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Rawhide Kid:

Your Friendly Neighborhood Gun-Slinger

I’d never read much Rawhide Kid before, but when a copy of Volume 1 of his Marvel Masterworks showed up at my favourite London store Gosh! reduced to a mere tenner for nine issues, 17 to 25, of vintage Lee and Kirby, little more than one pound each, I thought I’d lash out. I’d ignored the fuss about the lonesome cowboy’s 2003 "outing", as far as I can tell shallow exploitation, with little "explicit content" despite the oversized parental advisory on the cover, saved only by some solid John Severin art. But this hardcover tome offered me a chance to observe Lee and Kirby early in their partnership, collaborating from August 1960, more than a year before Fantastic Four #1. Kirby had done masterly if short-lived Westerns before with Joe Simon on Boys’ Ranch (6 issues, 1950-51) and Bullseye (7 issues, 1954-55) but Rawhide Kid with Lee proved to be more significant than I’d realised.

A key point Stan discusses in his text intro is that it was here that he and Kirby first collaborated on an ongoing, developing character, "a hero that we could turn into a successful series", instead of the one-off complete genre stories they had produced up till then. So the partnership and process of their co-creation of Marvel’s superhero continuity was embryonic and developing on their misunderstood, orphaned teen cowboy. Admittedly, each issue is complete in itself, appearing bi-monthly, with the only recurring characters being the Kid himself and of course his constant companion, Nightwind (his horse, not the result of too many beans). It’s in the nature of this series that the Kid, mistaken for an outlaw and forced to live on the run, has to keep moving on from town to town. But some continuity, as "The Legend" grows of the Rawhide Kid, starts to accumulate. Lee adds some of his first footnotes to previous stories starting in the second issue, 18, (though he gets the number wrong and says 18). He also ends this issue with the Kid’s vital statistics, stating that he "had never weighed more than one hundred and twenty-five pounds" and yet by page 3 of the next issue the Kid has put on an extra forty pounds as Lee describes his punch as "one hundred and sixty five pounds of white-hot fury" and does so again on page 13 of the following issue.

What intrigues me most in this volume is surely the only instance of Kirby illustrating the same script by Lee twice. Lee can’t recall why they did this, but one year after they introduced the Kid in the 7-page "Beware! The Rawhide Kid", they did it all over again in the 7-page "The Origin of the Rawhide Kid". Not a reprint but the same story, nearly word for word, and almost the same page-for-page panel configurations. Perhaps Lee was too busy to come up with something new in time and they figured with the turnover of readers nobody would notice or mind.

Rawhide Kid #17 and #23

So it’s a unique chance to compare how Kirby stages an identical story, by contrasting between issue 17 and issue 23. For the opening splash showing townspeople panicking as the Kid walks into town, he changes him from a full-figure side shot, head lowered, an almost surly expression on his face, to a frontal shot, his presence more imposing, his expression more confident. In general the later version is more streamlined when it comes to backgrounds or settings, reflecting his increasing workload.

The setting of the untamed, lawless town of Rawhide is presented in Page 2’s first three panels. Both versions work fine, but Kirby adds a clever touch in panel 2 of the earlier version where a man is being thrown out of bar. Lee writes, "Fights in the street aroused no more attention than a distant thunderclap" and Kirby underscores this perfectly by showing a man, sitting outside a saloon implacably, arms folded, a cigarette in his mouth, blasé about the mayhem around him.

Top: Original version in #17
Below: Revised version in #23

The next scene, over eight panels, charts the Kid’s teenage training, culminating in his vow to never use his guns "unless it’s for self defense!". I can’t help wondering how much Kirby identified with the young Johnny Bart, small, slight, no big burly tough guy, but a feisty fighter nonetheless. Johnny’s tutor and adoptive father is Uncle Ben, who resembles a future moustached Lee. Ben was Kirby’s father’s name and would also be The Thing’s first name. In the second version of this origin, Kirby unfolds the trick shooting display on page 3 into a more dynamic 3-panel sequence, the middle one left textless, but the closing vow seen at a great distance is less powerful than the stern close-up in his initial version.

Top: Original version in #17
Below: Revised version in #23

The next eleven-panel scene presents the villains of the piece and their heartless murder of Uncle Ben, anticipating the murder of Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben two years later. Kirby’s establishing shot is much more effective in the original, where, as the baddies look on and conspire, we can also see the Kid riding off and waving goodbye to his uncle. In his reworked version, we see neither of them so their two speech balloons have to be trailed off-panel.

A similar problem arises in the next 11-panel sequence as the Kid catches up with the two killers, in the opening panel of page 6. In the first version, we hear but don’t see the Kid, only the bad guys. In the second version, both of their dialogue bubbles trail off to the left and the Kid already fills the panel on his own. In a way he has arrived too soon, whereas the previous pacing makes the Kid’s entry more dramatic, visible only in the second panel on the far right once he has entered the bar.

Top: Original version in #17
Below: Revised version in #23

As the showdown escalates, Kirby’s later retelling forces two clarifying pieces of dialogue to be dropped. Because he moves panel 4 of page 6 from the saloon interior to the street outside, there is no villain around to shout "Watch out! Old Bart taught him everything he knew!" And in the opening panel of page 7, when the Kid lets loose and shoots, Kirby omits the gunman who cries "Muh arm!" as bullets force him to drop his weapons. Lee makes a correction, though, acknowledging that the Kid is shooting with two guns, not just one.

Coming to this story a second time, it seems Kirby made no reference to what he’d done before but began afresh, as barely one panel repeats the same composition, angle or distance. While they have some pros and cons and the first version is probably better overall, both demonstrate the virtuosity and variety of Kirby’s visualising genius.

Posted: April 28, 2009

This article first appeared in Jack Kirby Quarterly #15.


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Jack Kirby Quarterly #15

Rawhide Kid:
Marvel Masterworks Vol 1