Tuesday, July 14, 2020


Dell’s “Four Color” comics line ran from 1939 through 1962, for a total of 1332 issues. A number of those comics in the second half of the run were movie adaptations. For what by today’s standards was a modest licensing fee, a movie comic book pretty much made everyone happy: the comics publisher had a pre-sold audience for an existing and popular property; the movie studio had tie-in publicity on the comics racks of America, which could only help build up box office for the films; fans could get a souvenir of a favorite star or film and “re-experience” the film in comic book form, much the way movie tie-in novelizations offered a similar experience. Also, those who missed the film or were not old enough to see the film could at least read the comic book of it, since in that pre-video age, you’d have to wait years for something to come onto television, and you’d have to be lucky that your local station or network affiliate was playing it.

The original comics of these adaptations usually go for more money than you’d expect, because not just comics fans but movie fans are bidding up the price, and with John Wayne, you’ve got a very large following, people who are prepared to pay $75 or more for a VG copy of a Dell movie adaptation comic that would go for $5 had the film starred Sonny Tufts or Guy Madison.

Wayne had his own series of “John Wayne Adventure Comics” at Toby Comics, which ran between 1949 and 1955 for 31 issues. One rarely sees an acceptable copy of one of those online for under $100. Fortunately, they have been collected in four handsome volumes by Gwandanaland Comics, so anyone can own pristine reproductions of the comics at a reasonable price (I own all 4 volumes and sent Chris an extra copy of Volume 4, which he reviewed here at BTC on 10 January 2019).

The four films adapted into Dell comic books here are THE CONQUEROR (1956), THE HORSE SOLDIERS (1959), NORTH TO ALASKA (1960), and THE COMANCHEROS (1961), directed by Dick Powell, John Ford, Henry Hathaway, and Michael Curtiz. I believe that I’ve seen all of the films at one time or another, but not in the last 15 years. I enjoyed them all, but they are not among my favorite Wayne films…. ahhh, alas, there are no comic book adaptations of BRANNIGAN or BIG JIM MCLAIN or ISLAND IN THE SKY or THE SHADOW OF THE EAGLE or PITTSBURGH or IDOL OF THE CROWDS or THREE TEXAS STEERS.

Since I don’t have very clear memories of any of the movies adapted here, I must say that I’m VERY happy with the comic books inspired by them. As would be expected, to take a two-hour feature film (and all of these were very much “A-picture” events being John Wayne films of the late 50’s and early 60’s) and shoehorn it into a 32-page comic book requires some pruning and streamlining, which only benefits the comic since subplots or dialogue-heavy sequences from the film are trimmed. The comic book writers have to create something that resembles the film enough to satisfy those who’ve seen it, but at the same time, have a product that makes sense and tells a complete story to someone who has not seen and never will see the film. That’s a tall order, but all four of these comics deliver that very well here.

THE CONQUEROR is essentially a sword-and-sandal film (Wayne as Genghis Khan), and that genre has always adapted well to comics, probably because the films themselves often have a comic book-like feel to them, at least when they are unpretentious bread-and-butter B-movie product. This comic is not as turgid as the film, though the characters speak in that delicious stilted storybook/Biblical style found in creaky Hollywood historical epics. I’m probably one of the few people who would have enjoyed seeing a whole comic book series devoted to “The Duke as Genghis Khan,” though with the film not being a hit, that prospect was never considered.
THE HORSE SOLDIERS, which co-starred William Holden, is a Civil War adventure, and that too adapts well to the comic book page, with troops on horseback engaging in battles, bridges being blown up, trains being commandeered, small towns being occupied by troops, Confederate snipers on rooftops, etc. If you own an original copy of this comic, you’re lucky, but this reprint does very nicely.

NORTH TO ALASKA is a Northwest comedy-adventure, with a wild cast including Stewart Granger, Ernie Kovacs, and Fabian. As with Dell’s adaptation of THE DETECTIVES TV show with Robert Taylor, the star is depicted accurately, but the supporting characters in the comic don’t really look like or act like the characters in the film or TV show. The Fabian character here has blonde hair and looks to be about 13. The Ernie Kovacs character does appear in the comic, but he’s de-emphasized and not very Kovacs-like (although that would be difficult to capture on the comics page). Still, it’s a freewheeling, fast-moving comic with enough humor and rough-housing to satisfy some bank security guard reading it after work on a lonely Friday night, sitting on the balcony of his furnished room above a loan office in Salina, Kansas in 1960, trying to summon up the nerve to ask that attractive red-haired bank teller on a date, and getting more courage with every Pabst Blue Ribbon he pounds down on a hot prairie evening as the sun hangs low on the western horizon, endlessly dragging out those last moments of daylight.

THE COMANCHEROS, co-starring Stuart Whitman and Lee Marvin, has as the tagline on its poster, THE LAW…THE LAWLESS….THE LOVERS, RECKLESS ADVENTURES ON THE BORDER OF NO RETURN, and it certainly delivered those goods. A rugged story of Texas Rangers taking on gun-runners and bandits and assorted sleazes, the comic version is perhaps the best of the four because it captures the unique John Wayne persona well in the art and the dialogue and also gives Stuart Whitman, a Frenchman from Louisiana who kills someone in a duel he does not want to fight and then gets blamed for murder, a lot of space and a good characterization. For instance, Wayne calls Whitman through the whole film “mon-sewer” instead of Monsieur in that patented John Wayne drawl, and the comic dialogue fits well into the Wayne persona, which wasn’t really a priority in the other comics (well, it wouldn’t have been fitting when he was playing Genghis Khan, I suppose). THE COMANCHEROS, more than the others, in its comic book form gives the feeling of experiencing an actual John Wayne movie, which is surely high praise for its creators.

The next time you need a fix of The Duke, and you’ve already watched THE HURRICANE EXPRESS serial and a few of his 16 hour-long Lone Star westerns (distributed by Monogram) from 1933-35 (like THE STAR PACKER and BLUE STEEL) on You Tube, why not get your fix of Wayne via comic book reprints. The four volumes of JOHN WAYNE ADVENTURE COMICS and this JOHN WAYNE MOVIE COMICS compilation from Gwandanaland Comics collect high-grade material which you could never find in the wild or afford online….but now they are available as reprints in handsome volumes that will fit well next to your stack of original copies of  BLACK TO COMM.

1 comment:

Alvin Bishop said...

Hah! Keep 'em comin', Bill! Cheers! Alvin Bishop