Western hero Johnny Thunder saw his long running series come to an end during the period 1960 – 1964: the Silver Age. Super heroes were pushing many other genres out of the comics, and though Johnny was given a couple attempts at good villains, and a genuinely interesting romantic interest, the strip just couldn’t survive in these years.
Johnny Thunder's horse, Black Lightning, whose importance in the series had waned heavily over the years, got the focus in All-Star Western 113, with a decent re-telling of his origin story. The horse even narrates the tale, as we see how it was raised by his daddy horse to be a righteous and honourable horse, unlike the evil black horse that is his arch enemy. John Tane saves the horse when it's in danger of drowning, and nicknames it Black Lightning because of a lightning bolt mark on its forehead. The horse runs off immediately after being saved, and John does not think he will see it again. But Black Lightning keeps watch on John from a distance, waiting for an opportunity to repay his benevolent act. Which he does, and begins to work in tandem with Johnny.
The evil black horse gets into the picture, and the fight between the two is beautifully done, as is the scene where Johnny Thunder breaks Black Lightning. Black Lighting is, apparently, blessed with superior vision to humans, as the horse is able to tell that John Tane and Johnny Thunder are the same person. Or maybe he's just smarter than people.
All-Star Western 115 gives up a glimpse into Johnny Tane’s childhood, as a red headed bully from his youth grows up to become a hardened criminal. The bad guy gets the best of Johnny throughout much of this tale, just as he had done when they were younger. Black Lightning gets the most impressive scene, saving Johnny from drowning.
In the end, of course, Johnny prevails over his long time foe, sending him to jail. This character could potentially have become a recurring villain, had the series lasted longer.
The Johnny Thunder tale in All-Star Western 116 tries to give the character an exciting villain, the Masked Menace. The villain begins by humiliating Sheriff Tane, who wants to catch the man himself. But Johnny Thunder is the real target of the Masked Menace, as Thunder had imprisoned his brother. Johnny learns this after his first encounter with the foe, who sets up a booby trapped grave marker for Thunder.
The Masked Menace is also behind an exploding horseshoe, and a Johnny Thunder weather vane that fires bullets. I suppose it's meant to make everything more dramatic, but it's just kind of silly.
Nor does it help that, when unmasked, the villain proves to be someone Johnny knows, but not someone the reader has ever seen before, making the big revelation fairly meaningless.
The Johnny Thunder stories in the final three issues of All-Star Western are the best this series has seen in many years. In issue 117 a mysterious woman, Madame 44, leads her gang in a series of robberies. She proves herself an excellent trick shot when Johnny first encounters her, using her precise aim to delay Johnny, allowing her to escape, without injuring him.
She also joins forces with him when she learns that the Arapaho are coming to the town to try to defeat her. She wants to make sure the children in the town are safe. Though Johnny sees her as a straight out thief, she insists that her crimes are all part of a justified vengeance against men who ruined her family.
After holding off the Arapaho, she gets away from Johnny by distracting him with a kiss. The story ends with Jonny completely obsessed with this woman, and wondering if, because she used red colouring to write a note to him, she dyes her hair the same way he dyes his. You can just tell he is completely smitten.
Madame 44 and Johnny Thunder wind up in a situation very similar to one the Trigger Twins got into in this book a few years earlier in All-Star Western 118. Johnny decides to lay a trap for Madame 44, and, likely because he is a school teacher, he draws on the Robin Hood legend for inspiration. He holds a target shooting contest for women, hoping to draw her out. But Madame 44 does not show up, far more interested in acting like Robin Hood than in falling into a trap.
She holds up a mine, which has been exploiting its shareholding workers. Johnny hears about this, and ditches the contest to go stop her. But both wind up getting injured by the mine owner's goons, with Johnny temporarily blinded, and Madame 44 getting her leg injured. Johnny has to carry her, as she directs him, and his gun, for the two to survive. It makes for a much more romantic version than when the Trigger brothers were in the same situation.
As the story ends, a photographer, Jeanne Walker, arrives in Mesa City. Johnny notes that her puffed sleeves could conceal her bandages, and that driving a wagon could conceal her leg injury. Is Jeanne Walker really Madame 44?
The final Johnny Thunder story, in All-Star Western 119, is a really fun one. Jeanne Walker tries to figure out who Johnny Thunder really is, while Thunder does the same with Madame 44. Jeanne gets Thunder to pose for a photograph, and leaves white powder in his hair. She later spies on all the men in town, but just as she approaches John Tane, she gets called away to help a Cheyenne woman. Johnny is suspicious of Jeanne, so he changes gear to follow her.
Madame 44 has been helping the Cheyenne, stealing from those who have stolen from them, and now faces angry reprisals. But the bulk of the tale is all about the suspicions the two have of each other, and plays out really well. As Johnny Thunder and Madame 44 they both sustain minor but noticeable injuries.
The final few panels have them approaching each other on the street in their civilian guises, each about to spot proof that the other is who they are suspected to be. The conclusion teases a big sequel tale in the next issue, but this never occurred. Makes me want to write it.
Johnny Thunder's next solo story appears in DC Comics Presents in the early 80s, in a period I have not yet defined or chosen a name for.
Johnny Thunder: All-Star Western 111 – 119 (Feb/March 60 – June/July 61)