Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Being Bluffed by the Blind

Buck Jones had a successful career during the silent film days as a movie cowboy, bringing a level of verisimilitude to his roles from his pre-movie days riding as a cowboy in Oklahoma and working in a Wild West show.

Jones' baritone voice allowed him to make the jump to sound films. He wasn't as big a star anymore, but he could be depended on to provide a strong and likable hero. In the early 1930s, he teamed with Tim McCoy and Raymond Hatton for Monogram's Rough Riders movies. Sadly, Jones died in a fire in 1942.

But he was remembered. In the 1950s, Buck was the title character an issue of Dell's Four Color comic book, which led to his headlining his own series for seven issues. Even after that series was cancelled, he still had a few more Four Color appearances.

I'm not sure why Buck had a resurgence in popularity a decade after his death. Certainly there was no shortage of still-living Western heroes, some of whom (Hopalong, Roy Rogers, the Lone Ranger) were enormously popular. It might be the hunger for cowboy heroes was so deep that you could never have enough of them. Maybe Buck's films had been re-released into the Saturday matinees or were being shown on television.

Whatever the reason, Dell did a fine job with the comic book version of Buck. We're going to take a look at Buck Jones #5 (January-March 1952), which includes a particularly fun story.

"The 13th Notch" begins when Buck sees a lone rider about to be bushwhacked. He acts to save the man, though the gunman escapes. Buck soon learns the rider is the elderly and nearly blind Gus Hawkins, who is riding to the town of Gunsmoke to buy half-interest in a ranch.

But complications soon arise. The ranch is plagued by rustlers, leaving the current owner (pretty Tess Danbury) in danger of going broke. Also, the local newspaper owner is telling everyone that Gus Hawkins is a fast-draw killer known as the Shadow, which is the reason several people are out to get him. According to legend, the Shadow has 12 notches on his gun and wants to earn a 13th before retiring.

Buck finds himself in the middle of all this. He has to track down the rustlers, find proof to convict the man behind the gang, and keep poor, nearly blind Gus from getting killed.

This last part isn't easy when Gus decides he'll have some fun by going along with this Shadow
nonsense. This leads to a wonderful scene in which he bluffs a couple of guys out to gun him, despite being elderly, near-blind and unarmed.

Buck eventually comes up with a plan to trick the bad guys into turning against one another and give their boss away, but this goes awry and now its Buck who needs rescuing. But can Gus be depended on in this desperate situation?

The story flows along swiftly and logically, with Gus and Tess Danbury both turning out to be fun characters. And the ending, which centers around the identity of the real Shadow, provides an unexpected and truly entertaining twist.

The world is a better place because Dell Comics and its successor Gold Key Comics existed. And stories such as this one are a prime example of why. Good writing by Philip Evans and effective art by Pete Alvarado combine to spin a vastly  satisfying yarn of the Old West.

With storytellers like Evans and Alvarado around producing great tales like this on a regular basis, it's no wonder there was a never-ending need for more Cowboy heroes.

Buck Jones #5 can be read online HERE.

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