Wednesday, December 17, 2014

TV Tough Guys Come to Comics--Part 2

Between the radio version of Gunsmoke and the TV version, Matt Dillon racked up quite a body count. On television alone, there were 635 episodes produced and (until the last season or so when network TV was going through a "AHHHH--WE CAN'T SHOW ANY VIOLENCE!" phase without giving the issue any real rational thought) it was more common than not for Matt to drop at least one outlaw. I recently watched a 1967 episode titled "The Wreckers" in which Matt had killed five men before the end credits rolled .

He was also shot or otherwise wounded a total of 59 times during the run of the show and over the course of the TV movies made after the show ended. But that hardly ever slowed him up. Heck, in the excellent 3-parter "The Bullet," Matt is temporarily paralyzed with a bullet in his spine, but he still manages to drop two bad guys. Yes, Matt Dillon is indeed a tough guy.

What makes Matt a hero and a legitimate tough guy rather than a cold-blooded killer is the Old West setting, the quality of the stories and James Arness' excellent portrayal of the character. It was always obvious that Matt wasn't eager to kill, but it was only the legitimate necessity of self-defense or defending others that forced him to take lives. The body count got so high simply because the show lasted such a long time.



Dell Comics did five Gunsmoke stories in its Four Color anthology book before giving the show its own series. This lasted 22 issues, with the numbering beginning with 6. We'll be looking at Gunsmoke #8 (April-May 1958).

This is the only Gunsmoke issue I own, but the impression I get is that though Dell still successfully presented Matt as a tough guy, the comic toned down the body count. Comic books didn't shy away from showing people getting killed--but I think the family-friendly company simply didn't want the corpses piling quite as high in Matt's comic book adventures. For instance, the first story in the book--"The Taming of Bull Halloran"--has Matt shooting a gun out of someone's hand. That's the Lone Ranger's schtick, though, and doesn't comfortably fit into Gunsmoke's more realistic take on the Old West.


In the book's second story--"Six Gun Fury"--Matt again uses non-lethal force on two occasions to take down outlaws.



On the other hand, Dell Comics often didn't shy away from violence. Heck, they once ran a story about a bizarre monster that crushed children to death. So perhaps downplaying the violence just reflected the style of the uncredited writer rather than an editorial fiat. I honestly have no idea.

But even though I think the shooting-the-gun-out-of-his-hand bit doesn't belong in a Gunsmoke story, I'm largely okay with the lack of dead bodies in these stories. This goes back to what I mentioned earlier. Matt Dillon wasn't ever presented as blood-thirsty or casually quick on the trigger. When he killed, it was because he had to. The comic book still presents him as a tough lawman, willing to stand up to outlaws and make sure Dodge City is protected and the law is obeyed. He clearly knows the difference between right and wrong. That's the important part.

"Six Gun Fury" is the better of the two stories in this issue. Like many of the original TV and radio episodes, it introduces a couple of new characters and provides us with enough background to make them the focus of the story, using them to provide drama and suspense. In this case, this is an aging trapper named Buckskin Charlie and his young partner--an Indian named Young Bear. Young Bear's dad was Charlie's partner for 25 years and died saving Charlie from a grizzly. Charlie has saved enough money to buy a farm and plans to continue to raise Young Bear as a son.

But a couple of thugs at first decide to make the pair a target for bullying and later plan to outright rob them. This all comes to a head one evening in the town staples, with Charlie unconscious and Matt being held at gunpoint.

It's a well-constructed story that moves along briskly while still taking the time to give us Charlie's background. This is important, because it makes Charlie and Young Bear more than just two generic victims. It makes them actual people in our eyes, thus generating real concern for their safety. This is an especially deep concern for those of us familiar with the TV show, which did not shy away from tragic endings.




So Matt Dillon, like Paladin, fairs well in a comic book universe, remaining a tough guy and a hero. It is perhaps a tribute to how well the radio and TV shows presented Matt--in that the violence can be toned down in the comics and we don't see him as any less heroic.



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