Thrilling Western tales for boys (not girls)
I have just been enthralled by the Billy the Kid one. Interestingly, it’s a British production, dated 1957 and costing six shillings (a tidy sum in them days, I reckon). It announces on the title page “Copyright 1957 by World Distributors (Manchester) Ltd.” and was “Printed and bound by CWS Ltd., Reddish, Stockport”. It shows how into all things Western small British boys were then, just as much as in the US. It’s quite odd, though, to read about Billy with British English spelling and vocabulary, and even the customs are not very American. The boy heroes cook up beans and bacon on the campfire for “tea”.
It has a full-color cover but inside is limited to one color, a rather lurid orange. It alternates strip-cartoon tales about Billy with non-Billy short stories, opening, curiously, with A Man Called Wyatt Earp by a certain Hart Cooper. This story is gripping, telling of two thirteen-year-old boys (naturally there are no girls anywhere to be seen) who save the life of Wyatt Earp in Dodge. Although it does not say so, it must be set in September 1878 because the story centers (or should I say centres) on Clay Allison gunning for Wyatt.
You know the legend, doubtless. Feared and famed gunslinger Allison, countless notches on his gun, comes to Dodge vowing to kill Wyatt Earp, who had arrested one of his cowhands. With enormous courage Earp stands up to the gunman and runs him out of town with his tail between his legs.
The only thing is, it may never have happened. According to contemporaneous accounts, a cattleman named Dick McNulty and Chalk Beeson (owner of the Long Branch Saloon), convinced Allison to surrender his guns. Charlie Siringo, in Dodge as a cowboy at the time, witnessed the incident and left a written account. He said that it was McNulty and Beeson who dealt with it and Earp had not even approached Clay Allison that day.
Whatever the truth of it, the story in the annual gives it the full ‘legend’ treatment. Wyatt Earp is “Marshal of Dodge” and Bat Masterson is his deputy (of course Earp was only assistant marshal and Bat was County Sheriff). Earp confronts Allison in the street with a steely stare, drawing his gun like lightning (so fast the boys do not see it) and Allison blinks and skulks off. Later, the two youths overhear a heinous plot to assassinate Wyatt while he is eating dinner at May Talbot’s restaurant and they race to warn the marshal, earning the lawman’s gratitude and getting to examine his Colt Buntline Special.
It’s a great story for the young readers, who can identify with the boy heroes and thrill to the courage of Wyatt Earp, described as “the Southwest’s greatest gunfighter”.
Author of deathless prose Hart Cooper returns in a later short story in the annual which revolves around another great hero of the Wild West, Buffalo Bill (it’s not quite clear what Earp or Cody have to do with Billy the Kid but never mind). We have, obviously, a 12-year-old Bill, another Billy, already showing more pluck and grit than most of the adults around him. He saves the day when hired by the teamster company of Russell, Majors and Waddell The other employees grumble about such an important job going to a mere boy, and one hand in particular, Pinder, hates the lad and plans an “accident”. Eventually, though, young Billy Cody is so very plucky, bringing help when they are surrounded by Indians, that Pinder has grudgingly to admit that the young man will do, after all.
I also enjoyed the tale Texas Vengeance by JL Morrissey. There are only fictional characters in this one but the hero (you guessed it, a plucky lad, and yes, he’s named Billy, though he’s not Billy the Kid) gets his palomino Pal back after his daddy lost it playing cards with a crooked dealer. Pal is one of those Triggerish horses that intelligently goes for help and so forth. The story ends admirably with the cardsharper shot dead, his accomplices tarred and feathered and run out of town on rails and all property restored to Billy and his pa.
The stories are all very well but of course they don’t feature Billy the Kid, and he is after all the titular hero of the annual, so you have to read the comic strip chapters for that. In the first one Billy solves The Mystery of Black Canyon up in Nebraska, and in the second one he is down in the Everglades and his foes are Seminole Indians. This Billy the Kid sure got about. He was back in the Southwest, though, for a ranching story, The Devil Buys Cattle, set in Arizona. In all of the yarns he works out who the crooks are and what their scam is, and then defeats their skullduggery.
The last comic-strip story, though, is not a Billy one but features instead the Durango Kid. You know, I am sure, that Charles Starrett starred as Durango in 1940, returned in ’45 and then appeared frequently in the part right through to 1952. So he would certainly have been familiar to annual-readers in the mid-50s.
In this story, the intro tells us:
THE FLAILING FISTS OF THE DURANGO KID HAVE BEAT THEIR GRIM TATTOO ON MANY EVIL JAWS BEFORE! BUT THIS TIME DURANGO’S MATCHED AGAINST 350 POUNDS OF TOWERING TYRANT! THIS TIME HE’S TRYING TO DEFEAT THE BIGGEST BADHAT OF THEM ALL!
The heroes of these annuals, such as young Buffalo Bill, the Durango Kid and Billy the Kid, make, because of their youth, ideal subject matter for the stories. The very soubriquet “kid” made Charles Starrett and William Bonney (let’s call him that for convenience’s sake) candidates for youth interest. Of course in popular myth (including annuals) Billy the Kid is not the homicidal juvenile delinquent of history but a do-gooder who wanders the West besting villains and bringing justice to the poor and needy.
It’s no wonder these annuals sold, especially around Christmas time. My volume is inscribed “To Roger, from Mum and Dad”. I wonder who that late-50s English Roger was. He’d be in his 70s now. Bonney became a hero instantly after his death (though many stories and movies insisted that he didn’t die at Fort Sumner at the hands of Pat Garrett at all). He was perfect for the Western, first appearing (that I know of) played by Franklyn Farnum in the 1925 silent movie Billy the Kid. Then Johnny Mack Brown was a talkie Billy in 1930, and it went on from there. Roy Rogers, Bob Steele and Robert Taylor were Billy, followed by a long, long list of actors in the role. The most recent was Dustin Lane in Billy the Kid: The Beginning last year. The juvenile-market Billy movies were particularly numerous, and popular, and for years the likes of Bob Steele and Buster Crabbe were goody-goody Billy the Kids for millions, though the actors were often far from youthful…
Do leave a comment if you have a favorite annual featuring Western heroes!
I either had, or still have, this Billy The Kid Annual (I must check). I certainly still have quite a number of these annuals safely stored in my attic, despite many having been given away or burnt by my Mum when she thought I no longer needed/wanted them. I know a similar fate was dealt upon such fare by the Mums of others (John, Mike??).
One that I know I still have from the same era is a Buffalo Bill Annual that is particularly good of its type. Apparently (?!) Bill shared some exciting adventures with Wild Bill Hickock and Texas Jack Omahandru. Well…obviously they didn't really (I guess) but the stories are great fun anyway.
I also have a mid-50s John Wayne Annual in which he has an old sidekick in all the comic strips so I guess they relate to his 1930s B-westerns for Lone Star Productions.
Excellent, someone else with fond memories of old Western annuals.
Yes Jerry, we all lost precious items when dear old mother decided to have a house clearance after we left home. Thankfully I had put about 100 Dell and WDL comics in a box in the attic, also about 20 annuals. These she never knew about, out of sight, so I guess they didn’t matter.
I was able to reclaim them all, sometime in my 40s, and I still have them today, and in pretty good condition.
You are so lucky to have these… Just looking at the photos makes my mouth water.
Jeff, I never had, much less read, any of these Western Annuals and I am envious. The story of Billy the Kid is quite a story, whether it be Historical, Folklore, or outright fictional. I never get tired of reading about him and all the people around him.
You mention that many stories and movies insist that Billy wasn't killed at Fort Sumner in 1881. I know that you are referring to the story of William Henry Roberts, known as "Brushy Bill" being discovered by Texas paralegal William V. Morrison in 1948. Brushy Bill A.K.A. Billy the Kid died in 1950. He maintained that he was the real Billy the Kid. In 1955 ALIAS BILLY THE KID was published. Needless to say, it was a bombshell revelation that threatened the accepted History of the Lincoln County War, Pat Garrett, and Billy the Kid. It was written by C.L. Sonnichsen and William V. Morrison, which told Brushy Bill's story to the world for the first time. The participation of Sonnichsen in this venture was significant as he was a highly respected historian, a prolific author, and considered an expert in Western American History. He taught at the University of Texas, El Paso for 41 years and was also the Chair of the English Department and later Dean of the Graduate School. Still the accepted History stood and Sonnichsen and Morrison were accused of attempting to profit off of Brushy Bill's story. The story that wouldn't die.
In 1990 the movie YOUNG GUNS II was released. The framing device for the movie, draws from the story that allege Billy the Kid, as Brushy Bill survived until his actual death in 1950. This stirred up the controversy once again. In the 1990's, Dr. William Carl Jameson, himself a student of C.L. Sonnichsen, at the University of Texas in El Paso, re-examined the subject and has written four books. THE RETURN OF THE OUTLAW, BILLY THE KID(1998) written with the late Western novelist Frederic Bean(in my opinion a real good novelist); BILLY THE KID: BEYOND THE GRAVE(2005); BILLY THE KID: THE LOST INTERVIEWS(2012); and COLD CASE: BILLY THE KID: INVESTIGATING HISTORY'S MYSTERIES(2018). Dr. Jameson's work led to increased interest in Brushy Bill Roberts' story and has led to additional interest and study, which is good. Is his research and books an end all on the subject? In my opinion, not by a long shot. He believes, for the most part, Brushy Bill's story of being Billy the Kid and I don't. Could I be wrong? Sure. I need to fess-up here, although it doesn't make that much difference. Dr. William Carl Jameson was a college professor of Geography and he was my Physical Geography teacher over forty years ago.
Jeff, for me as a wee boy it was Charles Chilton's "Riders of the Range" from The Eagle comics. Not sure if these stories made it accros the pond? I remember reading and re-reading them again and again the way you only can as a child. One of my happiest day was when my mum bought me a shirt the same as on of the hero's. Happy days. I see the stories are available on Amazon but I do wonder if reading them now would spoil the magic.
The Eagle comic, and particularly "Riders Of The Range" – ahhh, those memories of long ago!
The shirt your Mum bought you, Anon, was it Jeff Arnold's original big check with the blue background? Or perhaps the replacement shirt he bought in a General Store – that one was bright red background with yellow check pattern? That shirt didn't last long as it was burnt from his back in an exciting fire and replaced by another red shirt, this time with a black check pattern?
Golly, all this took place over 60 years ago but the memories remain vivid. Heck, I've forgotten what I had for dinner tonight though! (Only kidding).
Oh it was the red and yellow one, I had forgotten he had other ones to be honest. I wore it until it was far too small and fell into rags!
The annual I had every year at Christmas until it finished in 1960, was the wonderful Kit Carson's Cowboy Annual. My dad always bought The Western Film Annual for himself, great Dad. That was also a big favourite until it finished in early 60s.
Regarding Billy The Kid Annual, the best to get are the early annuals from 1953 to about 55, they had full colour reprints of Billy The Kid from USA Toby comics, also full colour Durango Kid reprints.
Quick follow up, I forgot to mention there were a total of 8 Billy The Kid annuals.
Mike, my very first Annual (about 1952 or 3) was the Kit Carson Annual and, yes, weren't they great! The Western Film Annual I got from 1954 on but picked up the missing first three (1951-53) from The Cinema Bookshop in London in the early 70s. Still have 'em and still refer to 'em. By the way, John Brooker is writing a feature on these Speed annuals in the next issue of 'Wrangler's Roost' magazine.
Great to see all this love for cowboy annuals. Oh, happy day when Christmas came round and Santa knew you so well that he brought you tales of Billy the Kid or Kit Carson. I liked those spin-off annuals from TV shows too, like Maverick and Cheyenne and Tales of Wells Fargo.