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JOHN WAYNE FIGHTS WHALE!!! JOHN WAYNE FIGHTS WHALE!!! – John Wayne Adventure Comics #20

June 6, 2012

Let me point one thing out before digging into this book like a fat guy at a buffet: It’s only fitting that, in a bare-chested display of manliness, it’s a sperm whale that Wayne is getting ready to spear. Natch.

John Wayne. American screen legend. Icon. He was a movie star whose sometimes (read:often) cornball movies, with their dripping sentimentality, endeared him to a generation of moviegoers. He bestrode decades of filmmaking like a swaggering, irascible colossus, only to have his work’s quaint groove, changing times and his archconservative love-it-or-leave-it, my-country-right-or-wrong politics alienate him from the youth of the sixties and seventies. He was a man in full, a tall guy with broad shoulders and a toupee whose resume runs the gamut from classics like The Searchers to all-time duds like The Conqueror. And, incidentally to that last point, I think it’s safe to say that no actor ever had a better last role than he did, in a film and performance that was just as much about his mortality as that of the character he played. If you’ve never seen The Shootist, put it on your TO WATCH list.

I like Wayne. I like his movies. (I’m prone at odd moments to burst out a random CHISUM, JOHN CHISUM.) I like them even more because my grandmother absolutely adored Wayne (I sometimes wonder whether she would have thrown my grandfather, her husband of 50+ years, aside if Wayne ever looked her way) and I see a little bit of her whenever I watch one of his flicks.

And somehow I never knew that he had a comic book. Until I stumbled onto this bad boy this past weekend. Totally missed it. KNOCK ME OVER WITH A FEATHER. Where have you been all my life, John Wayne Adventure Comics?

This series (from the short-lived Toby Press imprint) is part of an old comics genre where famous actors, as themselves, were plopped down into outlandish adventures. John Wayne isn’t playing a character (not that he would in a comic book, but…). John Wayne in this series was John Wayne. For a modern audience, think of Jerry Seinfeld in Seinfeld, playing a fictionalized version of himself. Or hell, if you’re an older person, Jack Benny playing Jack Benny. But these early comic books were more outlandish than those TV cousins, with scenarios that were much more varied and kooky than a comedian and his pals (I’d cite Jerry Lewis as an example, but his book was a bit too outlandish, and I loathe him with the heat of a thousand suns). Which means the strutting, drawling Wayne was plopped into some nuts situations. This particular issue has three stories, including a de rigueur Western, but, obviously, we’re going to focus on the cover story. You know, the one which has Wayne out to sea face to face with a big ass whale. Just to warn you, though: At no point in the story does Wayne challenge a whale with only a rickety little boar, a spear and his bare pectorals. COMMENCE GNASHING OF TEETH. This is one of the seemingly infinite number of bait and switch covers/stories. But, as a consolation, this short features madness, lust, planes ditched at sea, perfidious whalers, multiple elaborate attempted murders and, of course, JOHN WAYNE. Strap in, pilgrim.

The trouble starts in “Mad Man’s Whim” while Wayne is staying at a millionaire’s hunting lodge. In the first panels we learn that Edmund Caxton III — one of the most millionarey monikers you’ll ever come across — is seeking some pretty blonde bipedal game (Marcia), and that Wayne is having none of it:

Note: This dialogue reads much better if you have Wayne’s voice in your head.

Wayne’s manliness triumphs. Rock may not beat paper, but here it beats gun — and head:

Back at the lodge, Caxton is apologetic, though he still harbors suspicions that John and Marcia (oh John, oh Marcia?) are secret lovers. He offers to fly them out, but — SURPRISE — he’s in full IF I CAN’T HAVE YOU, NO ONE WILL mode:

They crash at sea but miraculously survive, and fortunately a ship comes to their rescue. And not just any ship, but an old timey whaling ship. And when I say old timey, I mean old timey. We’re talking “wood and sails” old timey. (This comic was published in 1953, and the story seems to be set in that “present.” Were there ships whaling in the Ahab/Moby Dick fashion at that point? I confess, I’m not terribly familiar with whaling history.)

It turns out this deliverance isn’t the ticket out of danger that it seemed — at least for John and Marcia:

Sperm whale, sir. Not just sperm. Sperm whale. Please.

True to their word, the evils salt dump Wayne (who can’t resist an invitation to go out in a tiny boat to harpoon a whale — MANLY), but they get more than they bargained for when this big bull (not a sperm whale, btw) turns on them:

And when the whale is done with this snack, he goes after the whaler. IRONY. (About a month a go I read a book called In the Heart of the Sea. It’s about the whaleship Essex, an early 19th century vessel from Nantucket that was sunk in the Pacific by an enraged sperm whale — the true story upon which Moby Dick was based. It features cannibalism. RECOMMENDED.)

The whale’s attack is enough diversion for Wayne to get back on board and settle some scores. And how does Wayne serve up the ultimate comeuppance? With, what else, fists — and a dodged harpoon:

That’s it. And I’d like to point out that Wayne perhaps did do battle with the whale, but off-panel. I feel gipped. Let me suggest some potential dialogue for this unseen sequence: “I wanted to do some hunting, and by God I’m going to kill something before this vacation is over!”

I couldn’t locate any writer/artist information for this book, so I can’t give credit where it’s due. But it’s hard not to enjoy this all-over-the-place storytelling, and it’s an added treat that Wayne’s distinctive features — the skeptical, somewhat sad expression that he always wore — can be so clearly seen throughout. Though the art isn’t quite on par as that found in, say, an issue of the Golden Age Daredevil, it’s reminiscent of it, which isn’t bad. The whale sequence is especially cool.

In summation, discovering the newsprint adventures of John Wayne was a treat, and actually digging into them was no letdown. I can picture Wayne chuckling warmly if he ever saw that cover and read the accompanying story, and maybe that’s the most important seal of approval of them all. PILGRIM.

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