Friday, October 5, 2007

From Out of the Wilderness Thunders...Frank Thorne's TOMAHAWK

For my money, (twelve cents), the best DC Western produced in the late sixties and early seventies was the twenty-one issue, tour de force, of Robert Kanigher and Frank Thorne's wilderness drama, Tomahawk. National Comics debuted the unusual frontier series in 1950, about the adventures of an enterprising group of Rangers working for General George Washington. Behind British enemy lines, they fought troops, weird creatures, and various spies like Lord Shilling and The Hood during the Revolutionary War. Their first roll call included the coonskinned-capped leader Tom Hawk or "Tomahawk", his brave second in command giant, "Big Anvil", the keen sharpshooter know as "Wildcat", a youthful dandy called Jud "Brass Buttons" Fuller, and his trusted wilderness scout, Dan Hunter.

These freedom fighters often raided redcoat headquarters, ambushed British soldiers, fought savage Indian tribes, and even saved Miss Liberty a time or two. As the title progressed, there were countless issues with both good and mediocre art by Bruno Premiani, Fred Ray, Dan Spiegle, Frank Frazetta, Bob Brown, Dick Dillin, and others. Writer Ed Herron produced some straightforward war yarns, but we also enjoyed those zany Bill Finger gems with giant spiders, wasps, and gorillas to torment our heroes (and sell those crazy covers). Along the way, over the twenty-two year run, these frontier fighters picked up new members like Horace Calhoon, or the mighty"Cannonball", the Parisian dapper gentleman "Frenchie", a black ex-slave doctor "Healer" Randolph, one pinpoint marksman named "Long Rifle" Morgan, the always resourceful "Kaintuck" Jones, and a comical haberdasher Leroy "Stovepipe" Johnson.

But with issue #119, "Bait for a Buzzard", in December 1968, we see some gritty new realism being pumped back into the series. Issues now had fantastic cover art by Neal Adams, Nick Cardy, Joe Kubert, and Irv Novick. Coupled with the dynamite team of Kanigher scripts and Thorne's visuals, the stories now just exploded off the page. The work often reminds me of Michael Mann's supercharged cinema thriller "The Last of the Mohicans", but in a four-color format. Thorne's devotion to authenticity and love for the subject matter was always apparent and even poured over into the letters page where he elaborated about the long guns (1763 model French musket .69-cal) and side arms used in the feature. Thorne constructs brilliant full and double page splashes, moody zip-a-tone masterpieces with startling silhouettes, and he cleverly worked peace and war symbolism into panels, had beautiful pioneer women and fierce warrior braves, not to mention a wide array of wildlife and scenic vistas. Credit should also be given to the other talented members of the DC staff, like colorists Jack Adler and Tommy Nicolosi whose rainbow pallet of colors lit up these issues like never before, and likely ever to see again! One also needs to mention that Tomahawk's editor at this time was Murray Boltinoff, and Howard Liss, Carl Wessler, and George Kashdan wrote some quality back-up stories about the individual Rangers origins. Finally, the main letterers who helped us devour these tales were Ben Oda, John Constanza, Ray Holloway, and (no pun intended) Joe Letterese.

Bob Kanigher's genius was how he used the American frontier of the 1780s to mirror the turbulent social life and times of the 1960s. Tackling many of society's problems, he expertly crafted these stories into little morality tales. In one book Wildcat's prejudice against Indians jeopardized all the Rangers until Tomahawk helps resolve his problem. Often messages of "peace on earth" and Kanigher's signature "make war no more" themes can also be found within these stories.

As a boy of nine, I probably learned as much history from the factoid pages from Tomahawk as from my portly third grade teacher. At least the subject was presented in a format all us kids understood! These informative treats by Sam Glanzman and numerous other artists were almost as much fun as the science facts the Mystery in Space comic taught me. Fred Ray also did some choice Indian Album sequences and Revolutionary War pages describing the armory, costumes, and specific battles of the era. I don't know where he found the time to create these splashes while working for the Civil War Times magazine and penciling new stories for many of DC's "Big 5" books.

The stories and art were so hot they sparked a wildfire with readers, and when the smoke cleared with issue #131, there was a new editor, Joe Kubert, and in reality a "new" title, Son of Tomahawk was born! Now Hawk took center stage protecting his family, often from the prejudice of the local townsfolk. This was primarily caused by Tomahawk's mixed marriage with his wife, Moon Fawn and their "half-breed" offspring, Hawk and Young Eagle. Thorne scratches out even more detailed action-packed panels with this legendary patriarch from the past. Even though Tomahawk is now long in the tooth, he still has enough energy to save his family on more than one occasion. Having jumped three decades in the future, Kanigher slowly weaves other elder Rangers (Big Anvil, Stove Pipe, and Cannonball) back into the storylines of greed, revenge, betrayal, redemption, slavery, and hope. Reactions were mixed to the new focus of the book since it became a more mainstream Western using the Great Plains, pistols, and outlaws over the prior Pennsylvania forests, long rifles, and British soldiers. But all fans agreed that Kubert's Firehair back-up stories were a fantastic new addition. When the title expanded its pages and price to twenty five cents, it included other terrific tales by John Severin, Nick Cardy, Jerry Grandenetti, and Gil Kane, just to mention a few.

Unfortunately, without a direct subscription service for the book, as one reader asked in the sporadic letters page "Smoke Talk," how could they hope to survive the "new" look. Even though Tomahawk had an average circulation of one hundred forty thousands issues, the new direction could not save the comic from cancellation with issue #140's ironic last title "The Rescue" in June 1972.

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