RETRO REVIEW: Lobo #1 (December 1965)

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Or – “A Pioneer In More Ways Than One…”

It wasn’t all that long ago that I got in the middle one of those silly fanboy arguments that we all have now and again, this one about the first comic book to star an African-American hero.  One friend said ‘Luke Cage – Hero For Hire,’ while another thought that John Stewart as Green Lantern might count, as a third questioned the possible bona fides of The Falcon.  Me, I did what I always do, sat back and waited for them to ask if *I* knew.  Soon enough, they did, allowing me to sit back and drop a little knowledge…

Your Major Spoilers (retro) review awaits!

SUMMARY

Pros
The story is well paced
The art is wonderful
Cons

Characters are too “contrasty” against the backdrop
Multiple Lone Ranger titles at the same time can confuse the reader

Overall Rating: ★★★½☆

READER RATING!

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Lobo1CoverLOBO #1
Writer: Don Arneson/Tony Tallarico
Artist: Tony Tallarico
Colorist: Uncredited
Letterer: Uncredited
Editor: Don Arneson
Publisher: Dell Comics
Cover Price: 12 Cents
Current Near-Mint Pricing: $50.00

Previously in Lobo:  Dell Comics was once the most successful comic book company on planet Earth, claiming at one point to have a monthly circulation over 25 million issues.  For over 40 years, Dell published a veritable flood of books in all genres, with a particular flair for adaptations of television and movies, ranging from Bugs Bunny to the Twilight Zone and anywhere in between.  Though the origins of Lobo are disputed (the writer claims he made it all up, the artists swears he created the premise and GAVE it to the writer), the basic facts are simple: Westerns were big sellers back in the day, and the idea of a former Union soldier making his way through the post-Civil-War world is a good one.  Unfortunately for the man who would become Lobo, news didn’t travel all that fast in 1865…

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When one of his fellow men-in-blue opines that “It was us, or them,” our hero has a moment of perfect clarity, and makes a life-changing vow to give up his soldiering life for good…

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Riding away on the horse that belonged to the opposing general, the man who would be Lobo sought out a place where one could be free from memories and from the proverbial spectre of the gun, heading west into the untamed frontier to find whatever work he could.  Given his skills as a horseman, he secures a job as a cowboy, helping to move a mighty herd to Abilene for sale.  Though he eschews the way of the gun, Lobo is still able to handle himself in a scuffle, a skill which proves necessary far too often for his taste…

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Lobo keeps his own counsel, which makes his fellow riders (a couple of hooligans called Ace and Smoker) dislike him, a situation which doesn’t particularly bother him much, until things turn murderous on the trail to Abilene.

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It’s Ace and Smoker who give him his new name, claiming he’s nothing but a lone wolf and a murderer, without giving him any chance to defend himself.  Plotting-wise, the issue seems pretty heavy-duty for the sixties, especially for Dell, and the idea of a pacifist protagonist seems about a decade ahead of it’s time.  Unfortunately for our hero, Smoker and Ace’s treachery is as swift as it is unfounded…

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Interestingly, the dialogue discusses Lobo as a big cowboy who rides a coal black Arabian horse, but never explicitly references his skin color, an omission that I kind of like within the story.  Having heard stories of this book and its quick demise, I wasn’t sure how the issue of the main character’s ethnicity would be treated, but (at least in this issue) it isn’t even addressed.  Before he can ride off to a new life, Lobo saves a prospector from drowning, only to find that the old man likewise was accused of a crime he didn’t commit, and is willing to help him.  How, you ask?

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…through the power of GOLD.  Things quickly roll out of control, as crime after crime is blamed on the mysterious and shadowy Lobo, making his legend larger with each passing day, while the man himself has committed not a single crime.  Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Ace and Smoker who have robbed banks and murdered in his name to fill their own pockets, along with another outlaw, one Red Carson.  Lobo crosses paths with Red, and is able to capture him, only to get bushwhacked by his double-crossin’ former pals…

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Fortunately, Smoker, Red and Ace are not particularly bright, and no match for Lobo himself in a fight, even a three-on-one battle…

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Taking all three of the desperadoes into custody, Lobo remands them all to the sheriff, then leaves behind his calling card, the gold coin with the wolf’s-head, like the Lone Ranger, only with wolves and a more precious metal.  Setting out to prove his innocence, he tracks down the killer who took out his cattle-boss, but finds himself just a step too late…

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With the one man who could clear his name six feet under, Lobo realizes that he is doomed to be a wanderer forever.  Returning to the old prospector’s shack, he finds his one remaining friend.  Tragically, Lobo arrives to find the old man hovering on the brink of death.

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The old man’s words hit him hard, and Lobo realizes that his new life must be one of wandering, but also one of justice, a life that can teach others and perhaps help those who cannot help themselves.  Having run from the law for nearly 20 years, the old-timer makes him promise to use the fortune in gold in the service of a greater good…

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I’ve found, during our trade paperback reviews, that not everyone appreciates the older school of comic book writing, a world where fast was more important than good, and sometimes you had to wade through a wall of text to get to where the story wanted you to be.  This issue balances words and pictures pretty well, better in fact than many Dell Comics of the same time-period, but it’s still a product of its times, which tends to show up in the form of infodump captions or odd pacing throughout the issue.  And, as I alluded to earlier, this book is the first solo starring role for an African-American character (though there was an anthology book in the 1940s featuring a rather stereotypical jungle prince named Waku), predating Luke Cage by nearly a decade.  Lobo’s adventures were short-lived, though, with #2 serving as his swan song, a cancellation that artist Tallarico claimed years later came due to thousands of unsold issues returned from distributors uncomfortable with a black lead (a claim that is likewise disputed by the writer.)

Still, Lobo was a book ahead of its time in more ways that one, as Arneson’s script aspires to be poetic in a very 70s way, reminding me of a rougher-hewn version of Don McGregor or Steve Gerber’s later verbosity.  Tony Tallarico is a name that I am familiar with mostly from his later work on the Dell monster/heroes Dracula and Frankenstein, and in keeping with Dell’s massive output, seems to be known as much for his speed as for his quality.  Though his linework is simple and weirdly primitive, his figures aren’t as stiff as most of Dell’s usual house artists.  Indeed, there’s a lot to like here, like the subtle charm of the hero’s stoic presence, and his horse Midnight (while not always anatomically correct) possesses a great deal of character in his own right.  Lobo #1 is an interesting read, albeit somewhat antiquey feeling, and most of the short-comings are balanced by the creators’ clear fondness for the material (plus a little weighting for the series’ place in history) earning 3 out of 5 stars overall.

Rating: ★★★☆☆