Bat-Lash: The Peace Loving Cowboy

By all rights, Bat Lash should never have existed and certainly should never have been as popular as he was.  Here was a Western character who was handsome, enjoyed fine food and wine, loved beautiful women, and disdained violence.  And yet, Bat is still popular nearly FORTY years after his first appearance.  Some of the reasons for that are as interesting as his character itself.

In 1968, DC Comics were starting to realize that they had a problem.  After having been the dominant comic book publisher for decades, they were actually starting to face some serious competition.  Marvel Comics were very quickly gaining a larger portion of the comic market share and a rabid fan base that were flocking to their new way of making comics.  At DC, this was incomprehensible.  How could these weird little comics be selling so much?  To the workers at DC, in their establishment uniforms of suits and ties, it made no sense.  So, like any company in trouble, they scrambled about for anything different that might sell.  They wanted something, anything to click with the new breed of comic reader that were leaving DC comics by the score.  One of those new concepts was Bat Lash.

His appearance was announced by a house ad showing a gangly figure, in silhouette, coming menacingly towards the reader.  The ad read, “Bat Lash.  Will he save the West, or ruin it?”  But it gave no other information.  The ad was purposefully done to evoke echoes of the Sergio Leone Spaghetti Westerns that were gaining popularity at the time.

Carmine Infantino

It would turn out that the ad had been created by then DC Editorial Director, Carmine Infantino, before anyone had any real idea what the character or the series were going to be about.  All that existed at that time was the name: Bat Lash.

A decision had been made to try a new kind of Western.  Something that was different from the old John Wayne type and especially different from the Rawhide Kid and other Marvel Western characters.  But no one could quite agree on what that ‘different’ Western would be.

A script for the first issue was written by comic legend Sheldon Meyer (Sugar & Spike) but was so hated by Infantino that it was completely discarded.  Reportedly, Meyer would draw out his scripts so it is especially sad that this first script no longer exists.  It is at this point that history, and memories, become muddled.

According to Carmine Infantino, “Then there was Bat Lash.  I didn’t plot the first one but it was so badly written that I rewrote the whole script over the finished drawings of Nick Cardy.  That series I plotted until the very end.  It was my favorite.”1 And yet Infantino does not have plotting credit in the books or on the Grand Comics Database.  It is possible that he discussed plot ideas with the books editor, Joe Orlando, and the writers without doing complete plots.

Joe Orlando during his EC days in the 1950s.

Orlando remembers the creation of Bat’s first issue somewhat differently.  “The first story was written by Shelly Meyer and Carmine didn’t like it.  Carmine’s idea was a tough Western gunfighter with a gentleman’s soul who like good food, flowers and women.  So we both rewrote the premise (my italics) and then I turned it over to Dennis O’Neil for the final rewrite.  After that I used Sergio Aragonés to lay out the plots and Denny would dialogue it over Nick Cardy’s pencils.”2

This, in turn, contradicts Sergio’s own memories of being brought into create Bat Lash during a lunch meeting with Infantino and Orlando:

“They called me and said, ‘Sergio, we need a Western, and we need a cowboy called Bat Lash.  Think about it.’  So I did… The way I work, things pop in my head pretty fast, so as I was sitting with them, I was describing how the character was.  So Bat Lash was born right there, in the restaurant.

Sergio Aragones

“They wanted to be ‘different,’ a different Western, but they didn’t know how, so I came up with a guy that had good taste for food and music, and loved flowers, and nature… and was a crack shot.”3

Regardless of the process, a plot and direction were determined for Bat Lash and a script was given to Nick Cardy to draw and probably dialogue.  The final result would appear in DC’s try-out title, SHOWCASE in issue #76.  And Sergio was right, Bat Lash WAS different.

Everything about Bat Lash set him apart from the typical Western character.  He was handsome, well-groomed (for a Western character) and was not especially heroic.  Bat’s first appearance comes as a jilted boyfriend sneaks up behind Bat who is passionately kissing his girlfriend.  Spinning around, Bat shoots down the attacker and makes a quick escape out of town.  On the road, he shoots a pheasant and decides to take it to the nearest town to have it cooked for his supper.  What results is a humorous adventure as Bat tries to arrange a good dinner with a beautiful saloon-keeper as the townspeople try to flee a band of marauding bandits.  Throughout the story, Bat constantly tells everyone who he hates violence but is provoked over and over again to shoot or otherwise fight his attackers.  In the end, Bat traps the saloon-keeper who was actually the brains behind seizing the town and gets her locked up but he is without his fine meal and wine.

For most of the original Bat Lash stories, that is the usual formula.  Bat gets tangled up with a beautiful woman, behaves like a rogue and usually turns the tables on his foes by the end.  Except that this was nothing that had been seen before.  In many ways, Bat was the first anti-hero.  Someone who accomplished good deeds without really meaning to and having his own welfare and benefit being most important.  He is not above stealing, shooting and double-crossing anyone to get what he wants.  Bat Lash is selfish, egotistical, a liar and a thief. He is often shown playing cards in a saloon, drinking and being surrounded by beautiful women.  Bat is a scoundrel and is far more entertaining than the “gruff bad man with a heart of gold” that fills so many Western comics.

Two months after his appearance in SHOWCASE #76, Bat got his own series with BAT LASH #1.  It would only last for seven issues but is a run that is still remembered fondly today.  Considering the lag time between publication of a comic and sales returns being an average three months, it must have been already planned that Bat would get his own title.  The same thing would happen with other SHOWCASE try-outs like Creeper, Anthro, Hawk and Dove, Inferior 5 and Spectre.  After appearing in SHOWCASE, they would all get their own titles and all be cancelled after a short run.

With the first issue, Denny O’Neil would come on board to dialogue Sergio’s scripts.  It was a decision that Sergio welcomed: “At the time my English was even worse than it is now [much laughter] and Dennis added that wonderful Western slang.  The stories and the plots are all mine though.  My writing was very loose, and then Dennis would write a Western.”4  One wonders where Infantino was all this time if Sergio was doing all the plotting.

If anything, Bat Lash became more of a satire of Westerns than a real Western.  The characters were often finding themselves in humorous situations that were more reminiscent of Support Your Local Gunfighter than The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.  This was not exactly what anyone had bargained for.  The editor, Joe Orlando, particularly did not appreciate the humor.  “[Bat Lash] was beautifully drawn by Nick Cardy but he pushed it more to the humor than to the straight.  He tipped it a bit too much for my taste.  He would focus too much on the humorous side of characters and stray from the main storyline.”5   Sergio had a problem with some of the humor too.  “There was one issue I didn’t write at all (#2); I think I was moving to the West Coast.  Nick Cardy wrote it.  I was surprised, because he made Bat look like a clown.  He drew all the characters so cartoony, falling in bathtubs, and hanging from roofs… It really hurt me a lot, because I didn’t want anything like that.  The humor should be the result of Bat Lash’s action.”6

The confusion in direction continued until a change was made with issue #6.  The light-hearted tone was gone and Bat became a tormented man wanted for a murder that he didn’t commit.  The story was written by Sergio and O’Neil and showed Bat’s origin.  It was revealed that Bat’s parents had been murdered by a band of outlaws who were working for the men who had cheated Bat’s family, and other families, out of their farms and homes.  Incensed, Bat tried to bring the men to justice but ending up accidentally killing the deputy sheriff who had been in on the scam.  Returning home to a burned out shell and his murdered parents, Bat placed his sister into a convent but could not find his missing younger brother.  Hungry for justice, Bat took to the trails to find the men who destroyed his family.

That quickly, Bat had lost his humor and light-hearted view of life.  The joy had gone out of the comic and it became just another Western.  The title would last only one issue in which Bat would be tracked by his younger brother who had become a bounty hunter.  Just as quickly as he had come, Bat Lash disappeared.

It would be nearly ten years before Bat would appear in new stories.  In 1978, a new Bat Lash story written by Dennis O’Neil appeared in DC Special Series #16 which was billed as a Jonah Hex Spectacular.  (This was also the issue where it was revealed how Jonah Hex would die.)  At 17 pages, it was a significant appearance but, without the team of Aragones and Cardy, it was not the same.  O’Neil came close but it was not the same.

Three years later, Bat popped up once again as a back up feature in Jonah Hex.  Bat appeared in only three issues (#’s 49, 51 and 52) and was amazingly forgettable.  Written by Len Wein and drawn by Dan Spiegle, it was difficult to even recognize this as Bat Lash.  For one thing, the colorist mistakenly colored Bat’s distinctive brown hair as blonde.  The aspects were all there with gambling, women and double-crosses but it could have been any Western story about any other character.

It would take SEVENTEEN years, 1998, until Bat Lash appeared again in a new story.  This time, it would be in a series set in 1927, with an older Bat feeling out of his time.  The mini-series, Guns of the Dragon, was written and drawn by Tim Truman and featured several unlikely DC characters like Enemy Ace and Vandal Savage.  Although closer in spirit to the original Bat Lash, the series came and went with little notice or fanfare.

Despite the fact that Bat Lash has not had his own title for nearly forty years, he remains popular and one of the characters that, it seems, everyone wants to write.  For example, Bat appeared in the first part of a two-part episode of JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED in 2005 when Batman, Green Lantern and Wonder Woman were sent back to the Old West in search of a time-traveling villain.  Also, Bat appeared briefly in a recent issue of SUPERMAN/BATMAN when the two heroes were jumping from one alternate reality to the next.  And, again, Bat makes an appearance this year in Jonah Hex #3 showing that no matter how much time goes by or how many different writers use him, Bat Lash is still just as likely to ruin the West as he is to save it.

NOTES

1          “Carmine Infantino Interview: Director Comments”, COMIC BOOK ARTIST VOLUME ONE, TwoMorrows Publishing, Raleigh, NC, 2000, pg 8.

2          “Joe Orlando Interview: Orlando’s Weird Adventures”, COMIC BOOK ARTIST VOLUME ONE, TwoMorrows Publishing, Raleigh, NC, 2000, pg 25.

3          Stewart, Tom.  “Bat Lash: Ruining the West and Loving It”, COMIC BOOK ARTIST VOLUME ONE, TwoMorrows Publishing, Raleigh, NC, 2000, pg 32.

4          Stewart, Tom.  “Bat Lash: Ruining the West and Loving It”, COMIC BOOK ARTIST VOLUME ONE, TwoMorrows Publishing, Raleigh, NC, 2000, pg 33.

5          “Joe Orlando Interview: Orlando’s Weird Adventures”, COMIC BOOK ARTIST VOLUME ONE, TwoMorrows Publishing, Raleigh, NC, 2000, pg 25.

6          Stewart, Tom.  “Bat Lash: Ruining the West and Loving It”, COMIC BOOK ARTIST VOLUME ONE, TwoMorrows Publishing, Raleigh, NC, 2000, pg 32.

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