During the past few years, pop culture genre mashups (the mixing of two seemingly unrelated genres in one work) have been increasing in number. We’ve recently seen the release of movies in which gunslingers battle aliens, historical characters fight supernatural menaces, and there have even been films containing mixtures of horror and comedy (said mixture having been around almost as long as movies themselves, only these days it’s designed to be funny on purpose).
But genre mashups aren’t anything new; they’ve been around for a very long time. Around 1980 or so I was running a Gamma World campaign in which the players accidentally got blasted into another dimension. I could have designed an eerie non-Euclidean (to use a Lovecraft expression) universe similar to Dali’s painting The Persistence of Memory — but that would’ve been too much like work. Instead I flipped the AD&D 1e Dungeon Master’s Guide open to the conversion charts, converted the players’ characters to Boot Hill stats, and dropped the mutant band into the American West, circa 1870. The players thought I’d gone nuts, but the result was both fun and interesting. (In fact, I rather suspect that the recent spate of genre mashups came about because more than a few of the “movers and shakers” in TV, movies, comics, etc. grew up as part of what we today euphemistically call “geek culture”, and mixing and matching genres doesn’t seem at all strange to them.)
I remember a Marvel What If comic from back in the 1980’s in which writer Roy Thomas dropped R.E. Howard’s Conan into the modern world. Many of DC’s Elseworlds books work it in the other direction by transplanting current superheroes into past historical eras: one particular book I read which was set in 1920’s Egypt and which featured Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent was especially good.
But deliberate genre mashups in comics go back decades. I make the distinction “deliberate” here because a number of early comic books were unintentional mashups as the writers really didn’t know any better. The Phantom Sphinx is one example, a series in which an ancient Egyptian sorcerer is resurrected and becomes something of a superhero. The stories are really neither fish nor fowl, never quite superhero tales in the classic sense, but containing so many contemporary elements that they never quite seem like magic-based fantasy stories either.
One deliberate mashup can be found in the delightfully goofy series “Spurs Jackson and his Space Vigilantes”, published in a handful of Charlton Comics entitled Space Western Comics back in the early 1950’s.
As mentioned many times before in this blog, sales of classics superhero comics were dying off by the start of the 1950’s, while sales of other genres were booming. By the end of the decade westerns and science fiction were standard fare on TV, at the movies, and in the pages of comics. Charlton Comics, always been ready to try pretty much anything to see if it would sell (you can have a look at the broad range of their titles at The Digital Comic Museum site – and that’s only the Charlton stuff which has fallen into public domain!), changed their Cowboy Western Comics title to Space Western Comics starting with issue #40 in late 1952.
Each issue of Space Western Comics featured two stories starring Spurs Jackson and his sidekicks, dubbed “The Space Vigilantes”, who get into various scifi-based scrapes such as getting hijacked to another planet by aliens or stopping an invasion of Earth by same. At one point in the series they come into possession of rocket-powered mechanical horses; after a couple of issues they have their own streamlined rocket ship. Spurs and his men are traditional cowboys, sporting gun belts, hats, spurs, cavalry gauntlets, and kerchiefs, who just happen to somehow repeatedly get involved in space adventures.
Even at that time the “western-scifi mashup” was nothing new; Gene Autry had starred in a movie serial called The Phantom Empire back in the 1930’s (recently discussed briefly in this very blog). There’s no way to know if The Phantom Empire had any influence on the creation of Spurs Jackson and his Space Vigilantes. What we do know is that the comic didn’t exactly set the world on fire: after just six bi-monthly issues, the comic reverted to its old name, Cowboy Western Comics, in late 1953. It’s really not surprising; although the concept is unbelievably cool (one of those things that makes one’s inner eight year old shriek with joy), the execution is somewhat lacking. After you’ve read a couple of issues you’ll find that the idea is growing stale, especially if you’ve read many issues of Planet Comics, which was published a decade earlier – many of Space Western’s plots are essentially the same as standard Planet fare. Later mass-media attempts at space westerns refine the “space cowboy” idea and make it work well by toning down the hardcore “western” elements (such as attire and lingo) – after all, what is Star Wars’ Han Solo if not a western outlaw/rogue/gunslinger? The familiar sci-fi term “space opera” is itself a riff on “horse opera”, a pejorative term which was often used in reference to simplistic “white hat/black hat” westerns of the Roy Rogers variety, and it indicates that many of the pulpier sci-fi offerings owed much to traditional tales of the American West.
Still in all, the adventures of Spurs Jackson and his Space Vigilantes are gloriously dumb fun when read singly, as long as you leave everything you’ve ever learned about astronomy and physics on the back burner. Here, courtesy of The Digital Comic Museum, is a Spurs Jackson tale from the February 1953 issue of Space Western Comics:
Have fun! — Steve
Copyright 2013, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.