Wednesday, December 3, 2014

TV Tough Guys Come to Comics--Part 1

Arguably, the four toughest tough guys in the history of television characters are as follows:

Sgt. Chip Saunders from Combat (Vic Morrow)
Eliot Ness from the Untouchables (Robert Stack)
Matt Dillon from Gunsmoke (James Arness)
Paladin from Have Gun Will Travel (Richard Boone)

These were guys you simply didn't want to mess with. If you were a villain, then deciding to go up against any one of them would be unwise. It would be so unwise, that it's likely to be the last decision you would ever make.

Any one of these four tough guys can whip any other TV hero with one hand tied behind his back. (With the possible exception of Mrs. Peel.) If two of them were to fight each other, the universe would implode. They are simply that tough.

Combat, sadly, never had a comic book adaptation.  I don't know why--during the 1960s, just about every TV series got a comic book adaptation. I suppose that an agreement with the producers or network was never reached. Or maybe Vic Morrow's inherent toughness makes him impossible to draw.

But the other three did get comic books. Today, we're going to take a look at one of Paladin's comic book outings. Two weeks from now, we'll visit with Eliot Ness. Two weeks after that, we'll travel to Dodge City and pay a call on Marshal Dillon. (In between, we'll have non-related random comic book reviews as usual.)

Have Gun, Will Travel--like many of the TV westerns from that era--had strong scripts and great character actors in the guest-star roles each week. It was Richard Boone's nuanced performance as the
professional but honorable (and well-educated) gunman named Paladin that really made the series work, though, giving each episode a strong, moral center. He'd work as bodyguard, bounty hunter or (in one hilarious episode) baseball umpire--always doing his job with a firm sense of the difference between right and wrong.

Three issues of Dell's Four Color comic featured the show, so when it got its own book, the numbering started with 4. We're going to look at one of the stories from Have Gun, Will Travel #5 (April-June 1960).

The writer was Paul S. Newman--the most prolific writer in the history of comic books and a man who could always be depended upon to give us a well-constructed and entertaining story no matter what the genre. The artist was Ray Bailey, who also did fine work in different genres, working for both Western Publications (the creator of Dell (and later Gold Key) comics) and Harvey Comics.

"The Fatal Photo" really feels like it could have been a regular TV episode. A well-known photographer named Herbert H. Higgins asks Paladin to look after him while he photographs Indians. And Paladin proves to be needed right from the get-go when Higgins angers the Indians, who think the photographs are stealing their souls.

By the way, this is something of a stereotype in Westerns, but it does seem to be some fact behind it. Some Native Americans did fear this at first, though many did eventually come to enjoy being photographed. (On the other hand, be aware that I did very minimal research into this before writing this post.)

After rescuing Higgins from the Indians, Paladin realizes the photographer doesn't actually care about getting any pictures--he just wanted to get out of town because some outlaws were hunting for him after he accidentally took their picture during a bank robbery. Higgins still has the negative, but destroying it won't do any good because the outlaws would never trust that he actually did so.

So Paladin's job changes. He's now protected Higgins against a trio of bank robbers. So he makes use
of Higgins' photography equipment to get the drop one them, at first using a picture of Higgins to draw their fire away from the real target, then (when the outlaws egg the Indians into attacking Higgins) using a massive amount of flash powder to blind everyone long enough to get the drop on them. Paladin then throws a fight with the local chief to convince him his soul is still intact.

The bit about using photography might have been contrived, but it is worked into the story organically--it's perfectly logical for Paladin to make use of all the assets at hand.

For a reader not familiar with the TV show, I think this story can still be enjoyed simply as a good Western yarn--it has a clever plot and Bailey's art work is strong. For a fan of the show--someone who can mentally insert Richard Boone's voice, mannerism and strong presence into the story--then the tale becomes even more enjoyable.

You can read this story online HERE.

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