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Western Comics 77
"Matt Savage, Trail Boss!"

COVER IMAGE NOT FOUND Sept.-Oct. 1959; DC Comics;
Julius Schwartz, editor

The cover blurb is "Beginning an exciting new Western series-- MATT SAVAGE, TRAIL BOSS!" and the cover scene by Gil Kane and Joe Giella depicts a cowboy who bears a notable resemblance to John Wayne preparing to cut a barbed wire fence with wire cutters and declaring, "You can't wire off a cattle trail! We're coming through!" while a partially seen adversary facing him responds, "This gun says you don't!" and points the firearm in question.

The generically titled WESTERN COMICS had begun in 1948 as DC's only Western anthology title to launch with #1, rather than converting from a superhero title like ALL-STAR WESTERN and ALL-AMERICAN WESTERN. Its previous lead features had been the Wyoming Kid, a wandering, crimefighting gunslinger, and Pow-Wow Smith, Indian Lawman. With this issue they were pushed into backup status in favor of a new series evidently influenced by the "adult Western" trend on TV at the time, and perhaps specifically by RAWHIDE, the TV Western that had debuted in January 1959 featuring a troop of cowboys on a cattle drive. "Matt Savage, Trail Boss" was unusual for DC Westerns in that the series depicted characters and adventures that might conceivably have actually existed in the historical Old West. Otherwise, DC's Westerns tended to the far-fetched and outright fantastic; Real Western history does not record any masked, double-identity, quasi-superhero crimefighters like Nighthawk (a former WESTERN COMICS feature) or Johnny Thunder, nor does it seem likely, given the intense prejudice between Western settlers and Indians, that any actual Western town had a full-blooded "Indian lawman" like Pow-Wow Smith.

"Matt Savage" was written by Gardner Fox (I think) and drawn by Kane and Giella. As I noted, Matt himself is a dead ringer for John Wayne; the "Duke" had once had an authorized comic book from another publisher, but Kane, who liked to model his characters after movie stars, appropriated his likeness without permission. The splash page has Matt at the head of his cattle drive, shouting, "Point 'em north! HEEAGGH!" as the caption tells us, "MATT SAVAGE was his name! A son of the Old West, destiny had singled him out to trail boss herds of Texas longhorns north to the railhead towns of Kansas! This is the story of the start of one such trail drive, during the days when a man had to fight to collect a crew and fight harder to keep them out of trouble! Sometimes trouble came even before the herd reached the great TEXAS TRAIL, as it did to Matt Savage when he found himself confronted by THE BARBED WIRE BARRICADE!"

The story of Matt Savage begins in December 1866 when a herd of cattle driven some three thousand miles arrives in the mining town of Virginia City, Nevada, to the delight of "beef-hungry" miners. The ramrod of the drive, Nelson Story, declares to his trail hands that this drive is just the beginning of a great new industry, and directs his top hands to return to Texas to organize cattle drives to the new railheads in Kansas, buying cattle cheap in Texas and shipping them to the East by train for high prices. (I think, though I'm not sure, that Nelson Story is an actual historical figure.) One of Story's volunteers is Matt Savage, who reflects, "I've been an Army scout, a miner, a flank man on the drive! Now I'm going south to help set up trail drives!" "For the next few years, Matt Savage points beeves north for Texas ranchers, acquiring skill and know-how in the long run north to Kansas...." One day, Matt rides into the impoverished town of Comanche Wells, Texas, and encounters two cowhands who previously fought on opposite sides in the Civil War, fistfighting in the street over the relative merits of cavalry generals George Custer and Jeb Stuart. Matt separates the two-- "Haven't you heard the Civil War's OVER? Don't you have JOBS to keep you out of trouble?"-- and offers them jobs as "swing men" on his cattle drive. The two agree-- provided they don't have to work side by side. Matt goes on to gather cattle for his drive from struggling local ranchers, and finds another recruit when he hears a flurry of gunshots. The shots come from Lute Jones, a "youngster" with a fast and accurate gun whose only excitement is shooting at tin-can targets. "That's mighty fine shooting, boy! But if you'd like some real excitement, join my herd! How'd you like to fight a hundred howling KIOWAS with those fast guns?" Lute likes the idea fine, for some strange reason, and is named Matt's "point man" on the cattle drive. Matt recruits "flank men", Abe Wilson and Manuel Ortega, a Mexican, and a vaguely sinister-looking horse wrangler who says, "Just call me Red...that's the only name I go by these days!" Finally, Matt learns of a talented cook named "Biscuits" Baker, but there's one problem with him-- he's in jail, charged with horse thievery. Though he was caught with his rope around the neck of another man's horse, Biscuits insists he was not stealing it, but catching it after it jumped an eight-foot fence and ran away. Matt suggests staking out the horse corral to see if the "stolen" horse escapes again. At first the horse stays put and Walker, the owner insists Biscuits is guilty, but Matt notes the incident happened at night and suggests waiting for nightfall. After dark, the horse makes another mighty leap for freedom, and Matt pursues and lassos it. "I've caught more than your horse, Walker! I've also caught myself-- a COOK!"

Matt and his now-complete crew gather the herd together, brand them with the Dogiron brand, and head out on the trail at last. But their journey comes to a sudden halt when they find that narrow Bottleneck Pass is blocked by barbed wire-- and guarded by an armed owlhoot who demands a toll of "a buck a head". Savage refuses to pay and warns that his point man Lute can outshoot the intruder, but the would-be toll collector replies that he has a friend of his own hidden in the hills with a Winchester rifle. Undaunted, Matt pulls out wire cutters and commences cutting the wire. Lute shoots the gun out of the outlaw's hands, but is impressed by his boss's courage; "You got the nerve of a hungry puma, standing up to that hidden rifleman! How'd you know HE wouldn't shoot!" Matt leads Lute over to the rocks where the rifleman was supposedly hidden, and shows Lute that the position directly faces the glare of the setting sun; "No gunman would ever pick THESE rocks to shoot from! He couldn't even SEE to shoot!" Scouting ahead for a bedding ground for the night, Matt spots a Kiowa Indian scout and, fearing that he will lead his tribe in a raid on the cattle drive, climbs rocks to leap on the Indian from above and knock him out. "We'll bring you along nice and peaceful till we get clear of Kiowa country, then we'll let you go!" (Matt has more forebearance with predatory Indians than most real cowboys and settlers did.) Relaxing at the campfire with a cup of coffee, Matt is satisfied with the first day's run; but "Tomorrow, we hit the TEXAS TRAIL, where our REAL troubles begin!"

Matt Savage continued as the lead feature for the remainder of the run of WESTERN COMICS, but he and the Dogiron herd never actually made it to their Kansas destination, for the title ended with issue #85 (Jan-Feb. 1961) with them still on the trail.

This story was reprinted in ACTION COMICS #437, July 1974 (a 100-page issue with reprint backups from various genres) and the next Matt Savage story from WESTERN #78 was reprinted in ACTION #443. Two other Matt Savage stories had previously been reprinted in SUPER DC GIANT issues #S-14 and S-22 in 1970 and 1971, both TOP GUNS OF THE WEST issues. A DC Western series created in the mid-70's, SCALPHUNTER, tried to form a link with this series by making its hero the half-breed son of Matt Savage. But the link made no sense chronologically because the Matt Savage series is clearly shown to take place *after* the Civil War, while the Scalphunter stories (which showed an aged Matt at the start of the series) were set *during* the Civil War.

Also in this issue is "Secret of the Sheriff's Stand-In!", a tale of Pow-Wow Smith, who had been pushed out of the lead spot in WESTERN by Matt Savage. As if that weren't enough humiliation for the Indian Lawman, the splash page of this story by Fox and Carmine Infantino (pencils and inks) shows Pow-Wow turning in his sheriff's badge so that it can be given to his former deputy, Hank Brown. "Hank deserves to be sheriff! He's proven himself to be a better man than you!" the mayor declares. As the story begins, deputy Brown is holding down the sheriff's office for vacationing Pow-Wow when an "excited businessman" bursts in reporting that he has been robbed and demanding that Brown retrieve the stolen goods from his saddlery store. Hank rides all day looking for the robbers with no success, but when he returns to the sheriff's office the next day, he finds the stolen items there in the office. The returning storekeeper is delighted; 'You did a great job ! Better than Pow-Wow Smith, I expect!" Brown is too embarrassed to admit that he had nothing to do with the loot's return. That afternoon, a stagecoach is robbed of a Wells Fargo strongbox, but before Hank can even start looking for the box it again reappears in his office, and he gets credit for the recovery (nobody seems to care that the actual thieves were not caught). When :Pow-Wow returns from vacation, he hears of his deputy's unusual success and compliments him, but Hank privately admits what really happened. As Pow-Wow returns to work, more robberies occur, but the Indian Lawman has less success than his deputy, as the loot fails to miraculously return and the impatient townspeople refuse to allow him time to look for clues. "Whispering tongues" begin to say that the once legendary Pow-Wow has "lost his grip" and ought to resign in favor of his deputy. Finally, Pow-Wow "tears the star badge from his shirt in bitterness and despair" and rides out of town, over Hank's protests that he is still needed. Two men gloat over this event; the supposed victims of the two latest robberies, whom, we learn, committed the first two crimes and returned the loot themselves, and then reported robberies that never even happened, all in a plot to discredit Pow-Wow Smith and leave the town of Elkhorn in the hands of his less proficient deputy. With Pow-Wow no longer on guard, they can make a really big score, robbing the Elkhorn Bank of $100,000. But as Sheriff Hank sets out on the trail of the bank robbers, he sends his wife Sally Ann to recruit the aid of Pow-Wow Smith, who has not really left the area, but is in hiding in order to lure the robbers into the open. Pow-Wow uses his Indian tracking skills to follow the robbers' trail cross country, and he and Hank join forces again to capture them. Returning to town, Hank reveals the truth, and Pow-Wow is triumphantly returned to his position as sheriff.

Following a "Hitching Post" letters page that featured questions and answers about the historical West rather than comments about stories, the issue winds up with the Wyoming Kid in "Clue of the Outlaw's Hat!" The crimefighting Kid (who, unlike the various Marvel Kids, was not a wanted outlaw) is asked by the sheriff of Longhorn Bend to help catch the Green Mask Bandit, but when he has the masked man in his gunsights, he only shoots a hole in his hat instead of gunning him down. The Kid explains to the puzzled sheriff that it is all part of a plan not only to catch the bandit to to retrieve his $60,000 in previously stolen and hidden loot. Lying in wait in a general store that sells hats, Wyoming spots the bandit stealing a hat to replace his bullet-marked Stetson and trails him to his residence. Then, pretending to be a famous Indian tracker named Charlie Tall Bear, Wyoming convinces that bandit that he is about to be trailed and found out. To forestall capture, the bandit sneaks out to recover his cached loot and head south of the border, but Wyoming trails him to the hiding place, shoots his gun out of his hand (DC Western heroes were really good at that) and brings him in along with the loot.