Sunday, February 28, 2016

This is my favorite part of Blaze of Glory: The Last Ride of the Western Heroes:

So a young boy runs into the Saloon and shouts, "Hey, Kid!"

And The Two-Gun Kid, The Outlaw Kid, Kid Colt and The Rawhide Kid, who are all sitting next to one another at the bar, answer in unison.

That scene is from the 2000 miniseries Blaze of Glory, written by John Ostrander and lushly drawn by Leonardo Manco, with imagery so beautifully rendered that his signature (and "Ostrander") appear almost at random throughout, generally attached to a particularly strong splash page.

I missed this series the first time around, despite it being published right around the time that Marvel was going through a millennial renaissance of sorts, with with the publisher drawing some of my favorite writers from DC and Vertigo (Grant Morrison on Marvel Boy and The X-Men) and launching their then-new "Ultimate" line, featuring writers Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Millar. Looking at the inside back cover, where the names of various important people working for "Marvel Enterprises, Inc" and the "Publishing Group" are listed in a neat stack, I only really see one name I know well, Avi Arad, and a few that I've heard of but can't link to faces or particular accomplishments.

I just recently discovered the series thanks to a confluence of factors: Secret Wars tie-in series 1872 and Ghost Racers piquing my interest in Red Wolf and the original Ghost Rider, respectively, and a brief, funny reference to Kid Colt on the TV show Agent Carter (Howard Stark had set up shop in Hollywood in order to try his hand at directing, with an adaptation of the old Marvel western hero's comic book adventures).

I'm glad I did; it's a pretty great little series.

Ostrander basically borrows the plot of The Magnificent Seven, an often-borrowed plot that was itself borrowed, and uses it as a rough framework in which he can fill out a cast with various Marvel Western heroes. These are each pretty thoroughly reimagined by Manco, to the point that the only characters one might recognize by flipping through are Red Wolf and Ghost Rider, and that's because the former wears a big, dead red wolf on his head and the latter dresses in all-white and rides a white horse (although I should note that Manco's scratchy, gritty, inky linework, incredible level of detail and propensity to render smoke and dust with fingerprints of ink make this a very dark book, to the point that even the whites are dark; the cover image is among the brightest in the entire book).

Ostrander too seems to add more modern psychological depth to all the characters he uses, although being fairly unfamiliar with all of them, it's difficult to tell which of the various traumas and mental illnesses attributed to the characters are his invention and which are merely more realistic portrayals of plot points from the original comics.

After a rather striking, grandiose, four-page history of the Old West, in which Ostrander and Manco stand the old Marvel-owned Western characters alongside real people like Wyatt Earp, Buffalo Bill, Wild Bill Hickock and BIlly The Kid on a two-page, turn-the-comic-sideways spread, the story begins in earnest.

It beings in 1885, in the town of Wonderment, peopled mostly by families of "Exodusters," ex-slaves freed by The Civil War who moved out West. It's there that Reno Jones has settled and chosen to raise his family, but, as is so often the case, the gunfighter isn't allowed to live in peace. Masked Nightriders begin attack the town on a regular basis, intent on driving everyone away and, if that fails, simply killing them all and burning it down, as their employer wants access to the nearby river for his mining business.

Seeking help, Jones and others begin recruiting gunfighters, some on purpose, some by accident: The Rawhide Kid, Kid Colt, The Two-Gun Kid, The Outlaw Kid, and, before it's all over, Gunhawk, Red Wolf and The Ghost Rider. Hey, what do you know? That adds up to seven exactly!

Oh, wait; Cale Hammer is in here, too. That kinda screws up the math a bit.

The four Kids help train the townspeople to fight to defend themselves, and each has little sub-plots to keep them busy. There are an escalating series of gunfights, leading to explosive climactic one in which the black hats are all eventually defeated, but at the cost of the lives of several of "the Western Heroes."

As Rawhide Kid rides off into the sunset–and toward a 2002 sequel series by the same creative team entitled Apache Skies and a controversial 2003 miniseries by Ron Zimmerman and John Severin, both on Marvel's then-new adult readers "Max" imprint–he's asked if all the death was worth it or not. He stoically responds:
Men die. Every single one of us. That's a fact and that's our fate. Only the legends are forever.
That's pretty indicative of the tone of the entire endeavor, which includes awe-struck narration about how bad-ass everyone is, and slightly more down-to-earth dialogue, consisting of cliches and cowboy slang (I really like the word "owlhoot," personally).

During the Kids' first battle against the Nightriders on the streets of Wonderment, Manco draws a series of four beautiful splash pages, depicting each in action, while Ostrander writes about them like Chris Claremont kicking off an issue of his old-school X-Men:
So it's not exactly great literature, but it's a damn fine looking book, and much of what is trite, cliche or corny about the plot can be laid at the feet of the genre. Ostrander and Manco obviously weren't looking to reinvent or deconstruct the Western here; they were just bringing Marvel's mid-twentieth century Western heroes into a more realistic, more up-to-date storyline celebrating them.

And they certainly succeeded in that. Plus, you know, there's that great "Hey, Kid!" joke.

It looks like Marvel collected the book just once, in 2002, and let it slide out of print. As was the case with Vengeance, I had a hard time tracking it down in trade, and the copy I finally got was a badly beaten-up one discarded from a library and sold to me by a third-party on Amazon.


googum said...

Darn, I think I lost these issues in a flood. Manco, though, is always solid.

Michael Hoskin said...

I bought this one as it came out. Loved it - especially Rawhide & Two-Gun's farewell.

Prior to this the only Ostrander I had read was Heroes for Hire, but happily Blaze of Glory led me on to his Firestorm, Suicide Squad, Manhunter, Grimjack, Spectre, Martian Manhunter and the Kents (really looking forward to the completion of he & Mandrake's Kickstarter project Kros at the moment).