Back in 1968, I kept seeing ads asking “Bat Lash—Will He Save the West or Ruin It?” I had no clue who or what Bat Lash was, and no way to find out — this was pre-Internet — and when he finally debuted, I decided I didn’t care enough. I wasn’t a Western fan, and my spending was limited to two comics a week. On top of which, the radical changes at DC in that period often left me more frustrated studying the spinner rack than excited. I did encounter him later in Weird Western Tales and liked him, so in 2014 (this is another post lifted from my own blog) I finally picked up the Showcase Presents Bat Lash TPB and found out what the character had been like in the Silver Age.
Bat Lash debuted back in the days when comics Westerns were as wholesome as Roy Rogers. Johnny Thunder, the Trigger Twins, the Old West Ghost Rider and Two-Gun Kid were straight arrows, even if some of them were outlaws.
Batton Lash? A Southern charmer who gambled, cheated when he had to, smoked, womanized, enjoyed fine food and could cook it himself if the occasion arose. A rogue who had no qualms about lying his way out of trouble. While he insisted he was a peaceful man who hated gunplay, he could also shoot his way out of trouble if the need arose.
Outside of comics, this wasn’t that revolutionary. Bat wasn’t that different from TV’s James Garner in Maverick except in his willingness to go for his guns. In comics, though, he was novel — but unsuccessful. After his debut in Showcase his series ran seven issues, then the axe fell.
Reading the TPB, I’m not surprised. Joe Orlando said some years later that while Nick Cardy was an amazing artist, his work on Bat Lash went for broad comedy when the book needed a black-humored or ironic tone. Orlando understated the problem; the art in many places resembles Sergio Aragones’ work on Mad or the later Groo. Even though Aragones co-wrote several issues, the cartoonish look did not fit the stories.
That said, there’s no guarantee better art would have made a difference. The end of the Silver Age was a rough time for DC, which axed books including Inferior Five, Hawk and the Dove, Beware the Creeper, Doom Patrol and Metal Men. Still, had Bat Lash debuted a few years later, with better art, the series might have lasted longer. The Bronze Age made Jonah Hex into a Western star, so maybe the era would have welcomed a cynical scoundrel like Bat Lash.
I certainly enjoyed Bat Lash when he guest-starred in Scalphunter, the series that replaced Jonah in Weird Western Tales after he got his own book. Which leads me to the second Western character of this column …
The protagonist of Scalphunter was Brian Savage, a white baby stolen and raised by the Kiowa, who called him Ke-Woh-No-Tay, “less than human.” The “white raised as Native American” was an old trick to make a seemingly exotic non-white protagonist acceptable. It didn’t bother me in this strip, mostly because Brian never considered himself anything other than a Kiowa brave (the classic Raised As An Indian character quickly converted to White Dude as soon as he learned the truth). Rereading, I’m not so comfortable with it, but I still like the series, even though I’m not a Western fan.
Once Gerry Conway took over the scripting from creator Michael Fleischer, Brian didn’t spend much time on the frontier. First he went east to find his long-lost sister, then he found himself embroiled in the Civil War: thwarting an assassination of Lincoln, clashing with a glory-seeking war correspondent, fighting the Italian Camorra, and running into Bat Lash.
That was, in fact, what got me to read the series. Back then I still had no idea who Bat Lash was, so I was curious, and I had more money to spend. The plot, IIRC, involved Bat Lash selling a bootleg Gatling gun to a Southerner who plans to ambush some Union soldiers. Ke-Woh-No-Tay, despite initially liking Bat, is not down with such mechanized butchery so Bat Lash double-crosses him. It turns out Bat’s scamming the Southerner and he and Brian part as friends.
That was the formula for their subsequent team-ups: they meet, Bat Lash pulls a double-cross, then it turns out he has a perfectly good reason (it’s Batlashdickery!). Still, the grim Kiowa and the fun-loving Lash made for good buddy comedy whenever they got together.
Bat Lash got me to try the series but it was the non-Western, Civil War settings that kept me hooked. Well, that and Brian’s hard edge. At one point in the story, he interrogates a criminal, gets the guy to cough up information, then throws him aside without a second’s thought. The crook hits his own safe and it looks as if his neck breaks, but Ke-Woh-No-Tay doesn’t look back. Back then, the casual brutality was shocking.
Brian didn’t have as long a run as Jonah Hex, but it was a good run.
#SFWApro. Covers by Cardy, Tony DeZuniga and Jose Garcia-Lopez.