In 1968, a curious ad started running in Superman DC Comics. It featured a gangly figure, in silhouette, stalking toward the reader, with the legend, "Bat Lash. Can he save the West, or RUIN it?".
Another Western. I mean, wasn't Tomahawk bad enough? This guy did look a little strange though, little less kid and a little more rawhide, more Eastwood. And really pissed about something.
Maybe this WAS something different.
At the end of the sixties, one could feel that the usual comic book western, the Rawhide Kids, the Two-Gun Kids, and all the other kids that were scattered around the comic book West, were dying or already dead. They might take a few more years to keel over, but as the months passed, they began to look more and more 'quaint' against the background of Vietnam, riots, and Sergio Leone films. The stalwart Western hero was an anomaly by the late 60’s where if Westerns were made they were bloody and their heroes more grey hat than white. That was what western comics needed, a little less John Wayne and a little Leone.
And in rode Bat Lash, skirting the John Ford tradition like Leone films skirted Monument Valley. Born out of an editorial need for something different, and the decision to call in a brilliant young cartoonist to see if 'he had any ideas', Bat Lash has been referred to as the first of the anti-heroes in comics, ground breaking in story and art, and one of the best westerns in comic books.
(Ok, it's one of my favorites. Could you tell? But instead of one of those 'Gee, I really appreciate this book, let me summarize every issue' articles, let's let a couple of people who where there talk about it.)
In 1968, Carmine Infantino, newly installed editorial director of DC Comics, and his editor, Joe Orlando, were looking for something new. Marvel's inroads into DC's stronghold were at last being noticed (like the horse notices the fly) and it was felt a slate of new books would fill the 'hero gap'. Westerns were popular at the moment, with the 'spaghetti' westerns of Clint Eastwood breathing new life into a genre that had fallen into kiddie fodder. Why not try that in comics?
They needed a name for their hero, because, while Clint didn't seem to need one, no one would buy, “Hey, You...Yeah, You! Western Comics.” The decision was to name the new cowboy Bat Lash. Was this a play off their best seller Batman? Maybe, but probably not. Bat Lash he was, and wanderer of the West he would be.
This was when a young cartoonist was invited to pitch his ideas at a restaurant to Joe and Carmine...and Sergio Aragones had lots of ideas as to where to take a Western series. Sergio?
"...They called me and said 'Sergio, we need a western, we need a cowboy, called Bat Lash. Think about it'. So I did, I thought the character. The way I work, things pop in my head pretty fast, so as I was sitting with them in the restaurant, I was describing how the character was. So Bat Lash was born right there, in the restaurant."
And Bat Lash was different.
"That was one of the things they wanted, they wanted to be 'different' a different western, but they didn't know how, so I came up with a guy that had good taste for food, and music, and loved flowers and nature. And was a crack shot."
So Sergio Aragones wrote the first story, roughly laying out the pages and scripting it as he went. The finished art chores went to DC artist Nick Cardy. Cardy had been known for his long runs on Aquaman and The Teen Titans, as well as his imaginative covers on those series. He brought considerable skill and feel to the strip, doing some of his best work at DC.
Sergio: "I did, as in my cartoons, layouts, rough, always with a note to the artist, 'please disregard my drawings', because it's easier for me to draw the stories then to write it. (It's) easier to explain the situations"
The first story appeared in Showcase #76. It featured a devil-may-care character, a peaceful, violence hating man who seemed to attract trouble wherever he went. He was a man who seemed to want to be left alone...with the exception of various females that crossed his path. He was the most shootin'ist peace lover that ever rode into the comic book West. And he had a sense of humor...
Sergio: "But he was no clown. The idea when I wrote it was that he was man with a sense of humor, but he was not a clown. He would do things that will (make) other people become the butt of humor, but not him.”
Showcase hit the stands in May-June of '68. Two months later, Bat Lash #1 came out, this time with a new member of the team, writer Denny O'Neil. Here’s Denny:
"I was brought in by Carmine and Joe, with Sergio also. I worked from the plots Sergio sent in, adding my own slang to it here and there. I loved working on the character, one of my favorites..."
Sergio "At the time my English was even worse then it is now (much laughter here from Sergio and author) and (Denny) added that wonderful western slang. The stories and the plots are all mine though. My writing was very loose, and then Denny would write a Western"
In the comics 'biz', there is usually a lag time of about three months before any preliminary sales reports come in. This means the first issue must have been in the works close to the time the Showcase issue was finished. Carmine and Joe went ahead before all reports were in. That was something new.
In writing Bat Lash, Sergio drew on his love of western lore:
"I am very much enamored with the European Westerns. I have always believed there's a difference between the real west and the western mythology. The myth of the west is much, much better. If you try to make it too real, it becomes just a modern story. I like Sergio Leone, with the mythical towns, like the old TV westerns, the good ones. "
And he even drew himself, sort of...
Sergio: "One of the stories I wrote about a really villainous guy, (issue #5) I drew on my little byline a Mexican guy, and obviously a Mexican guy looks like me. I didn't know what name to give him, so I called him Sergio, figuring they'd change it. When Cardy took it, he drew me and called him Sergio. It was never intended to be me, just a guy who was Mexican."
Also the character of Don Pasqual (issue #7) is named after Sergio’s father.
Sergio: "It's always hard to come up with a good name...'
The series also tended to stay away from the usual 'Indians as villains' stories used in so many comics and movies. This was on purpose, as long as Sergio plotted the stories.
Sergio: "The reality with American Indians is so different from the lore, it's the only one that hurt. See, you can play around a lot with the Wells Fargo stuff, and stage robbers and all that, but once you get into something that can damage...It's like telling Polish jokes, some are very funny, but it's racism. I didn't want anything do with the Indians. The reality is too sad. I think the story that Cardy did had some in it, but I avoided them like the plague. If I used them, I would have used them as the good guys."
And how did the readers respond to Bat Lash? In the first letter column, in Bat Lash #4, readers compared Lash to Will Eisner’s The Spirit, and engaged in a discussion of French philosophy. There was recognition at the time that here was something new being tried, a hero who wasn't a hero, with a sense of humor and a misguided chivalry that always threatened to get him into constant trouble.
And what was the plan after the 'meeting' of Bat Lash and his long lost brother?
Sergio: "I wanted him to grow. I was going to take a few liberties with the time period. I was going to jump him a little more towards the beginning of the modern century, parallel to the Mexican revolution. There was a lot of subplots I had in mind...I was going to make it like a saga.
I am very much interested, like in Groo and other comics, in the plot. The storyline is so, so important to me. If I wanted to write the bad guy/good guy comics, I could write one an hour, but that's not the point. The point is something different, something that can lend to a good plot and good character development. That's what I like."
And the reason that Bat Lash had to turn in his saddle after only 8 issues?
Sergio: "It was a difficult time for comics that weren't superheroes. Marvel was increasing the superhero thing, it was a whole change of attitude. It was the period when the superhero took over completely.
And working on Bat Lash in 1968?
Sergio: " Comics were different then. If a story was late, and they had a friend over there, they would give the story to them. They would take it wherever they wanted to without even telling the author, because they didn't think it made a difference. There was a couple of things that hurt, suddenly it was, 'Wait, I didn't do that.' They would change the whole thing completely. That was...disappointing."
Do you see many issues of Bat Lash today?
Sergio: "No. I see about as many of those as I see of 'Plop'. If they bring (Bat Lash) up, I know they're a true fan. 'Hey, they know about it!' I'm very happy about that."
What about the various Bat Lash revivals?
Sergio: "Didn't work on those."
Denny: "I wrote a few in the 70's, (Weird Western Tales), but that's about it."
Any plans for the character?
Denny: "Maybe I'll just go over and say, 'Hey, a fan called me today about Bat Lash! Maybe we should do a revival..."
So Bat Lash rode into the sunset (sorry, inevitable joke there), but he's not forgotten. This article is proof of that. So is the dash for any Bat Lash originals that make it to the market. One dealer who recently offered a Bat Lash half page (basically one large panel) told me he could have sold it seventy times over.
Hey, Nick, Denny and Sergio are still around, maybe.... No. Maybe those eight issue will have to satisfy us.
Thanks to Sergio Aragones, Denny O'Neil, Mark Evanier for help with this article.
This first appeared in Comic Book Artist #1, 1998, in edited form. It became a bone of contention with Carmine Infantino who threatened a lawsuit over it (See “Carmine Infantino Hates Me” elsewhere on this blog). The entire series was reprinted for the first time as a whole since the 60s in the DC Showcase series. Bat Lash has been revived recently, (even guest starred on cartoons) without Denny or Sergio. It was okay, but not the series it was. But then, I might not be the person to ask.