Rawhide Kid: Slap Leather

november 2018 – April 2019

Johnny Bart made his debut in his own comic book series, Rawhide Kid, in March 1955. The series, published by Marvel Comics forerunner Atlas Comics, was written by Stan Lee and illustrated by Bob Brown, although additional artists including Russ Heath, Joe Maneely, and John Severin also contributed to the original 16-issue series depicting the 19th century adventures of the young, arrogant gunslinger.

The original series concluded in 1957, and after a brief hiatus, Stan Lee revived The Rawhide Kid in 1960 as an action-packed western series with his frequent collaborator Jack Kirby, and fans thrilled to his adventures over the course of 151 issues over the next two decades.

Apart from a few short-lived revivals, the Rawhide Kid appeared rarely from 1980 to the early 2000s, when comedy writer Ron Zimmerman proposed a five-issue miniseries, Rawhide Kid: Slap Leather, to be illustrated by legendary comic book artist—and illustrator of the original Rawhide Kid comic book series—John Severin.

The premise of Rawhide Kid: Slap Leather follows that of a typical western comic book story—outlaws overrun the quiet town of Wells Junction, the sheriff is helpless against a ruthless gang of desperadoes, and only the timely intervention of The Rawhide Kid can save the day. Zimmerman’s twist on the original Rawhide Kid stories is that the Kid is gay, although this is never stated outright in the pages of Rawhide Kid: Slap Leather, and this fact seems to be known only to the Kid himself. The Rawhide Kid’s progressive attitudes are essentially played for laughs against the backdrop of a conservative western town.

Reception of the series was decidedly mixed; conservative readers felt the comic book’s LGBT content went against The Rawhide Kid’s established history, while others felt the series—which did not mention the word “gay” anywhere in the script—was too campy and didn’t go far enough in its positive depiction of a gay Marvel Comics protagonist. The release of Ang Lee’s groundbreaking film Brokeback Mountain just two years later made Zimmerman’s script seem all the more non-confrontational in retrospect.

Although reaction to the script was sharply divided among fans and critics, everyone agreed that the series, illustrated by the 82-year-old Severin, was among the finest art of his career, and that the artist had outdone himself with the 110-page epic. His attention to historical detail and his rendering of the old west, one of his favorite subjects in comic books, made Rawhide Kid: Slap Leather one of the standout Marvel Comics of 2003, and reminded everyone why Severin was one of the most respected artists in the comic book industry.

The entirety of Severin’s original artwork for Rawhide Kid: Slap Leather was donated to the Cartoon Art Museum’s permanent collection shortly before his death in 2012, and we are honored to display this work publicly for the first time since his passing.

About John Severin (1921-2012)

Rawhide Kid artist John Severin’s career began during the mid-1950s at the legendary EC Comics, earning the young artist recognition for his work illustrating popular western titles and the classic war comic Two-Fisted Tales. With the demise of EC, Severin continued to work in the western and war genres at Atlas Comics, an early incarnation of Marvel. Severin also earned regular assignments with his humorous style—first for MAD and then its closest competitor, Cracked. Severin soon became Cracked’s in-house cartoonist, guiding the humor magazine’s irreverent style for nearly 40 years until his retirement from the publication in 2000. In 2001, Severin was honored by the Cartoon Art Museum with its Sparky Award for lifetime achievement in cartooning, and in 2003, Severin was inducted into the Will Eisner Comic Book Hall of Fame.