Friday, February 19, 2010

El Lobo - The Man from Nowhere

What makes a comic book become one of your all-time favourites? Was it the artwork? Was it the storyline? Or was it simply because the lead character looked great? For me, in the case of El Lobo - The Man from Nowhere, it was the title. With that simple phrase, I was intrigued by its promise of mystery and suspense. The fact that it was written and illustrated by the late Keith Chatto, one of the best in the business, was icing on the cake.

During the 1940s and 1950s , Australia was no different from America in its love for cowboy yarns. Local paperback 'pulp' publishers like Transport Publishing Co. and Currawong Books pumped out hundreds of horse operas, written by Aussie authors using American-sounding pen names.

In the years before television, Western serials ruled the radio airwaves. Even The Phantom Ranger, an American Western cowboy character from Frew Publications (drawn by Jeff Wilkinson and Peter Chapman) earned itself a popular radio serial broadcast in Melbourne and Sydney during the early 1950s, starring the late Charles 'Bud' Tingwell in the title role.

Cowboys 'n' Indians were big business for Australian comics, too. Apart from reprinting American Western comics, local publishers took part in the Wild West stampede with their own homegrown gunslingers. Arguably the most popular of these were The Lone Avenger (appearing in Action Comics) and The Hooded Rider, both written and drawn by Len Lawson for publisher Henry John Edwards during the 1940s and 50s.

Keith Chatto, who had been writing and drawing comics for various publishers since the mid-1940s, was no stranger to cowboy comics, either. Chatto's first gunslinger was The Lone Wolf, created for Melbourne's Atlas Publications in June 1949. In an unusual twist on the masked crimefighter theme, The Lone Wolf was a mysterious, masked U.S. Marshall, who posed as the wanted outlaw, Luke Jordan. The Lone Wolf proved to be a popular title, notching up 61 issues, with Chatto was the principal writer and artist, to be followed in later issues by the equally talented illustrator, Yaroslav Horak.

Established in 1953, Cleveland Press produced a huge range of popular, digest-sized pulp Western novels, under such imprints as Bobcat Western, Iron Horse Western and Chisholm Western. Amazingly enough, the Cleveland Publishing Company (as it's known today) continues to release at least half-a-dozen digest Western paperbacks every month, which are sold through newsagencies across Australia.

Cleveland's founder, Jack Atkins, decided to expand into the local comic book market by acquiring the rights to a locally produced Western radio serial, The Twilight Ranger. Atkins commissioned Chatto to illustrate the comic, with scripts written by Michael Noonan, creator of the radio show. The Twilight Ranger was, in fact, the cowardly bookworm Jess Palmer who, with his young Indian offsider, Red Moccasin, rode the Carakaway Ranges in search of owlhoots, cattle rustlers and other roughnecks. First published in late 1955, the first two issues of The Twilight Ranger comic book were unnumbered, while the last issue was produced in full-colour. Despite the series' high quality, it lasted just seven issues.

Enjoyable as they were, I'd argue that El Lobo - The Man from Nowhere is not only Chatto's best Western comic strip, but represents some of Chatto's best-ever work for comics. El Lobo rode along the Rio Grande, where the South West Territories and Mexico met, dispensing tight-lipped, six-gun justice, his only companion a wild dog named Wolf. Local Indians believed the mysterious rider to be immortal, appearing only when trouble threatened the fragile peace of the Rio Grande (Like many Australian comic books of the 1950s, El Lobo frequently borrowed many storyline 'motifs' - such as the immortality myth and the use of a hidden lair, lined with ancient 'chronicles' - from the phenomenally popular Australian edition of The Phantom, published continously since 1948 by Frew Publications.)

Chatto strayed from the usual horse-opera locales and cliches, saving some of his best writing and artwork for a sequence set in El Lobo's mysterious homeland, Ninguna Parte, a hidden valley populated by descendants of the Mayan people. Their existence was threatened by the arrival of a band of Mexican outlaws, led by the notorious El Tigre, who'd discovered the valley's inhabitants had rich stores of gold. The storyline, which ran between issues #10-12, represents a highpoint in Chatto's comic book career.

Chatto dispensed with speech bubbles and thought balloons, confining the dialogue to text boxes. This archaic story-telling device (which Chatto previously used on The Twilight Ranger) lent itself perfectly to the comic's Old West setting. All of his heroes, including El Lobo, may have had weak chins, but Chatto lovingly drew a bevy of amply endowed heroines and villainesses - in fact, they were a Keith Chatto trademark! It should therefore come as no surprise to learn that some of Chatto's earliest published work included comic strips for Australian 'natural living' nudist magazines. Another highlight of the series was the beautiful, full-colour painted covers Chatto created for El Lobo, which graced the first 18 issues of the series (Issues 19-23 featured standard, four-colour line drawings)

El Lobo - The Man from Nowhere ran for 23 issues between 1957-1959. It was published by Apache Comics, which was the comic book imprint of Cleveland Press. However, all the covers of El Lobo bore the King Size Comics logo, which became the title for Cleveland's giant-size reprint title, King Size Comics. Interestingly enough, the eighth, unpublished installment of The Twilight Ranger apparently later appeared in King Size Comics.

Occasional reprints of El Lobo are to be found in both King Size Comics and Silhouette Western Library, a digest-sized comic published by Reigate Pty. Ltd. (another imprint of Cleveland Press), which featured reprints of local and overseas Western comic strips, and was exported to Britain during the late 1950s-early 1960s.

Decades later, some episodes of El Lobo were reprinted in The Australian Comic Buyers Guide, a Melbourne comic fanzine published by Joe Italiano and Peter Hughes between 1981-1982. The fourth issue featured a biography of Chatto and illustrations reprinted from John Ryan's 1979 book, Panel By Panel: A History of Australian Comics.

This column previously appeared in Collectormania magazine (December 2004) and was partly based on material previously published online at ModernTales.com. Image courtesy of the Rare Book Collection, Monash University Library.