The very first comic books I bought for myself, in the summer of 1965, were DC comics, and for the most part I stuck with that publisher for the next couple of years. I wasn’t completely an exclusive DC customer, however; I also bought comics from Gold Key, the comic book imprint of Western Publishing. Gold Key produced superhero series like Magnus Robot Fighter 4000 A.D. and Doctor Solar, Man of the Atom; they also had the licenses for Tarzan, and for the Disney and Warner Bros.cartoon characters. However, I wasn’t very interested in any of those. No, I bought Gold Key comics because they published comic books based on my favorite television shows — and in March, 1966, one of my very favorite shows was The Wild Wild West.
The Wild Wild West, which premiered on CBS in September, 1965, and ran until April, 1969, was founded on a high-concept that was so perfect for its pop-cultural moment that it practically had to exist. It combined the venerable genre of the Western (which, while it had declined from its peak of popularity around 1959, still accounted for a large number of shows on the prime-time TV schedule) with the more recent (and still ascending) super-spy thriller genre, typified by the big-screen adventures of James Bond. The series featured actors Robert Conrad and Ross Martin portraying two 1870s Secret Service agents on special assignment from President Ulysses S. Grant. Conrad’s character, James West, was a two-fisted man of action, posing as a rich “dude” from the East traveling through the West on a private train, the Wanderer. His partner Artemus Gordon, portrayed by Martin, was a clever gadgeteer and master of disguise. Together, the two agents crisscrossed the Old West, dealing with threats to the security of the United States and the safety of its law-abiding citizens.
The series incorporated elements of the super-spy genre in ways that went well beyond the protagonists’ secret agent status. Among the simplest of these was James West’s look — his “rich Easterner” cover allowing the series to bring a distinctive sense of urbanity to the frontier setting, with West’s tailored suits standing in for James Bond’s tuxedos. And then there were the gadgets — a spring-loaded knife hidden in a boot heel, an exploding billiard ball, a barbed spike and climbing line fired from a derringer — which, if not quite on the level of inventiveness of those designed by Bond’s Q, were still damned cool. And the villains — especially the recurring menace of Dr. Loveless, a brilliant but megalomaniacal scientist played by the 3’10” actor Michael Dunn — upped the ante considerably. In the course of their adventures, West and Gordon were confronted not only by anachronistic flame-throwers, missiles,and tanks, but by inventions which were (and are) still science fiction — shrinking powders, super-speed formulas, paintings that served as inter-dimensional portals. In including such fantastic elements, the series’ writers evoked the work of early SF pioneers like Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, and inadvertently produced an early example of steampunk. — a subgenre of science fiction featuring settings based in (or at least evoking) the 19th century, but which include the added element of advanced technology running mostly on steam power.
Gold Key’s comic book series based on The Wild Wild West launched in early 1966, about three-fourths of the way through the program’s first season. (According to Mike’s Amazing World, though the first issue was cover-dated June, it was actually released to newsstands on March 3rd). The lead (and only) story in the issue, “Outlaw Empire”, bore no credits, and though the Grand Comics Database identifies the penciller as Al McWilliams, the anonymous author remains unknown. (As an aside, I must note here with some chagrin that my eight-year-old self “improved” my own copy of the comic by writing in ink over the printed title:
In doing so, I was following a convention of the TV series, all the episodes of which had titles beginning “The Night Of…”.)
The story finds James and Artemus investigating a wave of lawlessness infesting the “Southwest Territory”, as whole towns are emptied out of honest folk and completely taken over by criminals (or, as our anonymous writer prefers to call them: thugs, cutthroats, gunslicks, and desperados). Some unknown mastermind is organizing all of these outlaws into what amounts to an army, intending to carve a new independent empire out of the American Southwest (hence the story’s title).
Someone turning to this story today looking for antecedents to steampunk would most likely be disappointed. Not counting the Wanderer, there’s nary a steam-powered contraption to be found. Even the super-spy aspect is somewhat muted, as the grand scope of the criminal operation is about as outlandish as the story gets. Still, there are sufficient examples of several of the TV show’s more distinguishing characteristics to give the modern reader a taste of its flavor.
This sequence, for example, fills the reader in on the agents’ cover story, as well as giving Artemus a chance to show off his disguise skills:
(And in case you’re wondering, Artie’s full-on performance as the indigent, alcoholic “Injun” Johnny Bear is just about as offensive by today’s standards as you might imagine.)
The story also gives Jim West ample opportunity to show off his own particular set of skills, although mostly in the context of traditional Western action — such as fisticuffs, or, in this sequence, good old fashioned six-shootin’:
There’s also a pretty young woman involved in the proceedings — in keeping with the super-spy theme, The Wild Wild West stories almost always featured at least one such, whether as femme fatale or damsel in distress; Crystal Masters, in this story, is the latter. Here, Jim has an opportunity to impress Crystal with some of his gadgetry:
(In case you can’t quite make out what Jim is up to in the second panel above, he’s extracting a bullet from a secret compartment in his belt buckle. Think clean thoughts, folks.)
Of course, Jim and Artie ultimately save the day, exposing the mastermind behind the would-be outlaw empire (tragically, if unsurprisingly, it turns out to be Crystal’s wealthy rancher father). The story ends as the Wanderer steams off into the sunset, our heroes congratulating themselves on having preserved the Southwest Territory for the good ol’ U.S. of A. “Yes,” says Jim, “this land was meant to be an empire — an empire for the people!” To which Artie replies, “And it’s our job to make sure it stays that way!”
I’m pretty sure I bought at least one more Wild Wild West comic book, though this first issue is the only one I still have in my collection. The series would run for seven issues in all, with the final one being released in July, 1969 — a date more-or-less coinciding with the ending of the TV series as well. The Wild Wild West aired its last first-run episode on April 4, 1969, seemingly a casualty (at least in part) of a political backlash against violence in the media following the King and Kennedy assassinations of 1968.
Conrad and Martin would eventually reunite as West and Gordon for a couple of made-for-TV movies that aired in 1979 and 1980. A decade later, another comic book series appeared as well, this time coming from the independent publisher Millennium; it ran for four issues in 1990, and featured a single storyline. Later still, in 1999, Will Smith and Kevin Kline starred in a big-screen movie version of the property that gave new emphasis to the steampunk elements, but proved a critical and commercial disappointment.
The unsatisfactory performance of that last iteration is probably the main reason why we haven’t seen any further attempts at a revival since then; however, it’s been sixteen years, and through the traditional Western hasn’t exactly made a comeback during that time, the spy genre continues to do just fine, while steampunk seems to have picked up even more, er, steam. One has to imagine that we’ll see the Wanderer rolling down the tracks again one of these days, whether on screen or on panel, or both.