L I K E J U D A S K I S S I N G F L O W E R S
The Hardboiled Art of D. McLoughlin
Something seemed to shine through all the programmes and articles which surrounded the 25thanniversary of the death of Elvis: what a nice, unspoiled guy he was. I don’t think I heard anyone say a bad word about Elvis. And he was so generous. OK, he could afford to be, but when has there ever been a necessary connection between wealth and generosity? He was, in so many ways, a simple country boy. You could never imagine him treating people the way Dylan did in 1965. I always hated that about the young Dylan - all that stuff you see in ‘Don’t Look Back’.
But I never made a hero out of Elvis and I wonder why that is. Maybe I need a hint of danger in my heroes; need them to be very unlike myself. I don’t meant to say that I’m as nice as Elvis but I’m certainly no Dylan. In fact, I’m about as far from Dylan as it’s possible to be: can’t sing or play a note on any musical instrument, and certainly can’t write poetry. But there is one thing I share with Dylan – we were both children at the time when stories of the Old West and films about cowboys and indians were popular with kids. Dylan and I were raised on the same myths and some of those myths have persisted in his songs.
When I was at primary school I collected all sorts of Wild West comics and books. The best, the most authentic of all the children’s books was ‘The Buffalo Bill Wild West Annual’ which was published each year from 1949 until 1961. You could only buy the ‘Buffalo Bill Annual’ in one shop: Woolworths, though mine seemed to come from Greenland on Christmas morning. Recently I have discovered the reason for the book’s success and its seeming authenticity. There was a minor genius behind the book. His name was Denis McLoughlin (1918-2002) and he was a mild-mannered illustrator and artist from Bolton, Lancashire.
Denis had a fascination for all things American – especially the Old West, but he also loved detective and gangster fiction and ‘B’ movies of that genre. It was Denis’s illustrations allied to his own painstaking research into the true history of the Old West that made the ‘Buffalo Bill Annuals’ so successful. His graphic style has been described as tough, blunt, rough-hewn – perfectly matching the characters he portrayed. His output, as an illustrator of detective, western and science fiction books and comics was prodigious. And like Dylan his work is hunted down – in secondhand book and charity shops and at car boot sales – by a number of completist collectors, and there’s an awful lot to collect. He was that unusual.
‘The Buffalo Bill Wild West Annual’ enjoyed phenomenal success in the early and mid-1950s when cowboys’n’indians were so popular with children. It was also the time when the Lone Ranger & Tonto were riding down the line on our tiny black and white TV screens, along with a dozen other regular western TV series: The Range Rider, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy, Wagon Train, Rawhide, Sugarfoot, Cheyenne, Bronco, Maverick. Like someone said, it seemed like a gravy train that would never run out of steam, until it did. At its peak the ‘Buffalo Bill Annual’ sold some 250,000 copies per year. Apart from the comic strips and other illustrations – all drawn by McLoughlin – some issues contained as many as 16 full-colour plates painted by him; as well as the covers which were all his work too.
Denis did all he could to ensure both quality and authenticity. He said: “working on the Buffalo Bill Annuals was a real labour of love, though, in my opinion, the first issue was a washout. It had to be rushed through at terrific speed”. However, as the years passed the publishers recognised Denis’ talent and gave him the time he needed. By the third annual his style had improved considerably and he used a variety of shading techniques to produce realistic pictures with a wealth of detail.
He said: “The Buffalo Bill Annuals definitely got better as they went along. For each new annual I would be given a blank dummy of the book and I would work out the layout of the pages: which would be in colour, which would be the typed areas and which would be the strips. Each Buffalo Bill Annual took six months to complete.” David Ashford, who wrote a small book on ‘The Hardboiled Art of D McLoughlin’ says: “There have never been any western strips that match the authenticity and power of those to be found in these annuals, and no annual has ever been designed with such lavish care and attention”.
So what has this to do with Dylan? Not much, but something. McLoughlin’s fascination with the Old West was lifelong and knew no bounds. For many years he researched the Old West – collecting the information, old books and magazines that would enable him to produce ‘The Encyclopedia of the Old West’. It was another labour of love and it took years to complete – and the time devoted to it was time when he could have been earning money through his art. As a result he was flat broke at an age when he should have been saving for retirement, not that he ever did retire. After years of effort he finally published his encyclopedia in the 1970s, but by then he had tragically missed the boat. The fashion for the West had passed by and the book sold poorly and lost money. Nonetheless, it does contain a significant section on John Wesley Hardin (there was actually a comic strip – ‘Texas Killer’ – in one of the annuals). For those of you who don’t know the true story of Wes Hardin, here is my precis of McLoughlin's potted biography. The words in quotes are his:
John Wesley Hardin was born on 26 May 1853 at Bonham, Texas, making him a Gemini like Dylan. His father, the Reverend James G Hardin named him John Wesley after the methodist preacher, but it was not a prophetic choice. Hardin “would become the most sadistic killer ever to come out of the Lone Star State”. His first killing was a black man who ‘shook a stick’ at him. Hardin was just 15 at the time and, already on the run, was pursued by three cavalry troopers. He succeeded in killing all three. Two more soldiers would die at Hardin’s hand before, on Christmas Day 1869, still only 16 years of age, Hardin killed a gambler, James Bradley, in an argument about a poker game. “This shootout exposed Wes’ mean streak to a marked degree; Bradley was begging for mercy with two bullets in his body when Hardin squeezed off four more shots”.
By the spring of 1872 Hardin had probably killed 19 men. He then married a Jane Bowen and tried to settle down to a horse dealing business. However, in August 1872 he got wounded in a gunfight and then killed a police officer who tried to arrest him in his sick bed. After many more adventures, Wes Hardin was eventually jailed for 25 years in 1877 on a charge of one murder. He served 16 years until his release in February 1894. He had been studying for the law and set up business as an attorney in the winter of that year. He found it difficult to get business, though McLoughlin talks of one customer as “the type of client who would jack up the eyelids of any male, a luscious blue-eyed blonde who filled her clothes profusely in all the right areas”. This is McLoughlin in typical hardboiled Chandleresque prose (and pose). This lady was a Mrs McRose with whom Hardin began a fateful affair. One day Mrs McRose was arrested by a policeman, John Selman, for being drunk and disorderly and firing her pistol on the street. Hardin had an argument with Selman’s father – a man who had himself killed some 20 people. The outcome was that Selman Snr sought out Hardin in a saloon in El Paso and gunned him down on 19 August 1895 – shot in the back.
So John Wesley Hardin was no ‘friend to the poor’, nor was it true that he was ‘never known to hurt an honest man’. But then Dylan created Harding not Hardin – a character who is as much a myth as the Bob Dylan created by Robert Zimmerman.
There is a personal tale behind this. It is true that I remember with great affection the ‘Buffalo Bill Annuals’ of my childhood. However, I knew nothing of Denis McLoughlin or his role in them – and I would not know now if I had not become a Freewheeler. You see, one day some 18 months ago I was trying to think of something to write for my monthly contribution. I came up with the idea of an article about the ‘Telegraph’ writings of Roy Kelly. As a result, and via the intervention of John Wraith, a copy of my article was sent to Roy. He wrote to thank me and so began another valued Dylan friendship – except that it is more than just Dylan we discuss. I forget how it happened but one day I was reminiscing about childhood and mentioned the ‘Buffalo Bill Annuals’. Roy knew all about McLoughlin and so here we are. 'The Encyclopedia of the Old West’ was even a gift to me from Roy. So there’s a lot to be said for being a Freewheeler, you never know what it might bring.
Now, anyone want to hear the TRUE story of Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid?
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