Thursday, August 6, 2015


Max Brand apparently liked the idea of teaming up a man with a horse and a wolf. He did it in the Whistlin' Dan Barry books--Dan's horse was named Satan and his wolf was Black Bart. Dan, though, only lasted for three books (written between 1919 and 1921) before his story came to a end.

Brand returned to the idea with a more traditional hero in the 1930s, with a series of tales published in Western Story Magazine. These were expanded and reprinted as novels during the 1940s. 
The protagonist this time was a wandering cowboy named Jim Silver, who (though still a young man) had two streaks of gray hair at his temples. Thus his nickname Silvertip. He wandered around the West with his horse Parade and his wolf Frosty, foiling bad guys, protecting the innocent and building up a Lone Ranger-like reputation. In fact, has the first Silvertip story been written a few years later than it was, when the Ranger's radio show had a national following,  I might have theorized that he was influenced by that show.

Depending on the list you look at if you do an online search, there were either 10 or 13 Silvertip novels. But whatever the exact number, Jim Silver was popular enough to stick around for awhile.

I am a fan of Brand's Westerns and have read a number of them--in fact, I could not recommend the Whistlin' Dan novels highly enough. But I never happened to have read a Silvertip adventure. Then I recently read one of nine comic book adaptations of the novels done by Dell during the 1950s. That got me curious and I found the novel on which it was based at my local library.

The Fighting Four first appeared in the August 26, 1933 issue of Western Story Magazine, then was published as a novel in 1944. It starts out with a bang--or a gunshot rather--when a bank in the town of Elkdale is robbed and a man killed. The bank's teller--Oliver Wayland--feels responsible because he did nothing to stop the robbers. This is despite the fact that there was clearly nothing he could have done.
Three of the robbers are caught. The one who escaped (with a half-million in loot) is supposed to send them a good lawyer. But he opts to keep all the money for himself. His former friends are sentenced to hang, but manage to break prison. They plan to find and kill the fourth guy, who comes up with the idea of finding Jim Silver and (without truthfully explaining all the details) ask for his protection.

Meanwhile, Oliver Wayland is also looking for the fourth man and the loot, despite his lack of skill with a gun. He's on a search as much for his self-respect as for the money.

Shenanigans ensue. The money changes hands a few times. At the climax, Jim Silver has been badly wounded, the four outlaws have joined together again and Wayland has to decide whether to run for it or stay and protect Silver even against long odds. 

The Fighting Four is a solidly entertaining book. It's easy to see why Brand brought back the man-horse-wolf triumvirate--it is an inherently cool idea that has been revisited (sometimes with a big dog instead of a wolf) by a few non-Brand characters as well. Roy Rogers, Trigger and Bullet, for instance. Or Sgt. Preston, Rex and Yukon King. It's possible that Brand did it first with Whistlin' Dan and other writers were following suit, but I don't know for sure if there is an earlier example.

The bad guys in The Fighting Four are interesting characters, especially Phil Bray, their leader. Bray is smart and has no lack of physical courage. He's also intensely loyal to his fellow outlaws, at least as long as they don't double-cross him. (To quote from the novel: "All for one and one for all!" said Bray. He had read that in a book--he forgot where--and he liked the sound of it. It had a special meaning for him.)  The sequence in which he is wildly improvising an escape from prison with his two comrades comes close to having you rooting for them.

He also isn't bloodthirsty--he'll kill you only if he feels he has to. But he will kill you. Brand strikes a nice balance in Bray's characterization. The outlaw has traits you admire, but in the end he is proof that physical courage without a moral compass is meaningless. 

I also like the way Brand establishes the relationship between Silvertip and his animals. It's made clear that the horse and wolf are both very well-trained animals, but Brand stays away from anthropomorphizing them, making it equally clear that there are circus animals as just as well trained and showing us that it takes some effort at times to keep Frosty the wolf from eating Parade the horse. None of this, though, makes the three companions any less cool 

The comic book adaptation (Four Color #731--Oct. 1956) has strong art by Everett Kinstler and is very faithful to the novel. In fact, the plot itself is surprisingly intact after being condensed to fit into 33 pages. Writer Paul S. Newman shortens the prison break sequence considerably and does strip away the characterizations that Brand gave the outlaws in the novel.  But the other characters are still well defined and the comic book zips along briskly as it gives us yet another version of an entertaining Western. 

Also, the finale results in significantly fewer corpses than in the novel--almost certainly because the readership of the comic book would be younger than those of the novel. 

The comic book is available to read online HERE.

There is one last fun thing about the novel. The prison break sequence takes place at a state prison equipped with searchlights and machine guns--two things you don't normally see in a traditional Western. The novel never states a year, but both searchlights and machine guns were around by the 1880s, so the time frame can still be well within what we consider to be the Wild West. The comic book story, because it cuts out most of the prison escape, does not show us this. 

I'm sure the prison escape was cut because that could be easily done without changing the main story. But I wonder how readers of the comic would have reacted if they saw searchlights and machine guns suddenly pop up in a Western. For most of us, our vision of the West is formed by movies and TV shows. But in real life, modern technology did overlap with cowboys and outlaws. Heck, there were telephones and a bowling alley in Tombstone when the Earps and Clantons shot it out near the O.K. Corral in 1882. But if someone made yet another movie about the Earps and put in the bowling alley, I'm pretty sure it would seem jarringly wrong to most of us. 

Oh, well. Reality is sometimes unrealistic, isn't it?

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