Guest post by Matthew Ilseman
Comics have long been dominated by the superhero genre. The exception was the 1950s when they were dominated by the Western. By the 1990s, however, the Western was considered cliché. It was said they could not be made. So John Ostrander set out to write one along with his partners from Grimjack, Tim Truman and Tom Mandrake. (There had, however, been a previous Jonah Hex miniseries by Joe Lansdale and Truman.) So Ostrander wrote The Kents.
It was, at the time, a novelty for a comic to be a Western. Still is to some degree. It is interesting that both superheroes and the Western have been called the mythology of America. There are differences, of course. Superhero stories are largely urban in nature with their stories generally being set in major metropolises. The Western on the other hand happens on the frontier. The superhero story is generally fantastic in nature and Westerns being relatively realistic. (Though that depends on whose writing. Mike Grell’s Green Arrow storylines, for example, were often ripped from the headlines and there are some…quirky westerns out there.)
There are similarities though. Both usually involve larger than life heroes. They are often morality plays on good and evil. That said they both went through periods of Deconstruction and moral ambiguity. There were the films of Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone that challenge the norms in the 60s. In the 1980s, Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns brought changes to comics. (Not always for the better.)
Being a DC comic in the 1990s the story was set in the DC Universe. The basic gimmick of the story was it was the history of the Kent family. You know the people who adopted Superman, Clark Kent, when he came to earth. (There are also cameos by various Western characters DC published over the years. The most famous being Jonah Hex.)
In the introduction Ostrander says:
“It started with my desire to do a Western, mainly because everyone told me you could no longer do Westerns.”
He goes on to say:
“I wanted to do a Western based in fact and meld it to the DC Universe. I wanted to combine actual historical figures alongside our fictional ones.”
The thematic focus is on how the Kent family developed the values they would pass on as when they raised Superman. Truth, Justice, and the American Way. (Or at least that was what it was when it was published. DC has stupidly removed the American Way part since then.) Ostrander in his forward said this gave focus to his story.
Despite its links to the Superman mythos, this is a pretty straight Western. It is also a very well written one. John Ostrander did serious research into the history of Kansas and the American West. I would recommend this even if you are not a fan of superheroes.
(To perfectly honest, I’m not the biggest Superman fan. I don’t dislike the Man of Steel but he always seemed more of icon than a character to me. I always preferred more mortal heroes like Batman or Mike Grell’s version of Green Arrow.)
The story starts before the Civil War with newspaper man Silas Kent and his two sons Nathaniel and Jeb moving to Kansas in order to help make it a free state. It’s Nathaniel and Jeb who will serve as the main characters. The plot interweaves their story with the real history of Kansas and the West.
It deals with a rift between them with Nathaniel supporting abolition and Jeb becoming one of Quantrill’s raiders. The story is peppered with real historical characters with Nathaniel being a friend of Wild Bill Hickock serving with him as a scout in the Union Army and later as a deputy. Jeb will ride with Quantrill, Bloody Bill Anderson, and later the James gang. Another real life character appearing is politician James Lane who does not come off really well. (And is apparently a distant relative of Lois Lane.)
Ostrander obviously did a lot of research. Many famous events are referenced. There might actually be too many historical characters and events in the story. I cannot list all the famous people that appear. He also makes the error of portraying the Delaware as part of the Iroquois confederacy. (This is later explained as an error on the part of the character speaking.)
It is worth noting that while Nathaniel is, more or less, the good son and Jeb, more or less, the bad one, they are not caricatures. Nathaniel, though highly principled, has a strong vengeful streak. Jeb though he does some horrible things grows increasingly regretful of what he has done. They are complex characters. Their story is tragic with the hardships of the frontier and the horror of warfare and slavery until their final confrontation.
The art by Timothy Truman and, in later issues, Tom Mandrake is fantastic. Truman’s gritty style fits the comic well and Tom Mandrake drew the hell out of Hickock’s shoot out with Tutt.
Ostrander had planned a sequel dealing with the Spanish-American War. Unfortunately, this has yet to come out, though I hope someday it does.
I would recommend this to anyone who wants to read a good Western. If you are a DC comics fan you might enjoy the links to Superman and other characters. You do not have to be one to enjoy it, though. If you are looking for a standard superhero story look elsewhere.
John Ostrander would later write Blaze of Glory another Western for DC’s competitor Marvel. Now, that Westerns seem to becoming a bit more common perhaps comics publishers will release more in the future.
Jim Hayden says
Being a fan of the John Jakes series, as a teenager I always thought it would have been cool if Kal-El’s adoptive parents were descendants of the Kent Family from “The Bastard” and its sequels.
According to this video about Jakes so did Jakes. (It’s at the very end.)
I unfortunately have not read Jakes because there are so many interesting books to read.
Nice write up. I’ve only dipped my toes in comics and graphic novels, but it’s always fun to see how many avenues there really are to share good Story.
What comics and graphic novels have you read?
I was always disappointed that Firefly didn’t last longer as a show, so some of Dark Horse’s Serenity series sucked me in. The Conan series that Kurt Busiek kicked off. Ethan Hawkes’ Indeh. I suspect there are a few others in there that I’m forgetting.
That Busiek/Nord Dark Horse Conan was really something.
I read some of Busiek’s Conan. I was a big fan of a lot of Busiek’s work. His series Astro City is probably the best superhero series ever (with the possible rival of Alan Moore’s Watchmen.) Busiek also did a series called The Autumnlands which I liked but is unfinished. (He mentions Howard as an influence on the series, but it is also only two volumes long so far. He keeps meaning to get back to it.)
I keep meaning to rewatch Firefly. I liked it but not as much as some and I wonder how I would fill about it today.
If you like Truman’s artwork of hard men on the edges of the frontier, then check out his Wilderness books about Simon Girty or his book on Tecumseh.
Yes! The Girty books are mind-blowing. Also, his book of short frontier bios, Straight Up To See The Sky.
I really need to read that.
You will LOVE it. High quality art, excellent history and a helluva story.