All Star Western #108, "Origin of Johnny Thunder!"

ALL-STAR WESTERN (1st series) #108; Aug-Sept. 1959; DC Comics (National Comics Publications); Julius Schwartz, editor; cover-featuring "The Secret Origin of Johnny Thunder!"  On the cover pencilled and inked by Gil Kane (per the GCD), Johnny Thunder confronts a desperado who is locked inside a cell but who has a gun and a grip on the aging sheriff of Mesa City (who, as we shall see, is Johnny's father).  The bad guy warns, "I'm breakin' outa here with the sheriff in front o'me!  Any shot at me-- is a shot at him!"  But the sheriff would rather be shot than used as a hostage; "Never mind me, Johnny!  SHOOT! SHOOT!"

Review by Bill Henley

During the late 1940's and early 50's, it was a sign of the decline and fall of the Golden Age of Comics-- superhero comics, at least--  when the Western hero called Johnny Thunder usurped the name of the recently-defunct comical JSA member, and the original Green Lantern's cover spot in ALL-AMERICAN COMICS (which soon became ALL-AMERICAN WESTERN)...When the JSA itself vanished and ALL STAR COMICS became ALL STAR WESTERN, that virtually put an end to the Golden Age.  .  When ALL-AMERICAN WESTERN made another conversion to MEN OF WAR in 1952, Johnny Thunder moved over to ALL-STAR WESTERN, at first as a backup feature to the Trigger Twins (of whom more later), but eventually taking over the cover slot.

But what goes around comes around, they say.  By 1959, costumed superheroes were making a big comeback, and the two conventional Western anthology comics being published by DC, ALL-STAR WESTERN and the generically titled WESTERN COMICS-- both edited at that point by Julius Schwartz-- were struggling to survive.  For ALL-STAR, Schwartz seems to have decided that the best way to keep the book alive was to make it look as much like a superhero book as possible.  Johnny Thunder, who had always had something of a superheroic tinge with his double-identity setup, was given the lead position, and with this issue he got a redesigned ASW cover logo emphasizing his name, a new more colorful costume, and a relaunch of sorts with a retold origin story.

"The Origin of Johnny Thunder" (the interior title drops the "Secret" part, perhaps in recognition that a secret that is accessible to anyone with a dime handy isn't much of a secret) was written by Robert Kanigher, who had scripted all or most of the Johnny Thunder stories up to that point, and drawn by Gil Kane with inks by Joe Giella.  I haven't had a chance to read the first JT story from ALL-AMERICAN COMICS #100, but I gather this origin tracks the original version in basic outline if maybe not in full detail.  The splash panel depicts much the same situation as the cover, with the bad guy now out of the jail cell but still holding Sheriff Tane hostage.  Caption: "You asked for it, readers!  And here it is!  The inside story of the man who leads two entirely different lives!  One-- in which he fights bullets with books!  And the second in which he draws like lightning-- and fires like thunder!  Now-- it's all revealed in the breathless tale of-- THE ORIGIN OF JOHNNY THUNDER!" 

"When the West was wild and young," a little boy named John Tane walked the streets with his father, vigorous and dedicated Sheriff Bill Tane.  (How about that, the sheriff has my name.  I'm not sure if his first name was ever actually given before this-- he was usually just referred to as "Sheriff Tane".)  The sheriff expects that one day his son will "grow up to take MY place ''n' MY badge," and he admonishes his son to  keep his silver star badge shiny and to take, when the time comes, a hard-line approach to law enforcement; "Always remember there's one answer to crime-- BULLETS!"  But his pretty, red-haired mother (whose first name isn't mentioned here) teaches young John differently; "Books are better than bullets!  If you teach children to be good citizens there will be no need for guns!"    When the sheriff confronts a shotgun-wielding outlaw named Blackeye and wounds him but is himself wounded in turn, this just reinforces each parent's opposite viewpoint; "Bullets.. are the only answer to a killer!"  "No.. no!  If he had been taught to be decent from the start, he would never have become a killer!" 

The years bring change as Mrs. Tane dies (in a scene not shown on-panel here), Sheriff Tane ages and slows down, causing Mesa City residents to wonder if he shouldn't be replaced by a younger man, and young John Tane grows to manhood-- but not the kind of manhood his father wants for him.  For, following a promise given to his mother on her deathbed, John Tane has taken the job of schoolmaster in the town school in order to carry on her message that "books are better than bullets". This engenders only bitterness in the Sheriff, who faults his son for not growing up to wear a silver deputy's star at his side as he hoped.  As Sheriff Tane confronts his errant son in his own classroom, a stray bullet from outside seems to negate the late Mrs. Tane's lesson by piercing one of John Tane's prized books! 

The bullet was fired by one of the "Clifton boys," a badman pair who are raiding Mesa City and "havin' a big joke at the law's expense!"   The Sheriff rides after the Cliftons and overtakes one of the outlaws, but his brother is waiting in ambush, and he lassos and disarms the Sheriff!  Left alive but robbed of his gun, horse and badge, Sheriff Tane trudges back into town in utter humiliation and is met with a warning from one of the town fathers; "You've got to face it, Sheriff!  Your son won't help you!  And you no longer can handle your job alone!  The council gives you 24 hours to get a deputy-- or resign!"

How will young John Tane overcome this double bind in which his parents have placed him?  He gets a glimmer of an idea when his friend Kathy Brown-- after urging him to do something to help his father-- asks him what costume he plans to wear to the town masquerade ball.  In private, he dons the costume he had ordered, a colorful cowboy outfit with blue jeans and a bright red shirt and silver-studded ten-gallon hat.  (This is a different costume from the fringed buckskin jacket he wore in all his previously depicted adventures.  He would wear the new outfit for the rest of his run, but having him don it at the very beginning of his career makes this a curious sort of retcon.)  Though John Tane now looks very different from his traditional schoolteacher looks, he is still recognizable as himself-- and that won't do, for "There's only ONE way I can keep my promise to Mother and remain a schoolteacher-- and also help Dad by becoming ihs deputy!  And that's by becoming two different people!"  As the next step in his transformation, John removes his eyeglasses, which, he muses, are made of plain window glass and are worn only in order to "look more scholarly!"  Next, he rubs black dust into his bright blond hair in order to obscure his true blond hair color.  He realizes he must change more than his physical appearance; "My metamorphosis is complete!  Uh-h!  I still speak like a schoolteacher!  My language must change too!  Let's see... If yuh're lookin' for a deputy, Sheriff, I'm yore hombre!"  But with a new identity must come a new name!  He decides he can still use his first name by changing it from the prim "John" to the more relaxed "Johnny," but what for a last name?  The answer comes when a sudden storm fills the air around him with lightning and thunder.  "Listen to that thunder!  Wait-- Thunder?  Johnny Thunder?  Hmm-- not bad!  Johnny Thunder-- JOHNNY THUNDER!" 

But as "Johnny Thunder" steps out onto the streets of Mesa City, John Tane feels all eyes on him and wonders if his disguise is working.  Are people just curious about a stranger in town, or do they recognize the meek schoolteacher trying to play he-man?  He quickly gets a chance to show his true colors as one of the Clifton outlaw gang accosts his friend Kathy Brown and steals a bag containing the bank deposit for the ranch she owns!  Johnny lunges at Clifton but stops as he realizes that the outlaw has his gun drawn but his own is still in its holster!  But when the outlaw sneers at Sheriff Tane as a "lame duck", Johnny is outraged by the insult to his father and leaps forward,knocking aside Clifton's gun by swinging his hat at it, pulling the badman off his horse and subduing him in a violent fistfight!  Arriving on the scene, the Sheriff finds the new arrival in town vaguely familiar and asks if they have ever met before.  Our hero evades; "If yuh ever met Johnny Thunder, Sheriff-- then yuh met me!"  The sheriff decides that Johnny's fighting prowess doesn't remind him of anyone else that he knows, but that he'd like to see more of Johnny Thunder as his new deputy!  Kathy Brown also likes the idea of Johnny staying around, and urges him to take the deputy job and to attend the upcoming masquerade ball.  Johnny promises to do so and reflects that appearing at the ball in both of his identities will be "the final test of my disguise!  Will her woman's heart be able to tell that both men are the same?"

Some time later, Johnny Thunder steps into the sheriff's office only to find that Clifton, by a ruse, has seized the Sheriff as a hostage and taken his gun!  The Sheriff urges Johnny to shoot down the outlaw regardless of the risk to him, but-- to the Sheriff's bitter disappointment-- Johnny is unwilling to shoot and risk the life of his father.  As Clifton rides away, still holding the Sheriff hostage in front of him on his horse, the Sheriff bitterly calls Johnny Thunder "a weakling!  Jest like my son!"  "I've failed Dad again-- even in my new identity!"  But Johnny Thunder rides after Clifton, trailing him at a distance in hopes of finding a new opportunity to rescue his father.  He is startled to witness Clifton riding through a waterfall and disappearing.  Johnny follows through the waterfall and discovers that it is the entrance to a hidden valley where the Clifton brothers have their hideout in a small cabin.  Sneaking up to the building, he finds the outlaws once again taunting the sheriff, offering him one last chance to wear his silver star badge before they kill him!   Johnny literally tries to "smoke out" the badmen by stuffing his shirt into the chimney so that the interior will be filled with smoke and the Clifton brothers will be forced to emerge and perhaps give Johnny a clear shot at them.  Johnny leaps from the cabin roof and knocks out one of the outlaws, but not before he fires a shot at Johnny which comes close enough to him to blind him with the gunflash.  As a figure emerges from the swirling smoke, Johnny dares not shoot lest it be his father!  But then, peering at the two figures through the smoke, Johnny spots a clue which tells him which man to take on!  He still dares not fire his gun, but he dodges the remaining outlaw's gunfire and brings him down with a volley of fists!  As Sheriff Tane emerges, he asks how Johnny knew which man to tackle.  Johnny explains that he caught a glimpse of the shining silver star which the sneering outlaws had intended the Sheriff to die wearing, and knew that the other figure was his foe!  And now the Sheriff gives the stranger, "Johnny Thunder," the accolade he has never given his son; "I always had hopes my son would be my deputy one day... but you risked your life for me... as if you really were my son!  I'd be proud to have you as my deputy!  "N' take my place some day!  Will you?"  As they shake hands on it, Johnny reflects, "You don't know it, Dad... but your son IS going to be your deputy!" (As I reread this story, I thought that even for a comic book, the idea of Johnny Thunder being the Sheriff's actual, official deputy is far-fetched.  Normally, a sheriff's deputy would have a known habitation and be available to help with routine duties as well as violent outbreaks of lawbreaking.  And indeed, Kanigher and/or Schwartz evidently had second thoughts, as in the next issue there is a flashback to this scene in which Johnny turns down the offer to be official deputy and agrees only to be an "unofficial" deputy appearing when he is most needed.)

Robert Kanigher had a tendency to set up a situation for a series character and then pound the situation totally into the ground in nearly every story about that character.  This had certainly been true of the Johnny Thunder series, in which Johnny constantly faced the contempt and rejection of his father for his real self, even while winning his father's praise in his alternate identity.  This pattern continued for the next few Kanigher-written stories in ASW.  Only in what turned out to be the last three Johnny Thunder stories, in ASW #117-119, did the pattern change as Gardner Fox took over scripting the strip and created a new story hook, as John Tane/Johnny Thunder played secret identity games with a new character, the "female Robin Hood" outlaw Madame .44.

The "double-length" Johnny Thunder origin story squeezed out one of the usual features in ASW, the "Foley of the Fighting Fifth" feature about a heroic Cavalry officer.  (Foley would return for the next few issues before being dropped for good.)  So the remaining story in this issue is a tale of the Trigger Twins, "Sheriff Trigger's Lucky Streak!", written by Gardner Fox (succeeding Kanigher who had written the TT stories up to this point) and drawn by Carmine Intantino and Bernard Sachs.  The Trigger Twins were yet another example of Kanigher taking a premise and pounding at it repetitively for years.  In this case the convoluted premise was that that the well-meaning but usually inept Walt Trigger was the sheriff of Rocky City, but when real danger threatened his identical twin brother Wayne usually had to take over for him to perform the crime-fighting feats that were beyond Walt's ability.  Here, things work out a little differently.  (Another difference is in the identical sheriff outfits that both brothers wear when in action.  Previously they had worn fringed buckskin outfits similar to Johnny Thunder's previous outfit.  But Julie Schwartz apparently decided the buckskin look was really out of style, and gave the twins a new look with green jeans and vests over pinstriped shirts.)  On the splash page Wayne sees Walt outnumbered three to one by a trio of charging badmen.  Will this be another occasion when "He'll need more than LUCK to get him out of that spot!"?  As the story begins, Sheriff Walt Trigger is for once doing his job himself, as he pursues an outlaw riding "the fastest critter in the Territory!"  As the badman on his superior horse pulls away, Walt is distracted by a cry for help.  He spots an elderly Indian clinging to a rock in the midst of a rushing river.  No believer that "a good Indian is a dead Indian," Walt uses his lasso to rescue the Indian, named Bent Spear, who in gratitude offers Walt his precious good-luck charm, a small carved image.  Though he doesn't believe in luck charms, Walt doesn't want to hurt the Indian's feelings, so he accepts the charm and carries it in his holster as directed.

And sure enough, the charm seems to bring Walt good luck, as he inadvertently comes upon the outlaw he was chasing, who has doubled back on his trail!   In an uncharacteristic feat, Walt is able to leap from his horse at the outlaw, disarm him, and haul him back to Rocky City to be jailed!  When he spots a bank robber fleeing in the dead of night, Walt fires his gun at the crook only to have his gun jam, and thinks his sudden good luck has turned bad!  But then he discovers that an accomplice was hiding in the shadows and would have shot him if he had successfuly fired his gun.  Now warned, Walt is able to subdue both robbers; "My luck is twice as good as I thought it was!"  And to the captured criminals, he boasts, "You aren't fighting just me, boys-- you're fighting my good-luck charm, too!"

Walt awakens his brother Wayne to tell him of his newfound source of good luck, but a sleepy Wayne dismisses the effectiveness of the charm; "Don't believe that it was luck alone!  You had confidence in yourself!  That was the big thing!"  The next day, Sheriff Walt sets out in high feather to trail a band of stagecoach robbers; "With my good luck, I'll have 'em behind bars before sundown!"  But Wayne, playing his normal role as a storekeeper, is disturbed that his brother is depending entirely on luck and not taking normal precautions.  He decides to put on his matching sheriff outfit and follow Walt in case he needs help.  While Walt rides in the wrong direction, Wayne uses his tracking skills to find the trail of the robbers, and he lets himself be seen long enough to decoy the badmen in Walt's direction.  When he spots the owlhoots, Walt is able to take one of them out of action with a punch and shoot the gun out of the hand of the other (a feat that was in real life pretty much unknown even to real gunslingers, let alone a supposedly maladroit sort like Walt).  When one of the bad guys mentions seeing Walt up in the hills, Wayne realizes with disappointment that once again his identical brother has had to help him do his job!  But at least he caught the bad guys himself, thanks to his lucky charm! 

But when he sees Wayne again and gives credit for the capture to his lucky charm, Wayne tells Walt to look in his holster for his charm-- and it is gone!  Wayne had removed the charm in order to teach his brother a lesson.  "You had a streak of good luck which you played for all it was worth!  But there'll come a time when BAD luck dogs your footsteps!  You'll have to counteract it with your wits and skill-- NOT with a good-luck charm!"  And Wayne points out that in reality Walt did defeat the outlaws "on fighting ability alone," without any help from the luck charm!   Walt agrees to stop carrying the lucky charm, but leaves it visible on a shelf "to remind me of what I can do WITHOUT it!"  (Gardner Fox was obviously trying to get away from Kanigher's depiction of Walt as a near-complete dolt, and in the next few "Twins" stories, Walt performs most of his sheriff duties with minimal help from Wayne.  But Walt didn't have too much longer to enjoy his newfound competence.  With ASW #117, the Trigger Twins were dropped in favor of the "Super-Chief" series which backed up Johnny Thunder in what turned out to be the last three issues of the title.) 

Though Julie Schwartz was obviously more at home on the streets of New York or the imagined space trails of sci-fi than in the Wild West, he tried to give ASW more of a Western flavor with filler features such as an info page on "Pioneer River Crossings" and a "Hitching Post" lettercol which featured questions and answers on the real-life West rather than comments on the ASW stories.  But sci-fi and superheroics both got into those last three issues of ASW, #117-119, as the quasi-superhero Johnny Thunder was backed up by the aforementioned Super-Chief, an actual super-powered hero -- albeit an American Indian hero from "the days before the white man came"-- who in one story fought aliens from outer space.  Interestingly, though, while Schwartz tried to save ALL-STAR WESTERN by making it look more like a superhero comic, he went in the opposite direction with his other fading Western title, WESTERN COMICS.  There, the somewhat fanciful Pow-Wow Smith was replaced as lead/cover feature by "Matt Savage, Trail Boss," which by comic-book standards was a gritty and realistic series, telling the story of a Western cattle drive without overt fantasy elements.  But that title too was cancelled, leaving DC  for the next few years of the Silver Age without any Western titles, unless you count TOMAHAWK.