In 2003, Marvel comics revamped its classic western hero the Rawhide Kid in a mini-seris titled The Rawhide Kid: Slap Leather. In this modern reconceptualization of the character, writer Ron Zimmerman and artist John Severin foreground the Rawhide Kids dandyish aspects, constructing a (sort-of ‘out’) gay hero. In the process they completely dismantle many conventional aspects of the traditional American Western genre, which usually centers on very hetero/masculine themes and tropes.
This comic has been extremely controversial in some circles. Probably the most even-handed, and theoretically interesting, treatment of the issue was written by one of our very own PPP contributors: Frank Bramlett. In “The Confluence of Heroism, Sissyhood, and Camp in The Rawhide Kid: Slap Leather”, Frank examines the use of camp – understood by Bramlett to be a kind of voice (or linguistic ‘masquerade’) – in the characterization of the Rawhide Kid. In this paper he forcefully argues that the comic uses camp to position the Rawhide Kid as a defender of ‘sissyhood’ and an enemy of ‘sissy-phobia’ while simultaneously defending more traditional human values, including (heterosexual) family, parenthood, and marriage.
Now, if this were all there was to it, then there wouldn’t be any need for this post – Frank’s paper is a pretty thorough and pretty excellent examination of the issues. But Zimmerman (this time with Howard Chaykin as artist) has produces a new installment in this narrative – a second miniseries called Rawhide Kid: The Sensational Seven. In this comic the Rawhide Kid gathers together a posse of famous gunslingers, including Annie Oakley, Billy the Kid, Doc Holliday, Kid Colt, Red Wolf, and the Two-Gun Kid, and they set off to save Wyatt and Morgan Earp from the evil Christo Pike.
The comic is interesting for, among other things, the way that it blends Marvel continuity, actual historical facts and people, and not-so-factual legends based on those actual persons. But more importantly, for my purposes, at least, it is interesting in the way that it portrays the Rawhide Kid.
In this installment of the story, the Rawhide kid is still ‘out’ (in the sense that the reader knows, as do some of his associates). But the story itself is, for the most part, a more traditional western tale than the first miniseries. Although the Rawhide Kids sissyhood is played for laughs throughout the comic, the narrative doesn’t provide anything like the tension between, and resolution of, various conflicting themes (sissy-versus-macho, hetero-versus-homosexual, etc.) that play out in the narrative of Slap Leather. In fact, the story in the more recent miniseries is structured around a symmetric shootout at the conclusion of the narrative, with each character facing down an evil ‘version’ of themselves. The Rawhide Kid’s opponent – Kid Cabo – is also a dandy (but not, apparently, homosexual): the two Kids trade fashion notes before the Rawhide Kid guns Cabo down. Given this, it is hard to read this newer story in the same, positive way outlined by Frank in “The Confluence of Heroism…”
Given the serial, and continuity-driven, nature of mainstream comics, we must in some sense interpret The Sensational Seven in light of Slap Leather, and vice versa. So the question is this: How does the (theoretically and socially) less interesting portrayal of the Rawhide Kid in the more recent miniseries affect our interpretation in the earlier series, and vice versa?