DC Comics History: Johnny Thunder (1955 - 1959: Dawn of the Silver Age)
By Deejay Dayton
Jan 29, 2017 - 22:49
Johnny Thunder, the western version, continued to appear during the period 1955 – 1959: Dawn of the Silver Age, and by the end of it would get cover billing in All-Star Western.
The first issue to feature Johnny Thunder’s name on the cover, All-Star Western 108, contains a double length story which re-tells his origin, not covered since the beginning of his run in All-American Western, over a decade earlier. Robert Kanigher and Gil Kane faithfully retell, and expand, the story of John Tane, the son of a sheriff and a book loving mother. She was determined to instill a love of peace and learning in her son, while of course the father wanted his boy to grow up to be his deputy. John's mother dies, and he lives up to her last wish, becoming the school teacher for Mesa City, to his father's disgust.
Kathy, who had been John's romantic interest for quite a while, though her appearances had been scarce for the last few years, is brought back for this tale. Sheriff Tane is getting on in years, and some people want him to resign. John wants to aid his father, but not betray his vow to his mother. So he orders a cowboy outfit from a costumer, complete with hair dye. We also learn that the glasses he wears as John do not have corrective lenses. He just wears them to make him look smart.
Shedding the glasses, and putting on the costume and hair dye, he adopts the identity of Johnny Thunder. It proves to be well-timed, as outlaws capture his father. Johnny pursues and catches them, saving his father's life. Neither his father, nor Kathy, who also meets Johnny Thunder, realize that they are the same man. Bad vision must be prevalent in this town. Maybe it's something in the water.
Johnny’s young native sidekick, Swift Deer, appears in a number of stories during this period, though the age of the character varies greatly, and not in sequence. By which I mean, Swift Deer will be a young adult in one tale, and then a child in the next.
Swift gets featured on the cover of All-Star Western 88. The story has Sheriff Tane appointing Swift Deer as the sheriff for Mesa City for the day, as a reward for what a good student he has been at his son's school. And, I would think, as part of a feeling of reciprocity for John Tane being made honourary chief of Swift Deer's tribe. Tane gives him a gold star badge, but no weapons. On the other hand, his shaman, Grey Owl, provides Swift Deer with a sacred rattler to ward off evil. But really, it's Johnny Thunder who does all the heroics, as outlaws try to take advantage of the child.
You really have to wonder what Sheriff Tane was thinking. But then, this is a man who can never recognize that Johnny Thunder and his son are the same person, just with differently coloured hair, so I suspect the old man's mind was going. I do enjoy the last few panels of the story, with Swift Deer clearly doubting that the rattler really was the thing to save him.
Swift Deer is also shown as a child again in All-Star Western 94, one issue after being portrayed as old enough to become a warrior. Trying to put these chronologically, that one, in which Swift Deer acts as Johnny Thunder’s “son” at a picnic, comes next.
Outlaws hit the picnic while Johnny and Swift Deer are tied together for a three-legged race, which means that Swift Deer has to ride alongside Johnny as they give chase, and even jump in unison to take down the thieves.
In All-Star Western 98 Swift Deer is clearly older. Johnny Thunder's arms get injured as he falls off his horse while pursuing some outlaws, and Swift Deer's bow gets shot apart as well. Johnny gets captured, but still manages to not only get away, but triumph over the gang without the use of his arms. He's waaay better than the Trigger Twins. Although he does still need Swift Deer to pull him out of the river at the end of the story.
In his next two appearances, issue 101 and 102, Swift Deer is learning skills he needs to become a warrior. In issue 101 he gets assigned to follow Johnny Thunder. So this very much feels as if it takes place before the story in which he became a full warrior. Johnny does his best to shake Swift Deer, but never succeeds.
The weirdest element of the story is how Johnny keeps talking about how the tribe are laughing at him, even saying they are "doubling up" with laughter, when all we see are stern faces. Some outlaws show up right at the end, just to provide some western action, and Swift Deer and Johnny work together to take them down.
Thee story in 102 deals with Swift Deer wanting Johnny Thunder's buffalo necklace, a reward for his bravery in facing that animal. To get it, Swift Deer will have to, basically, save Johnny from a buffalo. In the course of the story Swift Deer saves Johnny a few times, but refuses the necklace, because no buffalo were involved.
If the art was not so stunning, this story would be just silly. In the end, of course, Swift Deer does save Johnny from a buffalo. What a surprise. And he gets the treasured necklace.
But waaay back in All-Star Western 93 we got a story in which Swift Deer demands to become a full brave of his tribe. His father, the chief, orders that Swift Deer must save Johnny Thunder's life in order to become a man. This makes things difficult for Johnny, who has a secret identity to keep up. But he doesn't want to ditch Swift Deer, and leave him humiliated. As it turns out, a situation does arise, as a rope bridge breaks, sending Johnny tumbling into apparently shark infested waters.
Swift Deer does save Johnny's life, quite impressively, and becomes a warrior for his tribe. Pretty impressive that the story actually allowed Swift Deer to triumph on his own, rather than have Johnny pull off some well-meaning deception. It comes before all those other tales, but must take place after.
Johnny Thunder’s old foe Silk Black returns twice during this period. The story in All-Star Western 87 once again shows off the villain’s need to taunt Johnny Thunder before actually getting down to crimes. Johnny actually uses his schoolkids as bait, taking them out as John Tane, and having them "find" a gold nugget.
This lures Silk Black and his men, which is exactly what Thunder intended. While they are busy hunting for gold, Thunder shows up and takes them down.
Losing never seems to dampen Silk Black's ego, and he was back two issues later, in 89. In that outing, Silk Black rides straight into town and tosses a bullet engraved with a challenge for Johnny Thunder. But it's John Tane who picks it up. Silk Black does not particularly want to kill the schoolteacher, but rules is rules, and he picked up the bullet, so Black goes onto the attack.
Tane gets away, changes into Johnny Thunder and blasts open Silk Black's guns with some really impressive shooting. Better than anything the Trigger Twins did. Then, to add insult to injury, he changes back to John Tane to bring Silk Black in.
Johnny Thunder gets some unwanted female attention in All-Star Western 106. Kanigher and Kane add a new twist to Johnny's double identity, which hasn't played a part in many stories for quite a while now. Miss Rhodes, an easterner, comes to Mesa City, and doesn't think she needs any help from Sheriff Tane or his son John. But Johnny switches identities and follows her out on her ride, where she promptly gets attacked by a bear, and then a cougar. Johnny rescues her both times, and she falls madly in love with him. Johnny clearly has no interest in the woman, but has no idea how to keep her away.
So he decides to only be John Tane, who she has no interest in at all, until she leaves town. Fortunately, nothing happens that requires him to switch identities. Miss Rhodes leaves, and Tane becomes Johnny Thunder to stop an attack by natives, only to discover that she has returned. Once again, she starts throwing herself at Johnny. The story ends insisting that Miss Rhodes will stick around and be a constant nuisance for the hero.
And indeed, Miss Rhodes is back in All-Star Western 107, and determined to get Johnny Thunder to be her date for Mesa City's Pioneer Days celebration. The story quickly veers into comedy, as Johnny does everything he can to avoid having to be her date. He switches back to John Tane, but his double identity becomes even more of a problem. Tane's schoolkids want him to go the party, or they won't attend.
So it's as John Tane that he attends, to Miss Rhodes' dismay. But then some outlaws attack, and he has to fight them off without switching identities. Miss Rhodes decides that John Tane might be a good boyfriend as well. Oh, no!
Johnny Thunder continues in the next period, 1960 – 1964 – the Silver Age.
Johnny Thunder: All-Star Western 84 – 110 (Aug/Sept 55 - Dec/Jan 59/60)
Next up – Congo Bill!
DC Comics History: Johnny Thunder (1960 - 1964: the Silver Age)
DC Comics History: Johnny Thunder (1955 - 1959: Dawn of the Silver Age)
DC Comics History: Johnny Thunder (1952 - 1955: We Don't Need Another Hero)
DC Comics History: Johnny Thunder (1948 - 1951: End of an Era)
DC Comics History: Johnny Thunder (Late Golden Age)
DC Comics History: Johnny Thunder