Monday, 28 May 2018

New (Two-Gun) Kid on the Block: Kirby Takes Over

AFTER A BREAK of eighteen months, Two-Gun Kid was revived by the new creative team of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, as a replacement for the cancelled Amazing Fantasy. But this version of the cowboy hero was informed by a different sensibility. Where the original Two-Gun Kid had been a straight-faced cowboy hero, riding the range and righting wrongs, this new Kid was not only a different person - a lawyer, rather than the farming son of a sheriff-turned-rancher - but he had a secret identity, as well.

The origin of the Two-Gun Kid - Stan doesn't mention in the script how long it takes retired gunslinger Ben Dancer to train tenderfoot Matt Hawk from dude to death-dealer, but we can presume it's several months, at least. The mask, alias and costume are also Ben's idea, making Matt a wild west superhero. Click to enlarge.
Even though superheroes were relatively new at Marvel Comics in 1962, Stan Lee figured that superhero trappings were ripe for a revival, because he gave the new Two-Gun Kid a mask, and similar motivations to the super-characters over in Journey into Mystery, The Incredible Hulk and the latest addition to the lineup, The Amazing Spider-Man.

"The Beginning of the Two-Gun Kid", in Two-Gun Kid 60 (Nov 1962, on sale 2nd Aug 1962) starts with a clean-cut young man - Matt Hawk, Attorney at Law - arriving in Tombstone, Texas and being taunted for his soft, city ways by a group of local thugs. He's saved by the arrival on the scene of the town's teacher, Nancy Carter. Turns out one of the thugs is her step-brother Clem, who's fallen in with a bad crowd.

A few days later, the same gang of toughs start on another victim, the elderly Ben Dancer. Hawk is the only one who steps forward to help Mr Dancer, though he needn't have bothered. Their new victim, a retired gunslinger, has more of a taste for fighting back. After sending the bullies on their way with a few carefully placed shots, Ben Dancer decides that Matt will have to learn to handle a gun to stay healthy. So (Uncle) Ben teaches Matt everything he knows over the next few months and at the end of the training, reveals his plan for Matt. He'll hide his identity behind a mask and costume so that he'll be safer from ambitious would-be gunslingers looking to make a reputation for themselves. He'll become ... The Two-Gun Kid.

The origin of the Two-Gun-Kid series is told in two separate stories in TGK 60. With Matt's romantic interest Nancy Carter believing The Kid to be responsible for the death of her no-good brother Clem, a situation is set-up where Nancy hates The Two-Gun Kid but loves Matt Hawk.
With his work done, Ben Dancer decides he'll retire back east, and takes the stagecoach out of town. But Clem and his thuggish friends are watching and plan to rob the stage and kill old Ben at the same time. However, Matt is alerted that something is wrong when he sees Ben's riderless horse gallop back into town and dashes to the rescue as Two-Gun Kid. As he arrives at the overturned stagecoach, Ben is staring down the barrel of a Colt, moments from death. But some sharp shooting and little help from Ben sees the bullies disarmed and down. Perhaps unwisely, Matt allows Clem Carter to go free before the law arrives to take over, setting up the final showdown for another time.

Readers wouldn't have to wait too long for that final confrontation for, after a five page Stan Lee/Don Heck tale, "The Outcast", Two-Gun Kid returns in the final five-pager in the book to tie up the loose ends from the original tale. "What happened to make Nancy Carter say ... I Hate the Two-Gun Kid" is written by Stan Lee and drawn by Jack Kirby and begins with Nancy discovering Matt Hawk tied and gagged in his own law office. Matt's been robbed by a group of masked men. Even worse, the money belongs to Nancy, held by Matt for investment for Nancy and her worthless brother Clem's futures.

Nancy runs out to alert the sheriff, while Matt puts on his mask and Two-Gun Kid costume. He has recognised one of the bandits as Clem, and knows just where to find him. With the tracking skills Ben taught him, Two-Gun Kid quickly trails the robbers to their remote prairie shack hideaway. As the kid peers through the window, the thugs are arguing among themselves about the split of the cash and one thug draws and shoots Clem. The Kid bursts in, surprising the thieves and a fight ensues. One of the thugs tosses an oil-lamp at The Kid and the shack catches fire.

By the time The Kid has carried Clem from the blazing cabin, the erstwhile bandit has died from his gunshot wound. The sheriff's posse, alerted by Nancy, chooses that moment to show up, and takes The Kid for one of the bandits. Matt escapes easily, but when he returns to town, the sheriff has told Nancy that it was The Two-Gun Kid that killed her brother. And that's why Nancy Carter hates the Two-Gun Kid.

When Bennett Brant got himself mixed up with gangster Blackie Glaxton, Dr Octopus and a jailbreak attempt, Betty tries to help but is kidnapped by the crooks. Spider-Man tracks her down to Philadelphia and tries to free the Brants from the gangster's clutches. In the struggle, Bennett Brant is hit by a stray bullet and killed. Betty, of course, blames Spider-Man.. 
Stan would use exactly the same plot device in Amazing Spider-Man 11 a little over a year later, when Betty Brant believes that Spider-Man had something to do with the death of her brother, Bennett Brant.

With cover and interior art by Jack Kirby and Dick Ayers, Two-Gun Kid 61 featured an interesting two-page recap for any readers arriving late. The clever format showed the parallel lives of the rough-and-tough Kid and the slightly too fey persona affected by Matt Hawk in his civilian identity.
Two-Gun Kid 61 was cover dated January 1963, and was on sale 2nd October 1963. This issue was the first Marvel western comic where the reader really needed to have read the previous issue to fully understand what was going on. Stan was developing the character, issue-by-issue, in much the same way he would with the later super-hero titles. Again there were two stories featured in the comic, along with a two-page introduction to the character by Lee and Kirby, highlighting the sharp differences between Matt Hawk's two identities, and a helpful pinup page that diagrammed The Kid's costume and abilities.

The whole of the first 10-page story in Two-Gun Kid 61 is focussed on setting up then resolving this issue's cover scene. When the chips are down and Nancy is pointing a rifle at The Kid, is she able to pull the trigger to avenge the death of her no-good brother last issue?
The first tale, "The Killer and the Kid", has the Matt Hawk investigating a bank robbery where the teller, Will Webb, has been framed by the bank owner Jeb Snark. It doesn't take long for sharp lawyer Hawk to figure out what's going on, and with Snark a bit too eager to host a neck-tie party, Matt switches to Two-Gun Kid to prevent a lynching. The Kid fights off the unofficial posse long enough for the Marshall to arrive, and Webb is taken into protective custody until the trial. Once the trial gets under way, Snark is no match for quick thinking lawyer Hawk, and is quickly trapped into incriminating himself. Realising he's finished, Snark manages to grab a gun and escape the courtroom, setting the scene for the final confrontation.Snark seeks to outwit his pursuers by doubling-back to the courtroom, intending to shoot Hawk, but instead finding Two-Gun Kid. Just as the two square off, Nancy Carter appears holding a Winchester on both men. Will she save the Two-Gun Kid or kill him in revenge for the death of her brother last issue?

Unusually, "When the Apaches Strike" has a group of native American warriors attack Matt and Nancy for no apparent reason. In a longer tale, I'm pretty sure Stan would have come up with some kind of justification for the Apaches' anger, but here they are little more than a plot device.
The second story in the issue is a bit of a filler, and doesn't progress the Matt-Nancy-Kid triangle. Out riding with Nancy, Matt is in a tough spot when they're attacked by Apaches. Matt sends Nancy off to alert the Sheriff while he changes to Two-Gun Kid and defeats the angry native Americans. I'm not really sure why he has to change costume. With no townsfolk as witnesses, he could have just battled the Apaches as Matt Hawk, relatively sure his identity would be safe.

Two-Gun Kid 62 starts with The Kid complaining that the region of Tombstone has become just too tame for him lately. But the town doesn't need gun-toting bank robbers to disrupt the peaceful lives on the townsfolks. A bullying homesteading can do that just as well, as The Kid will find out.
Issue 62 of Two-Gun Kid was cover dated March 1963, the same month as Amazing Spider-Man 1, and would have been on-sale just before Christmas 1962. In the lead story, "Moose Morgan, Gunman at Large", Stan tackles the issues of bullying and education. It begins with Two-Gun Kid musing that the area is so peaceful, there's not much call for his services. Changing to his Matt Hawk identity, he discovers Nancy Carter crying in the deserted schoolroom. It seems that the kids haven't shown up for their lessons in days. Bullying blowhard Moose Morgan has set up a homestead in the Tombstone, Texas region with his son, Cal, and the pair are deliberately frightening the other children away from school. First Matt and Nancy try legal means and approach the sheriff for help. But  the law can only help if someone makes a formal complaint - surely Matt would know that - and none of the townsfolk are brave enough.

One the way back to town, Matt and Nancy come across Cal Morgan slapping a smaller boy around. Matt intervenes to stop the bullying, just as Moose arrives. The brutish farmer pushes Matt - unable to fight back for fear of blowing his cover - around until Nancy threatens to make a formal complaint to the sheriff. Later, Nancy calls a meeting of the school council to see what's to be done, but no one can help until Moose Morgan actually breaks the law.

Jack Kirby's fight scene in TGK62 is every bit the equal of his superhero battles. The first page uses a four-panel page to maximise the impact. This is immediately followed by a tighter nine-page grid, detailing the tussle, blow-by-blow. The pay-off is that The Kid then administers a darn good hiding to Moose's "tough" son, Cal ... a pretty satisfying pay-off to the tale for any kid that's ever been bullied. Stan definitely knew what he was doing here.
With all legal avenues denied, it seems that the only choice is for Two-Gun Kid to take a hand. There's a spectacular three-page fight in which The Kid subdues Moose, then literally turns Cal over his knee and delivers a thorough spanking to the bullying kid. These were more innocent times ...

The Kid then makes Cal apologise to Nancy, then take his father home. He cautions Cal to show his father respect, as he'll need the support of his son, now. The tale ends with Nancy telling The Kid he was wonderful, and the Kid defending his actions to the Sheriff, but pointing out that Moose has learned today that brute strength isn't enough, as there's always someone stronger. Only through education can a man be superior to another. 

It's quite the morality play, and Stan is again showing his liberal credentials, even in a b-project like Two-Gun Kid. In it, Stan has demonstrated that bullies never win, that a kid needs a decent role model to succeed in life, that education trumps everything and, finally, that even those twisted by anger and revenge, like Nancy, can realise they were wrong. That's a lot of ground to cover in a "simple" 13-page cowboy story.

"The Man Who Changed" is just a quickfire summary of how the lawyer Matt Hawk operates in his secret identity of The Two-Gun Kid. No frills, no supporting characters, no named adversaries. Just the mechanics of how the outlaw hero helps the law maintain order in Tombstone, Texas. 
By contrast, the second Two-Gun Kid tale in the issue is a little more light-weight. It's little more than an incident really. Matt Hawk is pleading a case before the judge when he hears a ruckus coming from outside and, through the courtroom window, spots a bank robbery in progress. He requests an adjournment, which doesn't please the Judge very much. Rushing outside, Matt is able to change to his Two-Gun Kid costume in his practiced ten seconds, takes care of subduing the six bank robbers, changing back to Matt Hawk and returning to the courtroom inside fifteen minutes. The story is not really anything more than the slenderest of introductions to The Two-Gun Kid for any newcomer readers - Nancy Carter doesn't even make an appearance.

And that would be the last issue for which Jack Kirby would provide the interior pencilling ... the same month, Kirby had pencilled:

  • Fantastic Four 12 (23 pages, plus cover)
  • Love Romances 104 (7 pages, plus cover)

and covers for:

  • Amazing Spider-Man 1
  • Gunsmoke Western 75
  • Journey into Mystery 90
  • Kid Colt Outlaw 109
  • Strange Tales 106
  • Tales of Suspense 39
  • Tales to Astonish 41

... a total of 39 pages of pencilling for the month. But, as I've mentioned before, Stan had Jack earmarked for other projects: the mammoth 57 pages (plus the cover) of new material for the first Fantastic Four Annual, another 18 pages (plus cover) in the second Strange Tales Annual, along with the first issue of The Avengers (22 pages plus cover) and the first issue of The X-Men (22 pages plus cover). Something had to give, so Stan took Jack off The Incredible Hulk, Strange Tales, Tales to Astonish and Two-Gun Kid to free up his time.


The May 1963 Two-Gun Kid, issue 63, had a Kirby cover, but the interior art was by Dick Ayers. Ayers had been inking the Kirby's pencils on the title from issue 58 (before the hiatus) to date. Stan probably figured that Ayers had a pretty good handle on the art by this point and had him take over the pencils.

Behind the unusual Jack Kirby comic strip type cover lurks 18 pages of Dick Ayers art. It's strong comic art, it looks quite similar to the art from the earlier issues and it tells the story well, but it's just not Kirby, is it?
While I have been a little skeptical of Kirby's claims around how much of the Marvel Universe he created on his own, it's impossible to fault his abilities as a storyteller. There's absolutely nothing wrong with Ayers artwork on Two-Gun Kid 63. You can analyse the pages from here to eternity, and it would be pretty much impossible to say why TGK 62 was so terrific and why TGK 63 is just a little ... well, flat.

In the back-up story, "The Bronco Buster" you can see that Ayers is trying to bring some Kirby-ness to the pencilling. The figure of Nancy in panel 5, page 2 in the above image might have been pencilled by Jack and there's a very Kirby-esque Kast of Kharacters in panel 5 of page 5, Click the image to enlarge.
I've looked over the art at length and I can see that Ayers is able, by this stage, to make a pretty good job of ghosting Kirby's style. He even uses some of Jack's trademark moves. But the storytelling just doesn't have the spark, the energy, of Kirby's work. I guess that's why Kirby is a legend and Dick Ayers is "just" a well-respected craftsman.

Kirby continued to supply the covers for Two Gun Kid until the middle of 1965. Fascinatingly, when Ayers took over, he had The Kid face a villain called The Panther ... in a black costume. I've included it above so you can compare for yourself. Look Familiar? Click the image to enlarge.
Stan would make sure that Kirby continued to pencil the covers for Two-Gun Kid (and the other western titles) for the next two years, and it wasn't until issue 77 (Sep 1965) that Ayers was allowed to begin pencilling covers for the title. And, like the interior art, they're okay and all ... but they're just not Kirby.

Is this just an odd coincidence? The panel on the left is taken from Two-Gun Kid 77 (Sep 1965), from a story called "The Panther Will Get You if You Don't Watch Out", scripted by Al Hartley and drawn by Dick Ayers. The panel on the right is from Fantastic Four 52 (Jul 1966) from a story called "The Black Panther", scripted by Stan Lee and drawn by Jack Kirby. So who actually created The Black Panther?
So while I may not have been the biggest fan of westerns back in 1965, when I was just beginning to come under the spell of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, perhaps if I'd read Two-Gun Kid, Rawhide Kid and Kid Colt, Outlaw I might've had a different view.

I'll take a look at Marvel's other early cowboy heroes another time, but I think it's time to get back to some Silver Age superhero shenanigans ...

Next: Man of Iron, Heart of Marshmallow