Wednesday, April 13, 2016

A Whaling We Will Go.

18th Century hunter/trapper Ben Bowie and his crew had six appearances in Dell's Four Color anthology book before getting 11 issues of his own series (with the numbering starting at #7).

Stories that continued from one issue to the next were relatively rare in the 1950s, when comic book distribution was such that a young reader couldn't always depend on finding the next issue of a specific title on the spinner rack. But the unidentified writers and artists telling Ben's tales managed to sneak in a brief story arc. Though individual stories were still self-contained, Ben and his crew spent five issues traveling to the far West, exploring and setting up a trading post in what was for them is brand-new territory.

In Ben Bowie #8 (Aug-Oct. 1956), they make it to the Pacific Ocean, encountering a tribe of Chinook Indians. They manage to make friends and discover that salmon is mighty tasty.

By the way, I did a little tiny bit of research into the Chinooks and the Nootkas--who appear later in the story. The portrayals of both tribes (Chinooks as fishermen & Nootkas as whalers) seem to be reasonably accurate. There may be many details wrong that an expert might notice (and keep in mind that my research was minimal), but it does seem that the creative staff behind Ben Bowie made a real effort towards historical accuracy.

Back to the story: A Nootka raiding party attacks the Chinook village. Ben and his crew help fight them off, but not before several prisoners are taken. The Mountain Men grab a canoe and follow, hoping to rescue their new friends. In a plot twist I really enjoy, their small canoe begins to swamp in the heavy seas, forcing them to call out to the Nootkas they've been chasing for help.

The Nootkas haven't seen white men before, so for a few days after the Mountain Men are brought to their village, they are novelties--kept around as sort of combination guests/prisoners. Then the local medicine man decides that if a whale is caught during the next hunt, then that's an omen meaning the Mountain Men are to be thrown into the ocean. With their hands tied.

Well, omens can be both good and bad. When the Nootka hunt leader misses a harpoon cast, he decides Ben should get a try. I really like the art work in the next few pages--there's an effective use of long panels to highlight just how darn big the whale is.

Despite a dunking, Ben puts a couple of harpoons into the whale and the hunting party as a whole finishes it off. The Mountain Men are given their freedom and Ben even manages to talk the Nootka medicine man into freeing the Chinook prisoners.

I really enjoy the Ben Bowie series and this story is an example of why. It's a well-constructed tale with an interesting setting and a great action set-piece built around the whale hunt. The art is effective and engaging--the artist is unidentified, but the style looks maddeningly familiar to me. I have a feeling it's an artist whose work I know.

This issue is in the public domain and can be read online HERE.

Next week, we'll see how Sgt. Rock combines fighting Germans with pre-natal care.

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