Tuesday, January 17, 2017

COMIC BOOK REVIEW BY BILL SHUTE! RAWHIDE KID #100 (Marvel Comics, June 1972)


Long before anyone ever made a drug or sex overture to me, and years before I was taken into “the back room” at Independent Records on West Colfax and offered bootleg LP’s for sale, I was first taken “behind the veil” as a comic book-buying elementary school student. Although I bought comic books at a drug store and at other places in the neighborhood, my main comic source was Convenient Food Mart, which had one of those tall circular wire-racks where the comics were on display. The comic section was in the corner of the front of the store, on the opposite end from the entrance, behind an ice-cream freezer and a soda machine. At my present advanced age, I don’t remember now what day of the week the new comic shipment appeared, and I did not have enough money to buy a comic a week anyway, but whenever I did get a quarter from my grandmother or some change from someone else for doing a chore or whatever, I would take it down to Convenient and check out the comic section. You could not “read” the comics without buying them, but you could look them over pretty closely, and I did. It was kind of like looking at 20 coming attractions for different films before deciding which one you would pay to see. It also allowed me to keep up on comics I did not actively buy as you could skim them fairly quickly. I would also stop there on the way home from elementary school and check out comics I could not afford.

I must have been going there for a few years a few times a week to look at comics when the overture was made: “Hi, Son. You come in here a lot--you’re a good customer. I’ve got some special comics in the back room that are cheaper than these ones out front. Only thing is they are missing the cover, or part of the cover. Want to take a look. You will keep this to yourself, right? Also, there’s no sales tax on these.” I was a bit taken aback, but there was the sweet taste of something unknown in his invitation, so I was ready.

What the backroom held was a few boxes of comic books with the top halves of the front cover ripped off....and some with no front cover at all. They were about 1/3 the cost of a proper comic. I don’t remember the specifics of pricing, but let’s say that instead of getting two new comic books for thirty cents, I could get something like six or seven of these “stripped” ones (as they are called in the trade).

Needless to say, I was hooked. I would make a point of stopping by when this particular guy was working, and he’d take me back again and let me thumb through the new offerings. Eventually, he let me go back myself (if there were no customers in the store), put my comics in a bag, and leave the money on the table. When I did it this way, I had to write down which ones I took, and he would check later.

I suppose on some level this practice was similar to cut-out records or remaindered books, but the big difference is that those are legit practices, and comic book stripping is not. The covers were sent back to the distributor so the store would get a credit for unsold copies. It would cost too much to ship all the unsold books back. If you look at the official notarized publication statements in comics of the era with the print runs and the sales and the returns, you see that often 50% of the magazines and comic books were returned unsold. This stripping procedure saved a lot of money on returns, and magazine and comic publishers factored the throwaway copies into the cost of doing business. Sale of stripped copies was an under-the-table practice....although I know that employees at stores which sell such publications often get access to free stripped magazines and newspapers if they want them, before they are discarded. I also remember seeing them at flea markets and junk stores as a child. That’s why you often see some kind of statement on the masthead of a magazine or comic or on the copyright page of a mass-market paperback that “it is a crime to sell this book in a mutilated form” or something similar--letting retailers know this practice is illegal and constitutes theft.

Other than the sale of stripped comic books, Convenient Food Mart seemed like a relatively honest convenience store. Independent convenience stores sometimes are a bit shady in some ways....here in Texas, you have the ones which have “8-liner” gambling machines in the back room, but you also have the ones which sell drug paraphernalia, synthetic marijuana, the combination energy drinks-with-alcohol, etc. The sleazier ones are sometimes known to offer known customers so many cents on the dollar in cash for food stamps or other government benefits. Then in some rural areas you have the phenomenon of stores selling used magazines, home-made food items, and other things you would not find in a chain-affiliated convenience store. These kind of stores are an American institution and we rely on them in so many ways, but they are rarely commented on or analyzed, except sometimes on the business page in the newspaper when there is a merger or a change in affiliation. Having worked in a convenience store myself, I can tell you that the employees REALLY know the regular customers. Even the ones who don’t talk about themselves are known to the employees through what they buy and when they buy it--and since we employees have active minds we need to fill with something, we construct scenarios about the customers. Their sex lives, their spending habits, their religious habits, the relative success of their marriages, the family dynamic (who wears the pants, etc.), who’s an alcoholic or potsmoker, who’s a habitual spender even though broke, etc.--all of these can be inferred from their purchases....but that’s a story for another article.

Of what value is a 40+ year old western comic book with a stripped cover to anyone today? It’s not as if the western genre of comic book was ever the most popular. Super-hero fans always looked down their nose at it, and it kind of died out by the 1970’s, although lame attempts were made to revive it by creating the half-baked “weird western” sub-genre. However, those never really took off except among comic-nerds. I assume that the kind of people who read western comics as children graduated to western fiction as adults--although I am an exception to that rule. I grew up on B-Western films and also western comics, but western fiction never really appealed to me. However, it has always been a niche market and continues to be, as anyone who has ever worked at a bookstore (particularly a used bookstore) knows, particularly in the west, the Midwest, and the South.

Holding this 1972 coverless Marvel western comic in my hands, I wonder....who in the world actually cares about something like this. Since it’s coverless, comic collectors would not touch it with a ten-foot pole. Superhero fans and those into comic-nerd culture (the latter being a big market segment nowadays) would not want anything to do with this as it’s a western. Those who follow comic art and comic artists might find it interesting from that angle. Stan Lee had an active hand in Marvel’s western line (and continued to into the 70’s); however, I’m guessing he does not get many questions about that in his comic-con appearances, from the people who pay two-hundred dollars for a 60-second audience with Stan, if they can even get one. Marvel tried at least twice to revive the Rawhide Kid character--through time-travel, he worked with The Avengers, and then later he was revived and made gay--and I vaguely remember each of those when it happened, but each was to me a ridiculous failure. Checking an online Marvel database, I see that the Rawhide Kid has never been killed off, so Marvel no doubt sees at least the possibility of some future marketability in the character (hey, even killing him off would have no market value nowadays!).

However, Marvel is now a huge entertainment conglomerate. The human element--the days when Marvel readers thought of themselves as a family or when you could send a note to Stan Lee and possibly even get a short answer--that’s long gone. Marvel’s unique “bullpen” provided a sense of identity and camaraderie among readers, and any comics fan of the era remembers fondly the messages from Stan Lee and later Jim Shooter about the product line and the enthusiasm about upcoming projects and story arcs. The enthusiasm shown in the old Bullpens created an enthusiasm in the readers. However, I doubt that much of Marvel’s income today comes from comic books themselves. Merchandizing and movie development deals bring in the money. The comics themselves appeal to a small and insular group. Independent publishers, who come and go, have tried since the 1980’s to create the kind of “family” atmosphere one found in pre-1985 comics, but their publications have never caught fire outside of the hardcore comics community and usually cannot be found outside specialized comic shops, places that normal people would never set foot in.

It’s possible that a 10-year old today in a section of the country where rodeos and “western culture” are still part of what’s everyday and taken for granted could stumble across this and, if he already has a taste for comics, might find it interesting and sense a kinship with it.....the way a youngster today who vaguely associates him/herself with “punk” can have a revelatory experience upon finding a Link Wray 45 on Swan or a Little Richard 45 on Specialty. Frankly, though, even in this issue, it seems as though the series was starting to be running on fumes. The main outlaw in the main story, GUNFIGHT FURY FALLS!, seems more like an over-the-top mutant than a real outlaw, and the story EL SOMBRO--MEXICO’S GHOST OF CHAPEL HILL does actually feature an otherworldly gunfighter. These are signs that the comic’s creators realize that a standard-issue western story can no longer create much interest. Jonah Hex and the full-fledged “weird westerns” were waiting just down the road a-piece--in fact, Jonah Hex made his first appearance around the time this Rawhide Kid comic was originally issued.

I was still relatively young as I watched the western comics genre distort itself while in its death throes and then die off entirely. Different comics industry Dr. Frankensteins have tried to revive the corpse here and there over the years, and some self-conscious and ironic revisionist western comics may well exist now under my radar, but the genre should be allowed to die a natural death and be left undisturbed. Some kid in Wyoming or western Kansas who grows up around horses and the mystique of the Old West may stumble across a MIGHTY MARVEL WESTERN in the basement of an old house or at a flea market, and he may get excited about western comics....otherwise, the fair has moved on, 40 years ago, and the Rawhide Kid is fated to spend his final days in a stack of old magazines, in a dusty rack below a broken table at a junk store on a state highway, miles away from the interstate, stuck between old high school yearbooks and old copies of People Magazine featuring cover photos of long-forgotten celebrities. The rare person who wanders into the back section of the junk store is far more likely to notice old empty cans of beer from brands no longer brewed. As for the Rawhide Kid....Nobody knows, nobody sees, nobody cares.

6 comments:

Stanley J. Kirby said...

WOW!

R Henderson said...

Today's BtC installment reminds me very much of what I enjoyed about Lester Bang's better (read: non-R.Meltzer worshipping) prose. Which is to say, when something strikes close to your heart, you ditch affect and rise to the occasion. Not to amuse, with hip'n'flip writing as might have been found in an old issue of Kicks magazine — nothing in the least wrong with that, as I much look forward to my daily dose of same from you — but to address eroding values like community and authenticity in plain-spoken language that cuts to the heart of the matter. I love BtC in its day-to-day goofy splendor and I learn much from it, too. But this one is something different, a post that reveals another side of Christopher and takes on something like nobility by doing so. Good one, CS.

Christopher Stigliano said...

...though with all due respects, kudos must go to the always welcome here BILL SHUTE!!!!!

guy lawrence said...

I'm enjoying Bill's stuff too. Does he have his own blog? I did search for one but, well, lost patience...

Christopher Stigliano said...

Just take a gander to the blogroll on your left and dial up KENDRA STEINER EDITIONS!!!!!

guy lawrence said...

Thanks, will do. I used to read hundreds of blogs but yours is just about the only one I check out regularly now. I have to ration my exposure to Blazing Cat Fur as it makes me so angry.