Hot Streak: Joe Kubert’s Son of Tomahawk

« Who are these men, Tomahawk? » « My Rangers! We fought against renegades… from Pennsylvania to Kentucky! When the country got too crowded, Moon Fawn and I moved out West… where a man has room to breathe! » — Tom Hawk sums up his change of station.

Tomahawk was created in 1947 by writer Joe Samachson (later co-creator, with Joe Certa, of J’onn J’onzz, Manhunter from Mars) and artist Edmund Good. The series was distinguished by its setting, the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783), and it appeared both as a back-up in Star Spangled Comics (until it switched to an all-bellicose format and became Star Spangled War Stories in 1952) and in World’s Finest (at first intermittently, from 1949, then steadily from 1953 to 1959). And Tomahawk had been spun off into his own book in 1950.

Inevitably, with the Silver Age and its superhero reascendancy, to the eventual detriment of all other genres, the historical adventure strip’s slow decline set in.

As Don Markstein put it:

« Toward the latter part of the ’50s, practically all DC comics ran aliens, monsters and other goofy sci-fi stuff on the covers, no matter how badly it clashed with the title’s subject matter — even war comics often sported dinosaurs in that position. And so, all through the late 1950s and early to mid ’60s, Tomahawk fought gigantic tree men, miraculously-surviving dinosaurs, mutated salamanders, and other menaces that seem somehow to have escaped the history books. There was even a giant gorilla among them, and putting a gorilla on the cover was also a contemporary trend at DC. »

It all comes down to the editor, and Tomahawk was long edited by Jack Schiff, who just adored that sort of (admittedly fun) claptrap, then by his associate Murray Boltinoff, who at least was more flexible.

To wit, with issue 116 (May-June 1968) came a change and a relative return to the feature’s roots. First, Neal Adams was brought in to provide covers, and the more outré aspects were phased out. With issue 119 (Nov.-Dec. 1968), the book’s final creative team was brought aboard: writer Robert Kanigher and illustrator Frank Thorne (1930-), eventual creator of Moonshine McJugs. Thorne replaced Fred Ray (1920-2001) who, while he wasn’t a Tomahawk originator, had been chronicling the mountain lion’s share of his exploits since 1947. He would draw a handful of short pieces for DC’s war books before leaving the comics field in the early 1970s, writing historical non-fiction and art directing and illustrating for publications Civil War Times Illustrated, American History Illustrated, True Frontier, The West and Yank (despite the title, not a porno mag).

With the heart of the creative team in place, it was a change of editors that prompted Tomahawk’s final mutation, and arguably its most interesting: Joe Kubert took over the editorial reins, and the action was moved four decades or so forward in time. Tom ‘Tomahawk’ Hawk had settled down with a Native woman, Moon Fawn, sired a pair of sons, and was by then a lanky, crotchety old coot, but not quite helpless. His elder son Hawk was the protagonist, and they encountered frontier-style prejudice, greed, corruption, tribalism, paranoia… you guessed it: it was a ‘socially-relevant‘ comic, but hardly the cringe-fest that was the concurrent Green Lantern/Green Arrow. I daresay that Kubert and Kanigher’s respective politics were rather too complex for that.

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This is Tomahawk no. 131 (Nov.-Dec. 1970, DC). Inside: Hang Him High!, written by Robert Kanigher and illustrated by Frank Thorne. I like how nonplussed Hawk is at the prospect of doing the Brand New Tennessee Waltz.
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This is Tomahawk no. 132 (Jan.-Feb. 1971, DC). Inside: Small Eagle… Brother Hawk!, written by Robert Kanigher and illustrated by Frank Thorne.
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This is Tomahawk no. 133 (Mar.-Apr. 1971, DC). Inside: Scalp Hunter, written by Robert Kanigher and illustrated by Frank Thorne.
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This is Tomahawk no. 134 (May-June 1971, DC). Inside: The Rusty Ranger, written by Robert Kanigher and illustrated by Frank Thorne.
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This is Tomahawk no. 135 (July-Aug. 1971, DC). Inside: Death on Ghost Mountain!, written by Robert Kanigher and illustrated by Frank Thorne, and the powerful Spoilers, written by Jerry DeFuccio and illustrated by John Severin. This was my admittedly random introduction to the series.
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This is Tomahawk no. 136 (Sept.-Oct. 1971, DC). Inside: A Piece of Sky!, written by Robert Kanigher and illustrated by Frank Thorne, plus an extraordinary Firehair tale by Kubert… but then they all are.
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This is Tomahawk no. 137 (Nov.-Dec. 1971, DC). Inside: Night of the Knife!, written by Robert Kanigher and illustrated by Frank Thorne, plus a selection of fine reprints.
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This is Tomahawk no. 138 (Jan.-Feb. 1972, DC). Inside: Christmas, written by Robert Kanigher and illustrated by Frank Thorne, as well as an assortment of worthy reprints boasting artwork by Nick Cardy, Sam Glanzman, Norman Maurer and Mort Drucker.
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This is Tomahawk no. 138 (Mar.-Apr. 1972, DC). Inside: Death Council, written by Robert Kanigher and illustrated by Frank Thorne, plus a clutch of reprints illustrated by Fred Ray, Gil Kane, and none other than Frank Frazetta.
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This is Tomahawk no. 140 (May-June 1972). Inside: The Rescue!, written by Robert Kanigher and illustrated by Frank Thorne. Gaspar Saladino‘s brand new logo, a rare misfire, was unveiled just in time for the book’s cancellation.

As for the interior art, I’d say it’s Frank Thorne’s finest work. The notorious Alexander Toth would of course disagreed, far preferring Thorne’s work when Thorne’s style bore a heavy… Toth influence (here’s an example from 1957.) For comparison, here’s a pair of interior pages from Tomahawk no. 131‘s Hang Him High!

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Thanks to their production manager, Jack Adler, DC had the finest, most nuanced colouring in the field in the late 60s and early 70s.

Toth would, in (final) conversation with The Comics Journal publisher Gary Groth, in 1996, froth forth:

« I repeatedly warned Frank: “For Christ’s sake, get the hell away from Kubert. He’s not doing you any good. His influence on you is negative, not positive, so get the hell away from him and stop aping his style and stop putting on all that shit that you lived without for years. You did nice, clean, hard-lined stuff, and it’s been detrimental to your work.” He confessed: “Yes, Joe Kubert and his style are hard to resist.” So, yes he had the influence, and he liked it. Well, good luck. »

DC attempted an update of the character back in 1998. It wasn’t *atrocious*, but basically a rehash of Jeremiah Johnson with a sheen of ‘Magical Native American‘ sprinkles.

-RG