When I was a kid, we didn’t have it easy like kids today. No cell phones, no internet, no DVR… only three channels… walked 10 miles to school… up… hill… okay, so it wasn’t that bad. But we really didn’t have the internet and such, so we couldn’t read or even order comics online. We didn’t even have comics stores where I lived (although I think they were starting to show up in places like New York). So we had to go to drug stores and grocery stores, where we found them all dog-eared and bent on metal spinner racks. This also applied to paperbacks. This column will mainly be about those days of yore, when we were a simpler people…
I learned to read through comics. My earliest clear memory is watching Planet of the Apes (Charlton Heston and Roddy McDowell!) at my Grandma’s house, but I think I had already started getting Superman comics by then. Of course, I already knew Supes through his tv show, and Batman, too, which led me to the Justice League and, through reprints, to the Justice Society. I wouldn’t discover Marvel Comics for a few years yet, but when I did– wow. Marvel’s superheroes were every bit as cool as DC’s, and they had Thor, but one thing they had over their competition was the Mighty Marvel Western. By the time I came along they were pretty much just reprint titles but the Marvel western comics were fantastic! They are something I really do miss from that time. They had The Rawhide Kid and Kid Colt (most of these guys were young, as I’m sure you noticed), holdovers from Timely or Atlas– Marvel’s previous incarnations–, but there was one who was changed in the ’60s in order to meet the new Marvel paradigm. And that’s why I come to you today to discuss The Two-Gun Kid.
The Two-Gun Kid was originally a young gunslinger named Clay Harder and was Marvel’s second running western character. Tall and lean with blond hair and dressed in blue-black clothes, Harder served as a kind of template for Rawhide Kid, who wore pretty much the same clothes but was short and had red hair, and Kid Colt, who was tall and lean with blond hair but wore bright red shirts with cowhide vest. All three men wandered the Old West, drinking milk and making town after town safe for decent folk by beating back bullies and clearing men wrongfully accused of various misdeeds– mainly robbing banks and/or committing murder. Unlike Colt and Rawhide, who were wanted for crimes they didn’t commit and had to spend a lot of time helping others while probably wishing they could run into someone as virtuous and well-written as they were to clear their names, Harder had no such driving impetus for his travels. He just seemed to like going around helping people. This incarnation of the Kid would last 10 issues in his own title in the late ’40s before moving to an omnibus title, Wild Western. In the mid ’50s, Atlas Comics would pick up the Kid’s own title again and continue it here and there until the early ’60s where, with issue number 60, there was a real sea-change.
The early ’60s were a watershed in comics history with the advent of Marvel Comics. Much has been written– and much will certainly be written yet again, perhaps even here at some point– about the dramatic and artistic differences introduced to comics (mainly) by the team of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, most of which is undeniably true. Both men had worked for Timely/Atlas/Marvel since the ’40s (Lee from ’39, actually, and Kirby from 1940, with Kirby making the rounds at other companies during this time as well) and the two certainly revolutionized the superhero genre in particular in the early 1960s. They had also collaborated on other genres, from monster titles to romance comics to– you guessed it– westerns. Now, in the early 1960s, with superheroes going through the roof, Lee and Kirby decided to try something new with one of their old characters. They decided to keep The Two-Gun Kid but get rid of Clay Harder. Now, if you don’t read comics, you’re probably thinking, “But– but– but– Sam, Clay Harder IS The Two-Gun Kid!” No, no, no, gentle reader, in comics, like any other kind of storytelling, there really is no such thing as forever. Or reality, in any meaningful way. (It’s okay, though, to rail against changes if you don’t like them, something we will definitely get into at a later date.) What they had decided to do was to make The Two-Gun Kid an Old West superhero of sorts. And they decided that Clay Harder just wouldn’t fit that mold.
So, enter Matt Hawk, greenhorn lawyer from the East who moves to the town of Tombstone, Texas to help make the Great American Frontier safe for legalese and warning labels. Of course, being a weak-kneed, lilly-livered (which I always thought was an odd thing to say about someone) skinny milksop, Matt immediately runs afoul of the local bullies, led by Clem Carter, whose sister Nancy shames into letting poor Matt go. Nancy is the town schoolmarm and becomes the love interest for Matt as things go on, although she hates the Two-Gun Kid. We’ll get to that. An old man named Ben Dancer, a retired gunfighter, is subsequently attacked by a couple of young toughs looking to make a name for themselves (old, tired gunfighters who just want to be left alone being attacked by young gunhawks trying to gain a reputation is a recurring theme in Marvel westerns) and Matt proves his courage by coming to Dancer’s aid. Dancer is so impressed with Matt that he takes the young man under his wing and trains him in the Way of the West. Matt learns to shoot, fight, ride horses– everything but sing and play guitar, probably because Gene Autry wasn’t around. But one thing that Dancer cautions his young protege about is not to end up like Dancer himself. “But when folks know how fast yuh are, there’ll always be some jasper who’ll try to gun yuh down, to cash in on yore rep! So I don’t want anyone to ever know! I got a plan for yuh, Matt…” Dancer tells him as he gives him both a horse and an outfit, complete with hat that conceals a mask that drops down when Hawk’s ready to go into action as… as… “Say, what in thunder are you gonna call yoreself?” Hawk’s answer: “Back East I remember reading about a fictitious gunfighter named The Two-Gun Kid! I don’t know whatever happened to him, but I think I’ll borrow the name!” (People did a lot of yelling in comics back then, you may have noticed.) And that, folks, is a neat little device commonly referred to as “the retcon”, which is short for “retroactive continuity”, which is usually short for “we hired writers too unimaginative to work within established frameworks”. But not always, of course, as in this case.
And, so, they made our old buddy Two-Gun into a superhero. They gave him a quick-change costume designed so that he could change anywhere at the figurative drop of a hat, and spent a page every now and then showing the reader how it worked. Wearing a mask and carrying guns in the Old West, he even came complete with Spiderman-type problems. First, of course, the law doesn’t trust him very much, although that wavers from ish to ish. There are times where he’s even shown as an ersatz deputy, guarding prisoners for the local sheriff. But whenever you wear a mask, carry guns, and always seem to be in the middle of trouble, you can probably count on straight-laced law enforcement officers giving you that jaundiced eye. Then there’s the fact that Hawk figures out the local gang of robbers is really led by Clem Carter. Nancy knows her brother is a bully but she seems to believe that he limits himself to just being a jackass; his being a truly evil guy never enters her mind. So Two-Gun goes after young Clem and Clem dies in their encounter, a death which– you probably already guessed it, being as obviously intelligent and discerning as you must be (to be reading my column)– she blames on Two-Gun. But she loves Matt Hawk, which makes for some interesting dinner dates. Shortly, a huge boxer from the East named Boom-Boom Brown would arrive in town to become friend to both the Kid and Hawk, and things would continue on until the title became mainly a reprint book. One thing of interest there, though, is that sometimes they would take an old Clay Harder story and retouch the art and dialogue to make it into a Matt Hawk tale.
Later, Two-Gun would join the Avengers (yeah, you read that right) and have his surname changed to Liebowicz (yeah, you read that right, too) and eventually team up with the newly-gay Rawhide Kid (speaking of retcons that live up to their usual billing). He would also become a bounty hunter working with She-Hulk during Marvel’s comics version of Civil War. Just so you know, bad things can happen to even the best of characters. More on that later.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this piece. It is not intended to tell you everything there is to find out about this character, but, rather, to give you an intro to something you may not have ever seen or heard about. If it has piqued your interest, I’m glad. Stay tuned. There will be more. More of a threat than a promise, I know, but… there it is.