Celebrating the Unpopular Arts
 

Will they save the comic-book Western — or ruin it? Bat Lash and Scalphunter

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.

showcase76Bat 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 …
weirdwestern39

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.

16 Comments

  1. Keh-Wo-No-Tay also showed up in Starman but it felt completely wrong. I can’t see the guy from Weird Western Tales becoming a Western lawman, let along talking with a Western accent (quite aside from Opal City being a coastal town settled by Puritans that’s also Old West). As far as I’m concerned it’s just some unrelated guy named Brian Savage.

    1. Greg Burgas

      Fraser: Robinson always tried to hedge his bets with where Opal actually was. I saw an atlas back in the day that put it in the East, which is clearly wrong; Robinson definitely hinted around that it was in the Midwest, so Great Lakes area possibly. It’s not perfect, but I don’t think Robinson himself ever said it was in the East, so maybe the Puritans just set out from Massachusetts back when the colony claimed everything to the Pacific!

    2. In my mind, Opal City (at least the Robinson version) was the DC version of New Orleans. Of course, the obsessive “whatever DC says is canon even if it’s stupid” crowd will tell me a hundred reasons why it’s not, but I don’t care. The creepy weird stuff baked into the comic feels at home with cajuns and voodoo.

  2. Jeff Nettleton

    ” Bart wasn’t that different from TV’s Bret Garner in Maverick…”

    Well, yeah, because he was a blatant rip-off! (and it’s James Garner, playing Brett Maverick). Western/Gold Key had the rights to do a Maverick comic (and spectacularly, with the brilliant art of Dan Spiegle), so DC just swiped the character type and didn’t diverge, much.

    A lot of that Scalphunter/Bat Lash buddy comedy mix was also swiped from Garner, as the success of Maverick led to a few films (Support Your Local Sherrif, Support Your Local Gunfighter, Skin Game) where he played a con artist-type who gets caught up in situations. Skin Game has Garner and Lou Gossett Jr, pulling a scam on people, with Gossett sold as a slave, then escaping and they split the money; until it gets a bit too real.

    I liked Brian Savage in the hands of James Robinson, as it felt far more realistic than what had come before. The earlier comics were more Hollywood mythical western and the Starman stuff felt more like actual history, with a more believable character and motivations. Plus, Robinson put him into an urban environment, after the West was being civilized and as we rolled into the 20th Century. If you read the histories of a lot of the Western figures, you find a lot of them (that survived) moved into a more steady trade or settled down in an area to get rich. Wyatt Earp gave up being a lawman (he had had commercial interest, in Tombstone, even as a marshal) and others settled down in bigger cities. Robinson used it to show the clash between the corrupting influences of the city and the more straightforward view of a Western lawman; someone interested in Justice, with a capital J. He sets the path that inspires others to become seekers of Justice for Opal City. Robinson also tied him to a pair of other Savages: Matt Savage, Trail Boss and Steve Savage, Balloon Buster. The former was an older DC Western hero, though I think Robinson linked the name, not the character to Brian; and, the latter was an aviation hero from DC’s war comics, a Westerner who flew for the Allies. Robinson made him Brian’s son, though his original series made him Steven Savage Jr (however, Starman was post-Crisis; so, all bets were off).

    1. The first Scalphunter story identified Brian as Matt Savage’s son. Though a later letter to Weird Western Tales pointed out Matt Savage’s adventures start after the Civil War so that’s clearly not the case.
      We will have to disagree (strongly) about Robinson’s take.
      My exposure to Balloon Buster came from his crossover with Enemy Ace. It’s a lot of fun: Steve Savage is a cutthroat win-at-any-cost type who thinks Von Hammer’s talk about nobility and killer skies and knights of the air is a joke. It made for a great contrast.

  3. Le Messor

    I recently got an issue of Brave And The Bold where Batman teams up with Keh-Wo-No-Tay. This explains a lot about that story for me.

    Also, you mentioned the Trigger Twins. The only reason I’ve ever heard of them is because in Amalgam they were combined with Northstar and Aurora. 🙂

    1. I had not remembered that detail from the Amalgaverse, but I like it.
      The Trigger Twins (whose last name was indeed Trigger) were a sheriff and a storekeeper, but the storekeeper frequently posed as his brother because this supposedly made them more efficient crimefighters (I haven’t read the series, just some synopses).

      1. Le Messor

        It has to do with Alpha Flight. Of course I remembered. 😀 (Wouldn’t expect anyone else to, though.)

        They were really named ‘Trigger’? huh.
        I’m also surprised they’re both boys, but of course I was introduced to a different version.

  4. The way I’ve heard it re: Bat Lash and Sergio Aragones cowriting is that Sergio didn’t do a written script so much as detailed layouts in his own inimitable style, and it sounds like Nick Cardy followed the layouts and art very closely at times.
    And now I’m wondering if I have that Showcase volume. There were so many good ones!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.