Westerns were once a mainstay of the comic book industry, but with notable exceptions like Brian Azzarello’s Loveless and arguably Jason Aaron’s Scalped (which while not technically a “western” certainly pays homage to the genre), the genre – excluding supernaturally tinged “Weird West” titles – has more or less fizzled out since the fifties.
The Western’s demise could probably be blamed on a changing cultural climate. The “black hat versus white hat” morality of the early Western comic book probably didn’t make sense to a generation that knew good and well that the story of the frontier was anything but righteous. The Vietnam War might have also helped to inculcate a cynicism to the prevailing cultural narrative of America as the world’s white-hatted hero – and this could have extended to the cowboy as the nation’s most archetypal hero. Consider the appalling critical response to the 1968 film “The Green Berets”, a staunchly pro-Vietnam War film starring an actor who was near inseparable from the “cowboy” character: John Wayne. Both the film and Wayne were excoriated for their simplistic “cowboys and Indians” depiction of a war popularly considered an unwinnable quagmire. (To be fair to Wayne, he also starred in John Wayne’s 1956 film “The Searchers”, a morally complex film that stood in stark contrast to the Gene Autry and Roy Rogers films of the era.)
The Western comic book all but disappeared in the sixties, but the genre found new cultural relevance in gritty, violent films like Sergio Leone’s “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” (1966) and Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” (1969). Both films reinterpreted the classic Western, standing them on their head with tales of violent antiheroes versus social order (good or bad). The Western even took a turn to the psychedelic with Alejandro Jodorowsky’s “El Topo” (1970): A movie steeped in surreal, visionary images. Clearly, the Western could still be relevant, but only if the superficiality of its subtext – the myth of America’s unfailing goodness – was questioned and ultimately deconstructed.
Superhero comics, which had risen to uncontested ascendance in the industry, were not immune to the same sort of revisionism and self-questioning prevalent in the Western film. The old stories of superficial supervillains and central casting criminals were failing to reflect the culture at large. For example, Lawrence Maslon and Michael Kantor’s Superheroes! Capes, Cowls, And The Creation of Comic Book Culture quotes DC Comics writer Denny O’Neil regarding a 1970 meeting he had with editor Julie Schwartz about a pair-up between The Green Arrow and Green Lantern:
“What if we plotted the stories from the headlines? What if we did the stuff that as U.S. citizens, and veterans, and fathers, we were really concerned about? So I don’t know how detailed a plot that I gave Julie for that first one, but we agreed on a direction and a story..”
– Superheroes! Capes, Cowls, And The Creation of Comic Book Culture, p. 176.
The Green Arrow of the seventies became a radical figure, a superhero concerned with troubling issues like racism and drug abuse. Not every comic book hero followed the Green Arrow’s lead, but other examples of revisionism and introspection are not hard to find, from the cosmic psychedelia of Dr. Strange and the Silver Surfer to the human fallibility of Spider-Man and the characters of The Fantastic Four. This new era of moral ambiguity and psychological complexity continued through the eighties (and beyond) with the work of writers like Alan Moore, Grant Morrison and Warren Ellis.
It seems that with some exception many mainstream superhero comic books have once again taken a turn toward the simplistic, depicting unambiguous good guys fighting two-dimensional villains bent on destruction and world domination. Strangely, this isn’t the case with the Western comic book. The aforementioned Loveless and Scalped feature complex protagonists navigating worlds without clear answers. So does the new graphic novel Law of the Desert Born.
Adapted by Beau L’Amour, Kathy Nolan and Charles Santino from an original story by Beau’s father, Louis L’Amour, Law of the Desert Born is a story of revenge, violence and betrayal with a distinctly noir bent. A drought causes tensions to flare between two former business partners, ultimately escalating into theft and murder. A posse of lawmen form an alliance of convenience with an accused criminal to track down a fugitive, drawing them all into a complex story of suspicion and shifting loyalties that plays out against a harsh desert backdrop.
Law of the Western Born takes many of the stock characters of the pre-sixties Western – The “half-breed” Indian tracker and the justice-obsessed among them – and subverts them by placing them in a situation with no easy resolution. Only those who can adapt to the reality of their surroundings will survive. Like the socially conscious superhero comics of the sixties, Law of the Desert Born presents a rich subtext, examining themes of racism, immigration and the way that laws can be unjust depending on the context.
A gritty story told in beautiful grayscale art by Thomas Yeates, Law of the Desert Born is a fantastic example of how relevant the Western can be now in a post 9/11 era of seemingly endless war, social unrest and rapid cultural change that in some ways parallel the Vietnam era. Law of the Desert Born could very well usher in a new age of Western comic books.
Enjoy this excerpt from Law of the Desert Born.