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John Seavey’s Storytelling Engines: Bat Lash

Whenever John Seavey does a new Storytelling Engine, we’ll have it here. Click here to read John’s description of what a Storytelling Engine IS, anyways. Check out more of them at his blog, Fraggmented.

Storytelling Engines: Bat Lash

(or “Right Story, Wrong Reality”)

Looking back over “Bat Lash”, as it’s presented in the latest “Showcase Presents” volume, one has to wonder exactly what went wrong. It’s clear something must not have worked in setting up the elements that go into a long-running series, because “Showcase Presents: Bat Lash” is only 240 pages long, less than half the length of a usual volume. What was it that made “Bat Lash” so short-lived? Was it a lack of a good protagonist? A poor setting? Weak supporting characters? Uninteresting antagonists?

Clearly, it wasn’t a bad creative team. Sergio Aragones and Denny O’Neil are two legendary writers, and Nick Cardy’s art is genuinely spectacular. This really is a book with some of the best in the business in it, doing stellar work. But maybe if we look a little closer at Bat Lash’s storytelling engine, we’ll get more of a hint.

Bat Lash, star of the series, is a comedy Western character (no big surprise, coming from the pen of comic genius Aragones.) He’s presented as a sensitive dandy, a poetic rogue with an eye for beauty who’s entirely out of place in the Wild West…except that honestly, he’s deceiving everyone with that act, himself included. Bat’s actually a thief, a scoundrel, a con artist, and a deadly fighter to boot. (The opening story, where he tries to get a beautiful lady to cook him dinner in a town being taken over by bandits, is a comedy masterpiece.)

This is, fundamentally, a satire of Westerns…and given that Aragones and Mark Evanier managed to make a satire of sword-and-sorcery epics last over a hundred issues of continuous publication, it’s no stretch to think that Aragones and O’Neil could think up enough Bat Lash stories to last a similar length of time. After all, there are just as many Western tropes to satirize as there are barbarian hero tropes to mock.

But unfortunately, the types of Westerns that were popular in the late 60s, when Bat Lash was created, were not the light-hearted Westerns of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. By this era, the only Westerns that managed to retain an audience in a distinctly sci-fi age were the grimmer, darker spaghetti Westerns that Clint Eastwood made famous, leaving very little place for a Western hero who plucks flowers for his hat and has a taste for pheasant in aspic. The last two issues of the series emphasized his tragic past, perhaps in an effort to reposition the character for that audience, but it was too little, too late.

Which is, sometimes, the unfortunate truth about creating a storytelling engine. Sometimes, even when you’ve created a good, solid, well-crafted status quo that can generate hundreds of stories…the audience just isn’t there for them. Tastes can change, and sometimes you’re just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Thankfully, we live in an age where it seems like just about everything’s being archived…giving a series like “Bat Lash”, which never got the chance it deserved, a little time to shine.

5 Comments

Sergio’s best work to this date has still got to be his margin work in Mad Magazine. I love his early Groo, but it didn’t have the impact on me that the Mad stuff did. He could tell a story in the corner of a magazine that was one or two panels long and it would make you smile much wider than the movie parody it was wedged up against. He will always be one of my favorite artists from the 70’s and early 80’s in that type comedic artistry. I think only Fred Hembeck would come next in a tie with Scott Shaw for getting me to appreciate the lighter side of comics.

No one is better at drawing a vacant face than Sergio.

Bernard the Poet

July 21, 2009 at 5:52 am

John, it’s good to have you back, I’ve missed you.

Saying that, I’m not sure that I’d agree with you central premise that any comedy western published in the late ‘Sixties was destined to fail. You mention Spaghetti Westerns as ushering in a new era of gritty westerns, but those films had a lot of comedic moments, particularly the Terrace Hill ones, but the Clint Eastwood ones as well. The biggest hit of 1969 was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a comedy western.

Of course, it’s difficult forty years later to judge why a particular comic failed, but I know that when I read them all those years ago, I found the central character to be the problem. He claimed that he wasn’t looking for trouble, but month after month he involved himself in other people’s problems. It just didn’t ring true.

I wonder if Aragones agrees with me. When he decided to spoof the Sand and Sandals genre with Groo, he created an agressive character that actively sought out conflict. This worked much better.

Patrick Joseph

July 21, 2009 at 6:11 am

With Maverick, Support Your Local Sheriff, and Support Your Local Gunfighter it seems to me that the satirical cowboy was at its peak in the late 60’s and that James Garner was the poster boy for the genre. I imagine more 10-14 year old children saw that stuff than saw Sergio Leone’s movies. Also, Gunsmoke and Bonanza were big on TV at the time, so I am not certain that the intended audience for most comics at the time wanted grittier, morally ambiguous westerns.

Regardless, Bat Lash is clearly out of place in the comics landscape of the time. Westerns were not a top tier genre in comics, and there really haven’t been any wildly successful western comics, TV shows, or films in the last 40 years. Critically successful? Absolutely. Successful beyond expectation? Of yes. But nothing that was a financial bonanza (sorry).

Anyway, I’m really glad the effort was made to look at this unique series and to figure out where it fit in the cultural landscape. To meet you on your own terms, this is a great Conversation Engine.

I tend to think that Bat Lash was just too smart for his own good. It’s a great book, but it sometimes seems like a lot of hoops have to be jumped through to get Bat Lash into the proper place. Entertaining hoops, but the very nature of Bat Lash is that he’s ostensibly not seeking trouble.

Compare that to Jonah Hex. That’s a guy born to seek out trouble. The scar indicating a violent past. The Confederate outfit. It’s easy to send him on a mission to seek out a bounty. And it’s easy to imagine people wanting revenge. And, he doesn’t fit in anywhere.

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