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Thrilling Fridays of Yesteryear

by  in Comic News Comment
Thrilling Fridays of Yesteryear

Okay, this one is my wife’s fault. Well, sort of.

In Julie’s defense, she had no idea what she would unleash, when she said, in all innocence, “I had no idea you liked the Lone Ranger.”

I spluttered and fumfuh’d. “But we just had the big VHS purge! And the ones I refused to give to the rummage sale were the Lone Ranger! That set of three, the boxed set! The origin movie that was cut together from the show, and the 1956 movie, and City of Gold, they’re awesome! How have we never watched these together?”

Clearly, this was something to be remedied. Immediately.

So we’ve spent the week getting Julie caught up on Ranger lore. I decided it was time to upgrade the Hatcher household’s Lone Ranger collection to DVD, and found to my delight that the three essential Clayton Moore Lone Ranger films– The Legend of the Lone Ranger, The Lone Ranger, and The Lone Ranger and the Lost City of Gold— are all available from Amazon for a total investment (including shipping) of about eleven dollars, if you buy used.

 

1956’s The Lone Ranger is really the one to get; it is to the Lone Ranger what the 1979 Christopher Reeve movie is to Superman. Spend the extra three bucks for the “special edition” and there is a charming interview of Clayton Moore’s daughter Dawn by Leonard Maltin (and also a really scary interview of Michael Ansara by a fan that’s so geeked out that Ansara himself looks a little unsure about the whole thing, but you can safely skip that one.)

But the movie itself is really the treat. It has all the wide-open landscapes that they never got to use on the TV series, shot on location in Utah with all sorts of great mesa and canyon scenes… and some seriously bad-ass brawls, too. The throwdown between the Ranger and Michael Ansara’s Angry Horse is worth buying the DVD for all by itself, and there’s also the wonderful climactic hillside brawl between the Ranger and Reese Kilgore’s head thug, when the cavalry comes riding in…sigh. Good stuff. If there was one thing they knew how to make movies of in the fifties, it was cowboy fisticuffs.

Needless to say, I love these films, and I even enjoy the TV show (though a little goes a long way, I admit.)

Clayton Moore is and forever will be the Lone Ranger to generations of fans…

…but.

…But he’s not MY Lone Ranger. Not really. I was just a hair too young. So my initial experience of the Ranger came from comics and cartoons, most of them pretty obscure. I thought I’d take the space this week to look at a few of them.

*

The Lone Ranger, for me, has always been one of those characters that succeeds more on concept than execution, most of the time. The masked rider of the plains bringing justice to the West, aided by his faithful Indian companion. That’s really all there is to it. There are hardly any memorable individual episodes of the radio show, the TV show, the newspaper strip, or the other licensed novels or comics. No rogues gallery to speak of, not even one measly recurring arch-enemy. There have been a couple of attempts to retcon Butch Cavendish into some kind of rough-hewn old-west Kingpin, but those didn’t really take.

The one time the Ranger did have really interesting and cool villains just happened to be when I initially encountered him, in 1966. On CBS, when he starred in his first animated cartoon.

It was a very odd cartoon, even for a season that included, among other things, Mightor the super caveman and Frankenstein Jr. and the Impossibles. The 1966 Lone Ranger series was, as others have noted, probably borrowing a lot of its atmosphere from the then-prime-time megahit The Wild, Wild West, and I suspect a certain Jonny Quest influence there too. This was the steampunk version of the Ranger, basically, twenty-some years before anyone ever thought of the term.

The Lone Ranger and Tonto went up against all sorts of mad scientists, costumed psychos, and the occasional steam-driven killer robot. The animation was wonderfully scratchy, almost like a charcoal drawing, adding a weird authenticity to the whole thing. (There’s a theory that the drawing style was probably also deliberately copped from The Wild Wild West opening titles, but I don’t know if I’d go THAT far.)

I hunted all over the internet for the few screencaps I have posted here, and I hope they give you a little bit of an idea of that drawing style at least — I’m just sorry I can’t show you any of the villains, because they were awesome. I especially remember Bear Claw — to this day, when someone says “bearclaw,” I don’t think pastry, I think steroid-case assassin wearing a bear’s head mask and sporting steel-clawed gloves.

With episode titles like The Secret Army of General X, Night of the Vampire, Ghost Tribe of Comanche Flat, and Attack of the Lilliputians, you can get something of a sense of the crazed adrenaline rush of the whole endeavor. Needless to say, it blew my little six-year-old mind. I was instantly a fan of the Lone Ranger and Tonto from that point on. Unfortunately, the 1966-67 television season was the last one for that kind of adrenaline-rush Saturday morning experience. The goddamn PTA or whoever it was had decided that Saturday morning TV was too violent, so suddenly there was no more Lone Ranger.

So I went looking for the Ranger where I’d gone looking for Superman and Spider-Man and the Flash — on the comics rack. There were Lone Ranger stories in comics form almost from his inception. There was a newspaper strip that ran for years, and a newsstand comic book followed shortly thereafter.

It was successful enough to spawn several spin-offs — there was a point when even the Ranger’s horse Silver had his own book.

But again, I was a little late for when the Ranger and Tonto owned the pop-culture landscape. By the time I got to comics, there was only the one quarterly title from Gold Key, reprinting the old Dell stories (most of them from Dell workhorse Tom Gill) and it was just okay.

I went on to other comics, but even so, I always had a soft spot for the Lone Ranger. I eventually stumbled across reruns of the Clayton Moore TV show, but they seemed a little stodgy, a little too old-fashioned somehow. Same with the radio show revivals you’d get on the occasional nostalgia festival from local stations. The Lone Ranger and Tonto were always putting away bank robbers, or rustlers, two-bit crooks like that. This always felt vaguely dissatisfying to me. I couldn’t really have put it into words when I was fifteen, but it just didn’t have the same rush that I remembered from the steampunk cartoon. The Ranger needed to be… bigger, somehow. He needed to be having grander adventures. Any old posse can take down a bunch of penny-ante cattle thieves. Sure, every man deserves justice and so on and so on, and the Ranger himself would doubtless have thought I was being snooty… but, really, if you’re going to call in the Masked Rider of the Plains it ought to be something BIG, damn it.

I finally got to see 1956’s The Lone Ranger, and that felt about right. That one was big. Villain Reese Kilgore… well, he was no Bear Claw, but at least he was bad enough and smart enough that I could believe the Ranger and Tonto would break a sweat taking him down. And about the time I caught up with the 1956 movie on a Saturday afternoon rerun, I also got wind of a new, big-budget Hollywood remake that was going to do for the Lone Ranger what Christopher Reeve would do for Superman. Hot damn! I could hardly wait!

…I’ve written elsewhere of how badly superhero fans were disappointed by Hollywood throughout the seventies and early eighties, and boy howdy, there has to be a special Klinton Spilsbury room in the Hall of Shame for 1981’s The Legend of the Lone Ranger.

The two things everyone remembers about that movie are the shamefully litigious attacks the producers made on Clayton Moore, and the sheer awfulness of Klinton Spilsbury’s performance. (Michael Horse redeemed himself a few years later in Twin Peaks, so he gets a pass from us on his Tonto.)

But the beauty part was — I never saw it. I read the book instead, an impulse buy at a drugstore spinner rack… and the novelization of the script, the story of how the Ranger and Tonto saved President Grant from the grandiose, half-mad, would-be revolutionary Butch Cavendish, was GOOD. The book wasn’t Great Literature or anything, but it was a nice workmanlike job from one Gary McCarthy, and that story really would have made a hell of a good movie… with, oh, I don’t know, a completely different cast and crew involved. The film that was seen by an unfortunate few really is a crippled thing, I discovered, when I finally caught up to it on VHS five or six years ago.

But the tie-in paperback reawakened my interest in the masked rider and I went looking for other stuff. This is how I eventually found The Lone Ranger and the Lost City of Gold, and the original pulp novels by Fran Striker, newly reprinted in paperback by an enterprising publisher hoping to ride the movie publicity to a quick payday. And more back-issue comics by Tom Gill, though they were few and far between. Comics shops were just starting to appear, and Gold Key back issues were almost never to be found in the ones I was in. The few copies I stumbled across were in the children’s section of used-book stores.

You’d think the Ranger would be a natural for comics or cartoons or SOMETHING. But there was only a half-assed effort from Filmation in the early 80’s, part of the Tarzan-Lone Ranger-Zorro Adventure Hour. Three of the greatest characters ever in adventure fiction… and yet the cartoon was a total snore. (In fairness, it’s not really Filmation’s fault. There were so many regulations about what you could and could not show on children’s television then that the miracle is that anyone even tried to do adventure cartoons at all.)

Filmation did get the great William Conrad to voice the Ranger, which earned them enough cool points for me to check it out, but… it was the same old story. Rustlers. Swindlers. Small-time grifters. And the censors were so tight-assed the Ranger and Tonto weren’t even allowed to hit the bad guys. Dull dull dull. When it disappeared after a season or so I didn’t miss it.

Then nothing for a long time.

Finally, in the early 90’s, Topps got Joe R. Lansdale and Tim Truman, fresh off their Vertigo revival of Jonah Hex, to do the same for the Lone Ranger. They did a four-issue mini-series called “It Crawls.”

This is a very GOOD mini-series, and I really do like it, and I was delighted to see the weird-menace style of villain… Lansdale’s alien energy-vampire monster could have stepped right out of the 1966 cartoon. The art is brilliant, Tim Truman doing his gritty western thing.

But, because it’s for modern comics audiences, Lansdale decided that he was going to deconstruct the Ranger and Tonto, find out what makes them tick, and in his effort to make them more human he makes them… TOO human. Tonto’s a snide wisecracking jerk and the Ranger’s a self-absorbed whiner. The idea was apparently to break them down and then build them back up, according to Lansdale, but it doesn’t really come across that way. The redemption for both characters in the last issue feels almost perfunctory, like a guy who thinks a muttered oh yeah, sorry about that is a sufficient apology.

Then another long fallow period, where the only Ranger adventures around were cassettes of the radio show or Clayton Moore reruns on VHS. No comics, no cartoons. He had a sort of cameo in the Green Hornet series from Now Comics, and I enjoyed the Wold Newton-esque shout-out there… but really, that was IT.

Which brings me to the new revival by Brett Matthews and Sergio Carriello. I’ve talked about this version before and I won’t go through it all again.

But… there are so many things RIGHT about this book. The Cariello interior art’s gorgeous, the covers by John Cassaday are to die for, I’m seeing the same kind of modern sensibility in the writing that Lansdale and Truman were going for… but Matthews wisely has decided not to beat the characters down so far that they are unrecognizable. And the villains look very promising as well — Black Bart already looks like someone that would give our heroes a real fight, and he’s not even the head villain — and it all feels like, finally, I’m getting the Ranger I’ve been waiting for.

So don’t screw it up, guys, okay?

…See you next week.

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