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Tomahawk steals his book back from his kid (and Frank Thorne steals the show) – Son of Tomahawk #137

September 26, 2012

In the dying days of Tomahawk’s long-running eponymous title, he suffered that generational indignity that befalls so many of us: he was shunted aside for a younger model, in this case his own son. Tomahawk, which had been published at DC since the 1940s, and had seen the coonskin capped Thomas Haukins battle foes from Redcoats to beasts to the very elements themselves, morphed into Son of Tomahawk in issue 131. DC had its reasons, but if this was merely an attempt to rescue the title from its dwindling sales, the gambit failed miserably. The new direction only lasted for ten issues, and then the whole thing fizzed out. Tomahawk and Tomahawk had been tomahawked.

Lack of success in this case notwithstanding, the youth movement is a standard trope in the entertainment field. Going with a younger character has an initial burst of cringe-worthiness, mainly because such an artificial jolt is always the defribrillator pads and adrenaline to the heart of a property that’s coding out on the table. Have a sitcom with dwindling ratings? Throw in a cute wisecracking kid! Have a movie that bombed in front of a test audience? Do anything within your power to boost its share of the youth market! Have a comic book whose leatherstocking hero has lost his appeal in the era of free love? Give him a son who dresses like someone strumming a guitar on a 1970s San Francisco street corner!

It sounds like such a douche-chill, but, in a rather remarkable twist, those ten issues of Son of Tomahawk had quality to them. Granted, that non-title-rescuing success wasn’t due to the new direction, but we’re not shooting pool here. Nobody is going to break anybody else’s knuckles if they don’t call their shot. And what made them a moderate success had been a part of the book for a couple of years before.

And that was?

Frank Thorne’s art, that’s what.

The man who would in a few years take Red Sonja and her auburn locks and swords and chainmail bikinis and turn them into the catnip of adolescent male fantasies here did unheralded work in the old American frontier. His rough style, which was so well-suited to unmodern settings, free of cars and skyscrapers and other trappings, was perfectly matched to wilderness environs. The forested borderlands of early America were Messantia sans cities and sorcery, and had an unhewn beauty to them. It was a fruitful marriage of artist and subkect, and had been playing out in the pages of Tomahawk for a long while before the new branch of the family tree arrived.

What makes this particular issue worthy of a highlight post is the cover story. Because here, an old grizzled Tomahawk wrests his own title back from his son and has himself a nice little flashback, to the time he found the love of his life. It’s enough to make you ignore all the eye-roll worthy “white man goes native and bests savages and gets himself a babe” tropes. (Like Avatar. No giant cat people here.)

Scripted by Robert Kanigher, the story is bookended with appearances by the putative new star of the book, who’s unimaginatively and inevitably named Hawk. It opens in silence and wide open vistas, as any Western worth its salt should:

(A note: Son of Tomahawk has a Bride of Frankenstein streak in his air. There’s some manner of cosmic of course wound up in that.)

Hawk is off a-courtin’, heading to town to see his girl. As Tomahawk sits back in his chair, puffing on his corncob pipe, he remarks to his bride, Moon Fawn, that all this dash and enthusiasm reminds him of a certain someone else when he met a certain other someone else. CUE THE WAVY FLASHBACK EFFECT AND THE HARP SOUNDS.

A young Tomahawk is riding through the primeval forest when he spies a nude Indian girl bathing in a creak. There’s not time for him to even consider a moment of voyeurism because OH S–T THERE’S A BEAR ABOUT TO POUNCE ON HER. Out comes his knife and the death struggle begins:

I’m not trying to attack this young woman’s courage and/or motives, but could she maybe have helped out a bit instead of standing their like a hieroglyph? Maybe thrown a rock or something?

Tomahawk stands triumphant, but the bear has badly wounded him, and as the Indian maiden (yes, she is indeed a young Moon Fawn) comforts him, they’re both confronted by Angry Wolf. Jealous of the attention lavished on this white interloper, he jabs his spear at them, in obvious phallic symbology that you don’t have to be Freud to spot:

(Aside: Does Hawk use this guy’s tailor?)

Moon Fawn’s naked defiance — with arm-bra — temporarily stays Angry Wolf’s hand, and she brings Tomahawk back to her village, where her father, the chief, welcomes him with open arms. But his wounds have begun to fester, and he takes a turn for the worse. As fever threatens to drag him down into a delirious death-spiral, Moon Fawn goes into full healer mode, deploying fire and ice methods to return him to life (good thing a certain know it all doctor wasn’t there to stop her):

Hey, wait a second, it wasn’t the depths of winter a few panels before, and now there’s snow clinging to branches. FOUL. Maybe the village is up on a mountain or something. Moving on.

Tomahawk isn’t back in the land of the living for ten seconds before Angry Wolf jabs his spear at him again, renewing his challenge. This time Tomahawk accepts, snapping it in two like Bo Jackson with an uncooperative Louisville Slugger (if we’re still going with the phallic imagery angle — OUCH). They meet in a duel to the death, one centered on — wait a second, they’re doing a medieval joust?:

Seriously, did any Native American peoples settle disputes via jousts? Before the widespread introduction of European horses did they ride at each other on dogs or something? Semi-serious here.

Dubious historical accuracy aside, Tomahawk is immediately unhorsed, but fear not, the white hero triumphs, and he apparently took “spare your foe” cues from Daniel-san and Mr. Miyagi (though he left out the honking tweak to the nose):

And back we come to the present. Hawk returns home having won his girl, Tomahawk and Moon Fawn look on lovingly, and we can all bask in the Twainian lesson of history maybe not repeating itself, but sure as hell rhyming:

I’m not certain what it is about Thorne’s art that really grabs me, but it does. It might be that, though he had a distinct style, underneath it his fundamentals were so sound (and could even be glimpsed in his early days). He was a lot like cover artist Joe Kubert in that regard. You can read so much into certain panels. Hawk’s confident stride out the door in the first scan. Tomahawk’s utter exhaustion after he kills the bear. Moon Fawn’s bold inner strength. The aged hands in the last panel (the eyes seem to always focus on the hands, perhaps activating some tactile receptors in the brain — a stretch, I know). All these things express ideas and notions beyond what’s depicted, and to be able to do so is the height of craft. There’s nothing at all the matter with Kanigher’s script here, but Thorne’s art is so potent, this short tale could easily be dialogue-free. Nothing would be lost. That’s not something you can say about all comic book art, and it’s a mark of distinction.

What you see here is pretty damn good, even for a short-lived reinvention. Son of Tomahawk, we hardly knew ye.

It should be noted that there’s a lot more material in the book, mainly older reprints of Native American stories from earler DC comics, plus an old Tomahawk story where he riled up the British and added a few verses to “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” And then there’s this:

While there’s nothing overtly wrong here, there’s definitely a patronizing sheen. “Oh look at the happy cute Indians. I almost want to pet them.”

Whatever. Don’t let that wash away the joys of Tomahawk’s frontier love. Tomahawk and Moon Fawn actually made a mutual reappearance in the DC universe many years later, in — of all places — the pages of Swamp Thing. This tale of their first meeting was retconned in that arc so as to include the mystical hokum that was the life-blood of that series. I’m not sure if it’s nice that they were brought back or a shame that this Thorne story was painted over. A little bit of both, I guess.

In conclusion: FRANK THORNE IS A REALLY GOOD ARTIST. Have a nice day.

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