Monday, January 24, 2011
NOT YOUR FATHER’S LONE RANGER
Of course, the Dynamite series is only the latest incarnation of the masked man. The character was originally created in 1933 by Detroit radio producer George W. Trendle and freelance writer Fran Striker (the two men argued publicly for years about which had the largest role.) Eventually the Lone Ranger galloped from radio to serials, movies, cartoons, and a long-running television series. He appeared in a newspaper comic strip (initially scripted by co-creator Striker, who also wrote several Lone Ranger novels) from 1938 until 1971, and again in the early ‘80s. The masked man first appeared in comic books in January, 1948; except for a brief hiatus in the early 1960s when the rights changed from Dell to Gold Key Comics, the title continued until March, 1977 (an interesting side note, at least to me: that other famous masked cowboy, Marvel Comics’ Two-Gun Kid, headlined his own comic from March, 1948 until April, 1977.) The Ranger had a brief four-color comeback in the mid-90s with a Topps Comics miniseries by Joe R. Lansdale and Timothy Truman.
The first story of Dynamite’s series closely follows the origin story from the original radio program: young Texas Ranger John Reid is the lone survivor of an ambush by the Butch Cavendish gang which kills five other Rangers, including Reid’s father and older brother Dan. The troop had been betrayed by a traitorous Ranger named Collins. The seriously wounded Ranger is rescued and nursed back to health by an Indian named Tonto, who becomes his partner. Reid buries his five dead comrades, and adds an empty grave –John Reid is dead to the world, and only the Lone Ranger survives. Before long there is a white stallion and a silver mine which produces material for the masked man’s bullets. I like the way Matthews and Carielo include more subtle Easter eggs to pay tribute to the character’s history. In the early issues he wears the red shirt which the Lone Ranger sported in the 1940s, and later switches to a more Clayton Moore-esque blue one. In one scene, the sheet music to The William Tell Overture sits prominently on a piano in the foreground. John Reid’s young nephew, Dan Jr., is obsessed by hornets –Fran Striker fans will immediately realize that little Dan will later be the father of Britt Reid, the 1930s Green Hornet.
There are a few changes, however, and a few modern touches. John Reid seems more sensitive, and less sure of himself, than the stalwart hero we are accustomed to. Like the hero of yore, he refuses to take a life –he uses silver bullets to emphasize the heavy price paid for every shot fired. I don’t remember that reasoning being part of Lone Ranger lore before, although perhaps it was there and I just missed it. The widow and son of his brother Dan are important supporting characters, and the Ranger’s tender feelings for them is a dramatic element in the series. The aging, melancholy Sheriff Loring is another prominent member of the supporting cast, providing a similar dynamic to Commissioner Gordon in Batman stories. Butch Cavendish is a far more interesting villain than he has ever been before –no longer a simple outlaw boss, he is portrayed as an unhinged, psychotic politician, given to grandiose soliloquys and sardonic conversations with God. He is sort of a cross between Al Swearingen of Deadwood and the Joker.
The biggest change –and really, how could it not be –is the depiction of Tonto. He is no longer the monosyllabic, pidgin-English speaking, loyal “Injun” sidekick. Nor does he get beaten up every time he goes to town alone, as Bill Cosby famously observed. This Tonto speaks fluent English, is a formidable and supremely competent hero, and is an equal partner –in many ways a mentor –to the Lone Ranger. He is also more likely than his partner to get the girl. Critics of the character have for decades pointed out that the very name “Tonto” is condescending, as it is a Spanish word meaning “fool.” Matthews’ script makes it clear that Tonto is not the man’s given name: “You can call me Tonto. People used to.” We later learn that he is an outcast from his tribe (hence the name Tonto, perhaps, as Apaches often spoke Spanish –though that has not yet been clarified in the comic.) At one point his old friends deride him for being a “faithful Indian companion.” It is only fair to point out that Lansdale and Truman’s 1994 version of Tonto was also articulate, capable, and aware of the public’s racist view of him: "Of course, Kemosabe. Maybe when we talked I should use that 'me Tonto' stuff, way they write about me in the dime novels. You'd like that, wouldn't you?"