, and the Blackhawks who merge two streams of popular culture. So it is with Western themed comic characters whose feats are recognizably superheroic but are set in a time period as early as the 18th century. DC has a particularly rich heritage of these heroes and there is a slight resurgence of interest and popularity of them recently. Jonah Hex in particular has gotten a lot of attention recently with the pre-production of a film version set to star Josh Brolin. So, here in two parts, is a short, informal history of DC’s major Western characters. Vigilante Vigilante was probably the first western oriented superhero in a major comic. He first appeared in Action Comics in 1941 and was created by writer Mort Weisinger (who helped create Aquaman and Green Arrow) and artist Mort Meskin (who famously drew Sheena, Queen of the Jungle). Vigilante, a rather literally named character, was in fact Greg Sanders, a well-known cowboy singer in the style of Gene Autry who was inspired to fight crime due to his family’s law and order background (his father and grandfather were western marshals). This aspect of Sanders/Vigilante is one of the interesting things about the character, as few superheroes have secret identities as popular entertainers. The character’s look was decidedly western with six shooters, a white cowboy hat, a lariat and the like. However, most of his adventures have taken place in an urban, contemporary 20th/21st century setting (unlike nearly every other character on this list). And though he was an expert horseman, he mostly used a motorcycle as his vehicle of choice. Vigilante proved to be a strong second tier hero and he ran for over 150 issues in the back pages of Action Comics well into the 50s. The character disappeared for a time, but was revived in the 70s when a baroque crossover story with the Justice League and Vigilante’s old group The Seven Soldiers of Victory re-introduced him to a new generation. Since then, the character has enjoyed a small following and he was the centerpiece of a mid-80s mini-series written by James (Starman) Robinson called City Lights, Prairie Justice where he waged a war against Bugsy Siegel’s gang in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Very recently he was in the Grant Morrison Seven Soldiers of Victory revival as a mentor to a new generation of second-tier heroes. (An interesting footnote to this character is that he was the first superhero committed to celluloid, starring in a serial in 1947 a full year before the Kirk Alyn Superman serial). Johnny Thunder As with Vigilante, Johnny Thunder (debuting in 1948) had many of the tropes of a traditional superhero including a secret identity and superior physical and strategic skills. Johnny Thunder was the alter ego of John Tane, a schoolteacher who masqueraded as the western avenger Johnny Thunder. As with many superheroes of the time, Thunder had a couple of equally super competent adversaries, most notably Silk Black. Thunder had an elaborate system to disguise his persona including using coal to turn his blond hair black and an alternative horse named black lightning. The book was noteworthy for its great art by the influential Alex Toth as well as debuting one of the few female western superheroes, Madame .44 in its pages. Predictably, she and Johnny Thunder got married and raised a family. Reasonably popular in its day, the Johnny Thunder title and character has not been revived in any noteworthy way since its demise in the very early 1960s. (Johnny Thunder had no relation to the Justice Society member from the 30s and 40s who could summon a genie by chanting “say you”). Tomahawk Tomahawk was among the first western superheros in popular comics and first appeared in Star Spangled Comics in 1949 and was created by Joe Samachason (who scripted the first Martian Manhunter story) and artist Fred Ray (who was reportedly a Revolutionary War buff). Tomahawk was in reality Tom Hawkins, an American colonist who learned some of the highly specialized frontier skills (such as throwing a tomahawk, hence his nickname) because he lived with an Indian tribe for a year. Tomahawk was already a well-known frontier fighter when the American Revolution commenced. General George Washington was so impressed by Tomahawk’s prowess and reputation that he created a standalone military unit called Tomahawk’s Rangers to undertake special missions. The members of the group were a colorful bunch with nicknames like “Big Anvil,” “Kaintuck Jones,” and so on. Tomahawk’s most noteworthy foe was Lord Shilling, a British intelligence agent. After the war, Tomahawk retired to the Midwest and had two children with a Native American woman named Moon Fawn. One of the children was named "Hawk," who became a very minor second generation Western superhero in the 70s. Tomahawk anticipated the craze for early American folk heroes in the 50s such as Davy Crockett and remains one of the few superhero characters tied to that craze. The title was a surprisingly strong performer for DC and the character was published continually from the late 40’s until the early 70s.