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Rawhide Kid #1
Slap Leather
writer: Ron Zimmerman
artist: John Severin

When Marvel announced Rawhide Kid: Slap Leather, CNN (and other media outlets) went crazy with the story. At least five friends and family members e-mailed me with a link to the CNN story, (perhaps) wondering what I thought.

Outing an old western hero? The first gay title character? Internet rumors sprouted that somehow septugenarian artist John Severin had been tricked into doing the series, unaware of its subtext. (Such rumors, by the way, are of course crap.).

All I could tell them was it was hype. Rawhide Kid hadn't been published in some time, and the spin machine seemed to be conveniently forgetting about Northstar, who also had a mini-series at one time. And I haven't been impressed by Ron Zimmerman's contributions to comics anyway. But what did I know?

So "important" did the news item become that CNN put Marvel Chairman Emeritus Stan Lee in the spotlight to defend this shameless gay comic book being put in the hands of children. But of course, what no one bothered to point out, including Stan, was that children wouldn't get their hands on it.

Though Marvel definitely intended to shock for publicity's sake, this Ron Zimmerman/John Severin collaboration comes out under the Marvel MAX imprint, with a huge Parental Advisory warning on the cover. Whether you like the book or not, you can't say Marvel didn't warn you.

In that funny way that real life has, the hype died down before the book actually came out, and I haven't read any reports of comic book stores being picketed last week upon its release.

Without the hoopla, all that remains is to figure out if the book is actually any good.

As someone who has definitely been turned off by Zimmerman in the past, I must begrudgingly admit that he has some skills. Rawhide Kid (not called "Slap Leather" on the cover) does not suck as much as I thought it would.

Zimmerman has set up a somewhat standard western plot, vaguely riffing on Shane, but done it well. In the young frontier town of Wells Junction, Matt Morgan maintains the law as sheriff, modeling himself after the Earps.

Or trying to, anyway. When faced with an actual desperado, Cisco Pike, Morgan survives only by Pike's desire to humiliate the lawman, not kill him. His son, who narrates the tale, witnesses the whole thing, suffering shame not unlike Sylvester the Cat's son.

And then the Rawhide Kid shows up, in all his blue-black leather glory. For the duration of this mini-series, the role of the Kid will be played by a young Charles Nelson Reilly. Clearly, subtext is not in Zimmerman's bag of tricks.

Part of Zimmerman's problem as a writer is a slavish need to prove how hip he is, and it gets in the way of his storytelling. It probably wasn't an issue when he helmed V.I.P., but in doing a Western, it gets jarring.

The Rawhide Kid as portrayed here isn't just gay, which might have made for an interesting angle and a possibly serious story (as Marvel protested "Slap Leather" would be). Instead, this cowboy is flaming in a way that even Oscar Wilde might have frowned upon, even doing calisthenics in cowboy boots and black leather briefs - very much 20th century gay iconography.

But then, it's also clear that everything Zimmerman knows about the Old West has come from carefully watching television. Off-handed references to Little House on the Prairie and Lonesome Dove show his credentials, but also makes it seem like the writer is just winking at us. Not unlike the Kid would, no doubt.

There's also a lot of twisting of clichés with modern pop psychology. Yes, they earn a laugh, but at the expense of believability. Maybe that doesn't matter.

At least The Rawhide Kid is still a hero, and the children of Wells Junction only know and worship his reputation as a gunslinger on the side of right. When they journey to the Kid's camp (get it? camp), it is to hear tales of his battles and which great western heroes he knows. And though the red-headed gunfighter makes anachronistic catty and queeny remarks, Zimmerman does show that he is more interested in relating his exploits than preying on young boys. There's that much respect for homosexuality, at least.

The art, however, rules. Severin, a veteran of The Rawhide Kid in the fifties, has not lost a bit of his skill. A master storyteller, Severin's composition alone makes Zimmerman's writing look stronger. Unlike some more popular artists, faces remain recognizably unique from panel to panel, with great character design.

Though hailing from a golden age (literally), Severin has a style as immediate as Jim Lee or the Kuberts. If you're on the fence (as I was) about getting this book, Severin's presence may tip you into laying down the $2.99.

Reluctantly, I'm intrigued. If the action takes precedence over the campiness, "Slap Leather" may have me through to the end.


Derek McCaw

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