Monday, April 25, 2011

THE TOP TEN WESTERN COMICS- and a whole slew of runners-up



 By Troy D. Smith

Westerns have been a staple genre of comic books –with some ups and downs –since almost the beginning of the medium. Two regular titles started in February, 1937 (over a year before Superman ushered in the superhero age) –Chesler/Centaur Publications’ Star Ranger and Comics Magazines Company’s Western Picture Stories, which featured the artwork of the legendary Will Eisner. It was a few years, though, before Westerns became huge, with their glory years running from the mid-40s until the early 60s.

Many comics were based on movie cowboy heroes or TV westerns, but there were also plenty of characters who originated in the four-color version of the Old West. Superheroes, horror, and science fiction started pushing Westerns to the margins in the late 1960s, and by the late 70s even the longest running stalwarts had been canceled.





Only DC’s Jonah Hex survived into the 80s –and in 1985 the character was transferred to a Road-Warrior-esque apocalyptic setting. Prospects were pretty dim for Western comics in the 80s and 90s, with a few very noteworthy miniseries representing the genre (including several starring the aforementioned Hex.) In the new century, however, Western comics have made something of a comeback. They don’t dominate the market by a longshot, but it is no longer shocking to hear that a new Western series has started up.


I have compiled a “greatest of” list of Western comics. Such a venture is always very subjective, of course. I have sought the input of other professional western authors and/or comics professionals, and carefully tabulated the votes –some of the results surprised me. For one thing, I wasn’t expecting so many titles from outside the United States. Half-a-dozen European comics are listed –four from France and one each from Italy and Spain. This just goes to show that the appeal of the Western is universal.
I am including below the Top Ten, with background information about each title or character. After that I have included the runners-up, in ascending order according to how many “points” they got in the poll (#1 picks got more points than #10 picks, and etc.)
How did we do? Did we forget any, or include any that you believe undeserving? Do you have a list of your own? Leave a comment, please!
Also, go here to read an interview I conducted a few years ago with comics icon Stan Lee, on the subject of Western comics: 
http://tnwordsmith.blogspot.com/2011/03/1996-interview-with-stan-lee-about.html


First, our panel of respondents:
Peter Brandvold
Tony Isabella
Jeff Mariotte
James Reasoner
Troy D. Smith
Duane Spurlock
Timothy Truman

And now, the winners.

 1.   Jonah Hex                         

Bounty hunting anti-hero Jonah Woodson Hex has been slinging lead at DC comics since his creation by John Albano and Tony DeZuniga in 1972. While other western characters fell by the wayside in the late 70s, Jonah kept going till 1985 (after which the character was injected into a time-traveling Mad Max-like series that is best forgotten.) He returned in the 90s with three acclaimed miniseries by Joe R. Lansdale and Timothy Truman, and has once more starred in his own ongoing title since 2005, written by Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti and illustrated by several different artists. Fans were excited to learn that, in what seemed like perfect casting, Josh Brolin was to portray the scarred gunslinger in the 2010 film; Brolin was good, but unfortunately the movie wasn’t.

Jonah Hex has a lot more in common with amoral spaghetti western characters like Eastwood’s “Man with No Name” than with the cowboy do-gooders of previous eras. His past is checkered, one half of his face is horribly scarred, his very name suggests that he is cursed, his revenges are often cruel, his Confederate heritage affects him in various ways (depending on the writer), and the hardest outlaws are justifiably terrified to learn they have become his quarry. He has been known to come to the aid of the helpless, but unlike other western heroes he does so reluctantly, against his better judgment. He is also unusual in that his ultimate fate was revealed early in the character’s existence; a 1978 story informed readers that a sixty-something Hex was murdered during a card game in 1904, and that his stuffed body was displayed in a traveling Wild West show.



2.   Bat Lash                             

When Bartholomew “Bat” Aloysius Lash first appeared in DC comics in 1968, the tag-line read “Will he save the West, or ruin it?” In many ways, Bat seems like a character that could only have been created in 1968: A peace-loving gambler with a penchant for flowers (often wearing one in his hat and/or lapel.). Like the television character Maverick, he was never in a hurry to confront trouble, but could handle it when he had to. There were a lot of editorial hands in his creation, but Sergio Aragones and Nick Cardy were the creators most closely associated with the character. The Bat Lash comic only lasted seven issues, but the character did not fade away, frequently showing up in other books. He has appeared often in Jonah Hex comics, both in back-up series and as a guest star –the two very disparate characters have an uneasy (and often comical) friendship. An elderly Lash appeared in the 1998 miniseries by Timothy Truman, Guns of the Dragon, which was set in the 1920s; Lash had his own miniseries in 2006, Guns and Roses, by co-creator Sergio Aragones (of MAD Magazine fame), Western novelist Peter Brandvold, and legendary western comics artist John Severin.




3.   Rawhide Kid                     

The Rawhide Kid first appeared at Marvel Comics (then known as Atlas) in 1955, lasting until 1957. The first issue was drawn by Bob Brown, and (probably –no one remembers) written by Stan Lee. That early incarnation of the kid was a stern blond man in buckskins. The title was re-worked in 1960 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, with much greater success. This Rawhide Kid was a diminutive, red-haired 18-year-old named Johnny Bart. Johnny was orphaned in a Cheyenne raid and raised by a Texas Ranger named Ben Bart, whose murder led the teen on a quest for justice and a career as a gunfighter. A misunderstanding caused the Kid to be a wanted fugitive, wandering the West and righting wrongs while trying to avoid the law. The title lasted until 1979. For most of those years, it was written and drawn by Stan Lee’s brother Larry Lieber.
The Rawhide Kid, along with most of Marvel’s western heroes, encountered the time-traveling superhero group The Avengers a couple of times in the 1970s (or the 1870s. Whatever.) He had his own miniseries in 1985, set around 1900; in the early 2000s he appeared in two miniseries by John Ostrander and Leonardo Manco, Blaze of Glory and Apache Skies. The Ostrander / Manco Kid had long hair and dressed in a much more realistic style. In 2003 the Rawhide Kid made national headlines with the release of the miniseries Slap Leather, written by Ron Zimmerman and drawn by John Severin. Zimmerman’s Kid was flamboyantly gay, and the story was a combination of slapstick and broad innuendo. It was interesting to watch Stan Lee on CNN, promoting a gay-themed western written by a Howard Stern regular. (In my opinion, a story about a gay Rawhide Kid –that was not written like a Howard Stern bit –could have actually worked.) More recently, Zimmerman teamed with artist Howard Chaykin in a 2010 miniseries called Rawhide Kid: The Sensational Seven, which saw the Kid leading a group of comic book cowboys and real-life western figures on a mission to rescue the Earp brothers.

4.   Kid Colt                              

Blaine Colt, alias Kid Colt, Outlaw, was a Marvel western mainstay from 1948 until the late 70s. His origin story was very similar to the one later written for the Rawhide Kid (and, in fact, for several Marvel western heroes); after gunning down his father’s killer in a fair fight, Colt is falsely accused of murder and goes on the run rather than face a corrupt legal system. He travels the West fighting injustice and trying to clear his name. That theme –an outsider protecting people who distrust him, while pursued by the authorities –would be replicated by Stan Lee and Marvel Comics in their 1960s superhero comics, with Spider-man, the Hulk, and the X-men also being misunderstood outsiders on the right side of justice but the wrong side of the law..
Kid Colt was one of the Big Three Marvel Westerns in the 60s and 70s, along with Rawhide Kid and Two-Gun Kid. The title was canceled in April, 1979, one month before the Rawhide Kid. Kid Colt did not appear again –except as part of a large group of western heroes in a time-traveling Avengers story in the 1980s –until the 2000 John Ostrander / Leonardo Manco miniseries Blaze of Glory. That story featured most of Marvel’s most well-known western heroes in a last stand against an army of bad guys, and Kid Colt is one of several characters to perish. Nonetheless, he appeared as part of the Rawhide Kid’s posse in 2010’s Sensational Seven.



5.   Two-Gun Kid                    

The Two-Gun Kid was the first Marvel hero to headline a title, beginning in March, 1948, drawn by Syd Shores. He was also the first Marvel gunslinger to have the origin story that became an imprint for most of the company’s western heroes: blond, black-clad Clay Harder was framed for murder, and spent his days on the run, lending a hand to downtrodden folks along the way. The character was around for years, but by 1962 –much like the Rawhide Kid –Marvel decided he needed to be re-booted.
The new Two-Gun Kid, created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, was radically different than his predecessor. Matthew J. Hawk (it was later revealed his real last name was Leibowicz) was an idealistic young Boston lawyer who was inspired by the fictional dime novel exploits of Clay Harder, the Two-Gun Kid, and decided to adopt the identity himself. He went west, dividing his time between the courtroom and fighting injustice as (the now masked) vigilante.
Like the other major Marvel western heroes, the Kid met the Avengers in their 1970s Wild West adventure; unlike the rest, though, he returned with his new friends to the “present,” an experience that would become an important part of his character’s backstory. After several adventures with the superhero group, Hawk returned to his own time –with a cache of 20th century weapons, as shown in the miniseries Sunset Riders.
In the 2000 Ostrander / Marcos miniseries Blaze of Glory, Hawk had retired and was living under the pseudonym Clay Harder. The Rawhide Kid talks him into joining his mission, in which Matt Hawk perishes along with Kid Colt and the Outlaw Kid. In yet another convoluted time-traveling plotline, a pre-Blaze of Glory Two-Gun is once more transported to the 20th century and the company of the Avengers (having a short career as a modern-day bounty hunter), returning to the 19th century after he had technically “died” and dying again in a 1930s nursing home. Most recently he joined another of the Rawhide Kid’s “posses” in 2010’s Sensational Seven.   

6.   Desperadoes                    

Desperadoes is a Weird Western title that has been released periodically since 1997 as a succession of miniseries and one-shots (five to date.) Each story has been written by Jeff Mariotte, and the title has been illustrated by various artists, including John Cassaday and John Severin. Originally published by Homage Comics, it has since moved to IDW Publishing.
The “desperadoes” in question are former Texas Ranger Gideon Brood, ex-slave and buffalo soldier Jerome Alexander Betts, Pinkerton detective Race Kennedy, schoolmarm-turned-prostitute Abby DeGrazia, and (beginning in the third installment) roguish gunfighter Clay Parkhurst. Their adventures take place in a realistic Western setting which has a way of turning rather strange: they have encountered zombies, ghosts, and a vicious serial killer with magic powers. The resultant combination of Western adventure and atmospheric horror has garnered wide praise.


7.   Lone Ranger                     

The Lone Ranger was created for radio in 1933, by writer Fran Striker and radio producer George W. Trendle. Soon there were novelizations, movies, and eventually the successful television series starring Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels. The masked man’s comic book career began in January, 1948, in Dell Comics. Gold Key took over as publisher in the early 60s, and the title lasted until 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, followed by an ongoing series from Dynamite Entertainment by Brett Matthews and Sergio Cariello that started in 2006 and continues today.
As all western fans know, John Reid was the sole survivor of a Texas Ranger company that was massacred by Butch Cavendish and his gang. Rescued by an Indian named Tonto, he dons a mask, molds bullets from silver in a secret mine, and rides a white stallion named Silver in his pursuit of justice in the Old West. An in-depth review of the Dynamite title appeared in a previous Western Fictioneers blog.




8.   Boys’ Ranch                      

Boys’ Ranch was a “kid’s gang” comic by writer Joe Simon and artist Joe Kirby which appeared in 1950 from Harvey comics. It only had a six issue run, but is considered one of Simon and Kirby’s most significant ventures –which is really saying something. Simon and Kirby co-created Captain America in the 1940s, and Kirby would go on to co-create, with Stan Lee, a large number of the most famous Marvel superheroes in the 60s, as well as the New Gods at DC in the 70s. Boys’ Ranch was unmistakable Kirby: splash pages, dramatic poses, and dynamic action.
The ranch in question is donated by its dying owner to be a sanctuary for homeless boys, under the supervision of former cavalry scout Clay Duncan. The boys are an eclectic mix: Dandy, Wabash (a hill boy), Angel (longhaired and hot-tempered), and several others. Simon and Kirby had produced other kid-gang titles –Newsboy Legion and Boy Commandos, for example –but with Boys’ Ranch they were in top form.





9.   Ghost Rider                      

The Ghost Rider has had several incarnations (spooky, huh?) The Ray Krank/Dick Ayers-created character first appeared in Magazine Enterprises comics, as a guest-star in Tim Holt #6 (May, 1949.) He was the costumed alter ego of Marshal Rex Fury, who struck fear into the hearts of outlaws. He appeared in several ME comics, and had his own (more supernaturally themed) title which ran in the early 50s; he encountered witches, demons, and even the Frankenstein monster. This incarnation was a casualty of the backlash against horror comics, and like many such titles it did not survive the creation of the Comics Code Authority. Magazine Enterprises itself went out of business a few years later (which also freed the copyright to Ghost Rider.)
In February of 1967 Marvel Comics published their own version of the Ghost Rider –with the same appearance and basic approach, but a new backstory and alter ego. The new book was written by Roy Thomas and Gary Friedrich, and drawn by Dick Ayers (the original Ghost Rider artist from 1949.) In this incarnation, the Ghost Rider was secretly Carter Slade, who covered himself and his horse Banshee with phosphorescent dust to achieve a glowing, ghostly effect. In the 20th century, his descendant Hamilton Slade would be possessed by Carter Slade’s spirit and also become the (literally) Ghost Rider.
The western Ghost Rider was canceled, however, and in the early 1970s (due to the Comics Code relaxing where supernatural story elements were concerned) Marvel introduced the Ghost Rider most people are familiar with –Johnny Blaze, the biker with a blazing skull. The Western hero was still making guest appearances at Marvel, though, so Carter Slade’s name was changed to avoid confusion. At first Marvel called him Night Rider –a very unfortunate choice for a man riding around with a white mask on –and later settled on Phantom Rider. In the 2007 Ghost Rider film, the western ghost and the demonic motorcyclist were linked, with the former passing the baton to the latter. Sam Elliot played the spectral cowboy, probably the best thing about the movie.
 
10.         Blueberry                     

Blueberry is the most famous Western comic to originate outside the U.S. Created in 1963 by the Belgian writer Jean-Michel Charlier and widely acclaimed French artist Jean Giraud (better known by his pen name, Moebius), Blueberry’s adventures have been widely translated. Mike Donavan was the disowned scion of a racist Southern family, who wound up fighting for the Union. He chose his new name randomly, when he saw a blueberry bush –much like the samurai in the 1961 film Yojimbo named himself after a mulberry bush. The comics follow his cavalry career and his adventures as a lawman after that; the character still appears regularly in French graphic novels and series. There are several English translations of the original Moebius editions, and if you are a francophony like me you can still follow the new adventures. There was a Blueberry film released in 2004 –it was retitled Renegade for American release, though. The best thing about the film version is seeing the 87-year-old Ernest Borgnine as Mike’s crusty sidekick. Generally speaking, though- just like with Jonah Hex –you’re a lot better off sticking with the comics.

 11.  (Son of) Tomahawk       

12. Cheyenne Kid        
                 
  13. Firehair
                                                 
14. Graveslinger

15.  Ringo Kid
                                            
16.  Gunhawks
                  
17.  Johnny Thunder
                                 
18. El Diablo
             
 19.  Bouncer
                                          
 20. Amargo            
           

21    (tie) Ken Parker                    
              

21 (tie)  Scalphunter
         
  
21 (tie) The Presto Kid

24. Loveless
                        
                       
25 (tie) The Kents

25 (tie)   Comanche         



27  White Indian                       


28  Nighthawk               
              

29  Outlaw Kid
                              

30  Pow-wow Smith
              

 31  Black Rider                                  


32 (tie)  Trigger Twins
                
 32 (tie)  Lobo
                                         
32 (tie)   Jim Cutlass

               

27 comments:

  1. Wow, what a great list. There are several hear that I never heard of and will certainly look for. Mind if I link to this on my blog?

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  2. Thanks, Troy (and panelists). This is a great list and overview. I'm making a list....

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  3. Great post! When I was a kid I owned that very issue of ALL STAR WESTERN featuring Johnny Thunder. I remember the cover very vividly and also some of the contents.

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  4. A terrific list - and I'm all for anything that shines the spotlight on western comics...but (and we knew this was comin') there are a few omissions, particularly JUDGE COLT, which is one of the best. Those great painted covers brought me in for the entire series; RIO - Doug Wildey's art is stunning in these books; I really do think SCALPHUNTER should be ranked higher; adult, violent. Possibly the best Native American action series (although we love Kubert's FIREHAIR); also, what about the glorious Dell Four Colors of the 50's and 60's? Particularly the Zane Grey adaptations, some with the Frazetta artwork. Marvel? Love all the Jack Kirby westerns, of course, but the short-lived GUNHAWK struck a chord with me. Favorite movie comic? RIO CONCHOS, followed by EL DORADO, THE SEARCHERS, and so many, many more. Sorry to ramble, but you guys got me lookin' through my comics again, and now I have a stack to read for the week! Great job!

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  5. This is fantastic and brings back a lot of memories, because many of those comics -- Rawhide Kid, Kid Colt, Two Gun Kid, etc. -- were staples of my childhood. And I'm a HUGE Jonah Hex fan these days; it's one of the only comics I still buy monthly and collect the trades as well.

    Have to say, though, that I hate, hate, HATE Zimmerman's take on Rawhide Kid. Not because he's portrayed as gay; I could handle that. It's the way that portrayal is handled, the constant innuendos, etc. It made the character and the story too much of a joke, and I didn't like it. Maybe it would be different if it was with a character I didn't have such strong personal connections to; I don't know, it's entirely possible I'm being overly sensitive about it. It bummed me out such that I only picked up the first two issues of the recent short run and then gave up on it.

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  6. @Chris- I agree on Zimmerman's Rawhide Kid. I liked the direction John Ostrander had been taking the character. And as I said, I think the gay angle could actually work very well if it were done right.

    @Courtney- Scalphunter ranked a lot higher on my list, too, as did Blueberry and Gunhawks. Also, I wonder how many folks know that Dell's 1965 LOBO was the first black comics character to have their own title?

    @James- For me the nostalgic cover is the 1980 Marvel Premiere featuring Caleb Hammer. I remember buying it like it was yesterday, though it was over 30 years ago (I was 12 at the time, and already an old hand when it came to comics.) It's hard to believe a one-shot character could make such an impression on me -his first name alone was so cool that I've used it for a couple of my own cowboy characters. Caleb Price plays a big role in Ostrander's Blaze of Glory, which I recommend very highly.

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  7. Incredible amount of work went into this post; I take off my hat to you all...As for the recent Rawhide Kid, gay readers would probably appreciate a gay comic hero who is NOT a flamboyant stereotype.

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  8. Heartfelt thanks, by the way, to the folks who took time from their busy schedules and helped me out on this.

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  9. Ron -- As for the recent Rawhide Kid, gay readers would probably appreciate a gay comic hero who is NOT a flamboyant stereotype.

    Exactly.

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  10. Incredible article, Troy. Man, I have some catching up to do!

    Pete B.

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  11. Great work, Troy! And this brought to mind some that I really like but that had slipped my mind, like Blueberry and Johnny Thunder. And there were a few I wasn't aware of. Thanks! Nicely done.

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  12. I had a blast putting this together.

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  13. The top five would have matched mine, except Bat Lash might have been 5th. After that I just kept going, "Oh yeah, that one!!! Great list, Troy.

    RJR

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  14. Here was my personal top ten:

    1. Jonah Hex
    2. Blueberry
    3. Rawhide Kid
    4. Two-Gun Kid
    5. The Lone Ranger
    6. Gunhawks
    7. Desperadoes
    8. Kid Colt
    9. Bat Lash
    10. Scalphunter

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  15. This is indeed impressive, but for me there are two glaring omissions: 1) the massive number of Italian TEX comics, beautifully drawn, and 2) none of the really quite wonderful romance Westerns of the 1940s-50s: COWGIRL ROMANCES, WOMEN OUTLAWS, COWBOY LOVE, RANGELAND ROMANCES, etc. Some had great art and played with the two genres in clever ways. And I note that the "real" FIREHAIR -- the original female character -- isn't the one listed here, nor are the witty Timely ANNIE OAKLEY comics ... there's a long history of cowgirls in comics, pretty much ignored here! Still, a fun list -- just very, very male when the genre has in fact been more flexible than people realize.

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  16. I also wonder who has actually read the 2 (only) issues of LOBO? While a valiant effort to offer an African American cowboy, there's not much there, unfortunately!

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  17. Terrible list, Ken Parker on 21st place!?!?!?!?
    Blueberry on 10th? Comanche on 25th?

    And no Tex Willer, Magic Wind...?


    It's too obvious an American list of Top 10.

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  18. I declare FRAUD! No where did I find RIO by Doug Wildey or *gasp* ZORRO! Fraud, I say! (and isn't that the best part of these lists - the conversations that come after?) :)

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  19. One you missed: Jerry Spring. He was created "par Jije" for the French (and French-Canadian) market: I found a bunch of his books in Montreal in the late 60s (and would love to fill out the set, now that Internet translators make it possible to figure out what everyone is saying!).

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  20. Gotta say I agree with the top 5.

    RJR

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  21. I have to say I'm a bit sad to not see my favorite Western comic book series, namely "Lucky Luke" created by Belgian writer and artist Morris. But it's an interesting and informative list nonetheless.

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  22. Another Belgian creator, Hergé (mostly famous for his series "Adventures of Tintin") made a few Western titles:

    "Totor, Chief Scout of the Hannetons" (title hero is something of a proto-Tintin)

    "Popol out West" which is also a funny animal comic. Fantagraphics plans to re-print it in 2013 as "Peppy and Virginny in Lapinoland".

    "Tintin in America", part of the Tintin series, is partially a Western comic (when it wasn't about gangsters in Chicago), featuring cowboys, steam trains, Native Americans, etc.

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  23. I love western comics and stories.

    I love "Jonah Hex" and "Desperado's", I am liking "The Sixth Gun" as well.

    My name is Kelly Bender and I am a comic book writer who has partnered with a Romanian illustrator and we did a short silent western anthology story entitled: "What was once yours is mine" you can find the whole story here: http://myimaginationshome.blogspot.ca/2013/03/what-was-once-yours-is-mine.html

    It is due out in May in the "Kurrent Edition" anthology.

    We also are currently working on a 25 page "one-shot" (no pun intended) called "Hang Low Aim High" you can see the gorgeous art samples from the first 3 pages here:
    http://myimaginationshome.blogspot.ca/2013/03/hang-low-aim-high-western-story-samples.html

    Enjoy and let me know what you guys think.

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  24. around 50 years ago i saw a comic about mat dillon, any ideas?write me at vcabanillas@yahoo.com

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  25. Jack Jackson's underground westerns should definitely be on the list, and so shoudl the Simon and Kirby Bullseye.

    The Marvel Ghost Rider stories were plotted by Dick Ayers, by the way, the same artist who drew him in the 1950s incarnation/

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