It may be hard to believe for anyone born in the Star Wars/Star Trek era but there was a time that the movies, TV, radio, and yes even COMICS were dominated by Westerns. In the movie theaters we had John Wayne, Roy Rogers, Randolph Scott and Allan “Rocky “ Lane. On radio and TV there was Gunsmoke, have Gun Will Travel , The Lone Ranger and Bonanza. Zane Grey who specialized in novels about the old west is, to this day, one of the best selling authors of all time.
The popularity of the Western was at it’s absolute peak from the late 30’s through the mid 60’s. And comic books would feature a plethora of horse operas with titles like, Firehair, Rocky Lane, Hoot Gibson, Lone Ranger and literally hundreds of others.
As the popularity of Superheroes in comic books began to wane after WWII other genres began to push their way on to the stands. Crime, horror, romance, humor, war and Western comics would dominate until the late 1950’s when the spandex set would once again flex their meta muscles.
Popular “B” Western stars of the day all had their own titles. Such Saturday Matinee stalwarts as Hoot Gibson, Gabby Hayes, Tex Ritter, Lash LaRue and of course Hopalong Cassidy all enjoyed long comic book runs.
Hoppy in particular was all over the comic book landscape. In 1942 he appeared in Fawcett’s “Master Comics”. In 1943 he got his own title and also appeared in Real Western Hero (#70-75). In 1950 Hoppy showed up in “Six Gun Heroes”, that does not even count the comics that Hopalong Cassidy actor Bill Boyd appeared in! Yes Bill had HIS title too! Bill Boyd Western ran for 23 issues from 1950-1952.
Allan “Rocky” Lane had a comic that ran the gamut from his won title to , Fawcett Movie Comics and even Red Ryder. Lane was a hugely popular B movie actor but is best remembered today as the voice ot TV’s “Mr. Ed”!
Major players in the Western comic genre were Fawcett and Dell, but nearly every publisher had entries. DC, Marvel, Fiction House and Famous Funnies among others all had western titles on the stands in the 40’s and 50’s.
While we still see western comics today featuring such characters as Jonah Hex and (perennial favorite) Lone Ranger. The days of western dominance are long over.
What replaced the Western?
In the Movies and TV it was the Viet Nam era that killed the western. In a more jaded age the simple morality plays that Westerns often were did not find a resonant audience. But there was a double stake through the heart of the movie western. The death of John Wayne and the opening of Star Wars which lead to the rise of the modern Science Fiction/Fantasy movie. Sci-fi and fantasy share a lot of common traits with westerns.
Star Wars in particular IS a Western. They just replaced horses with space ships, six guns with blasters and light sabers. In star wars the bad guy even wears black! In short the movie/TV producers found that audiences still wanted the same stories, they just wanted a setting that more sparked the post baby boom imagination.
Go back and read The Dark Knight returns and you will see many parallels between it and films like High Plains Drifter and Shane. In fact there is one great scene where batman rides into town LITERALLY on horseback!
Before Wolverine discovered his origins, he shared many similarities with Clint Eastwood’s iconic “Man With No Name” character from Leone’s “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” and “For A Few Dollars More”.
As Westerns lost their toe hold in the movies and on TV, their popularity in comic books naturally waned as well. This is not necessarily a bad thing for the Western in either venue because modern Western movies such as Unforgiven, Tombstone and Pale Rider and comics like the current Lone Ranger and All-Star Western tend to be outstanding efforts. Quantity may be down but quality is up!