Monday, January 24, 2011

NOT YOUR FATHER’S LONE RANGER


Troy D. Smith

Not your father’s Lone Ranger –and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In 2006 Dynamite Entertainment debuted its Lone Ranger comic, by Brett Matthews and Sergio Cariello. It was an immediate hit, with critics as well as fans. The title was nominated for an Eisner award for best new series, and was named “Best Western Comic Book of the Year” by True West in 2009. Matthews and Cariello have consistently managed to capture the spirit of the characters and give nods to their storied history while still providing depth and appealing to modern readers. As of this writing, in January 2011, the series has seen 24 issues and four story arcs. I would prefer to see the book coming out on a more regular basis, but waiting a couple of months for Cariello’s excellent artwork is more than worth it. The first three story arcs are available in trade paperback, and the fourth one will be soon; an upcoming miniseries will see the Lone Ranger interacting with an elderly Zorro (Dynamite also publishes Western comic series about Zorro and the Man with No Name.)

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?"

I hear that some fans of the traditional Lone Ranger have complained about the violence in the latest comics version. To be certain, this is not the kids’ TV show or the 1970s cartoon; comics today are primarily aimed at people college-age and older (the younger kids are busy playing with their wiis.) The action and language are more realistic –one storyline involves catching a serial killer. Even so, this incarnation of the Lone Ranger is just as much a model of virtue, morality, and honor as any that have come before. If you have pleasant memories of the character, or if you just enjoy a good Western action tale, I strongly recommend you pick up an issue or one of the trade paperback reprints.

(Troy D. Smith is the award-winning author of RIDING TO SUNDOWN, BROTHERS IN ARMSTHE PEOPLE IN YONDER, and GOOD REBEL SOIL: THE CHAMP FERGUSON STORY, among others.  Troy is currently a Doctoral candidate in the History Department at the University of Illinois. He says, "I don't write about things that happen to people—I write about people that things happen to.")

5 comments:

  1. Jim Meals and Troy D. SmithJanuary 26, 2011 at 11:23 AM

    WF member Jim Meals had a comment that refused to go through for him, so I'm posting both it and my reply here:



    The article was very much appreciated. I was unaware of the Dynamite comic and will now be able to catch up via the trade paperbacks.

    But I thought you were a tad unfair to a writer who has already been brushed off too many times. Two books written about the origin of The Lone Ranger radio program, WHO WAS THAT MASKED MAN by David Rothel and WYXIE WONDERLAND: AN UNAUTHORIZED 50 YEAR DIARY OF WXYZ IN DETROIT by Dick Osgood credit Fran Striker with being the primary creative mind behind The Lone Ranger. Old time radio historian Terry Salomonson also names Striker as having the major hand in creating the old west's most enduring and famous hero.

    By all accounts, Striker never feuded publicly with George Trendle. In 1934, Striker was pressured by Trendle to sign a release to whatever rights he may have owned to any of the characters he created while working for George. Fran signed the paper and never looked back.

    Not everyone at WXYZ was so gracious. Several people eventually resigned in anger claiming that George Trendle was hoarding far more money and kudos than he deserved. Fran Striker stayed and created The Green Hornet, Challenge of the Yukon and many other shows that were produced in Detroit and sold to the networks.

    Fran Striker has been described as a humble man. I think it is time that this humble man received the recognition he is due for his remarkable contributions to American popular culture.

    Thanks again for the fine article!

    Jim Meals




    Thanks, Jim!

    I realize there were reams to be said about the Lone Ranger's creation, but I just wanted to touch on it in order to get into the new comic series- I regret if I gave Striker short shrift in my effort at brevity, because I think just about anybody would agree that the Masked Man was his baby.

    Troy D. Smith

    ReplyDelete
  2. I'm glad to know the Lone Ranger and Tonto still ride. Thanks for an interesting article, Troy.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I will have to read these. Lone Ranger and Tonto were two big heroes of mine growing up.

    Great post, Troy.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Troy:

    Rightfully so you laud the current version of the Lone Ranger published by Dynamite Entertainment, but as you pointed out, the character was shaped by decades of radio programs and comic books. These comic books are still just a moment against that history.

    In the 1980s, a public radio station out of Albany re-broadcasted the original WXYZ radio program and I remember my enjoyment listening to it. I can be genre-fixated, that is I will read a book, watch a movie or listen to a radio show regardless of quality and simply because it belongs to a genre that interests me. However, while it was the genre that got me to listen to the program, there was a sincerity and honest quality that gave the program for me its own distinct caliber.

    Moreover, while a character‘s passages to other mediums can been uneven, the Lone Ranger, as I have experienced him, has retained some of that original value from the radio show. As a youngster in the late 1960s, I remember the barber shop copies of the Gold Key comic book. A little over half a decade later, when I was a teen and still did not perspective to put it all together, I met at a 1975 New York City comic book convention a courteous, older gentleman who sketched a Lone Ranger in my program book and signed it, Tom Gill--whose art I later learnt filled Lone Ranger comic books for two decades. Concurrently, I was reading the paperback reprints of the Fran Striker novels, also enjoyable on their own merits. Soon afterwards, I began watching on an independent television station the 1950s’ Lone Ranger program, where the episodes went down smoothly as long as I did not chew them over too long.

    The Dynamite Entertainment carries the character into the 21st Century. We shall see how long it lasts, since it is uphill haul to carry a character where the factors that lead to his creation happened so long ago. Meanwhile, while satisfying our genre need, we get a quality work.

    Daryl S. Herrick

    ReplyDelete
  5. the book has since been canceled

    ReplyDelete