How I met the Masked Rider, and other western avengers.
Like most Americans my age, I grew up on westerns. There were western (and Northern) radio shows like James Stewart in “The Sixshooter,” and the modern day Sky King. Sgt. Preston (“The Challenge of the Yukon”) and the “Silver Eagle” kept the peace in the wilder parts of Canada. And, most importantly, for the younger set, “The Lone Ranger” hit the trail three times a week.
Most of the movies I got taken to in suburban St. Louis were either swashbucklers or westerns. These were the “A” movies. I never saw “B” westerns until we got a TV set. In my crowd Hopalong Cassidy ruled the TV roost. We didn’t like singing cowboys, or too much comedy relief. Sorry, Roy and Gene. We pretty much ignored you. We also got to meet folks like Johnnie Mack Brown and Lash LaRue on TV, but the only masked man we knew was that fellow named Reid.
And comics were much the same. At least Roy and Gene didn’t sing there. And the sidekicks were more subdued. But only the Lone Ranger had a mask, or a secret identity. (DC and Atlas/Marvel westerns got almost no distribution in our area.)
One summer, about 1962 or ’63, I explored every used book store I could find in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In the back of one I found a stack of coverless comics. All the same issue of something called Best Of The West. I’d never heard of Red Mask (actor Tim Holt as Red Mask, but only in the comics), or The Darango Kid. Those films never played St. Louis TV. I knew Straight Arrow only from the activity cards given away as layer dividers in Nabisco Shredded Wheat. But I had definitely heard of the Ghost Rider. I later learned Straight Arrow also had a secret identity. He was a white man who masqueraded as a Comanche warrior while catching bad guys of both races. (I’ll have to fit him into a Jim Anthony story some day.)
Then I noticed a pulp magazine lying nearby. I’d see any number of late western and detective and pulps in my shopping. And I knew a bit about the Shadow pulps after the recent radio revival. But this cover stood out. Here was a cowboy with a domino mask, and a black hat. And he also wore a black cape lined with red. Wait a second! This was the hero? Had to be. The magazine’s title was Masked Rider Western from 1952. So I bought it.
“Deadline For Sheep” was the name of the Masked Rider story. Decades later I discovered that the lead novel carried the same story format restrictions as all Thrilling hero pulps after the end of World War Two. The bad guy was allowed only two, or at the most three, henchmen, plus maybe a second in command because the boss’s identity was a mystery with no more than four suspects. This formula applied to the Phantom Detective and the Black Bat, as well as the Masked Rider. Still this left room to spin an exciting adventure. I liked the novel and even picked up one or two other late issues of the title at conventions.
Then, in 1970, I found two paperback reprints of Masked Rider stories from about 1938. What a difference! This Masked Rider faced down hordes of badmen. Body counts seemed as high as the new Mack Bolan/Executioner stories I began reading at about the same time. A couple of decades after that I picked up an even earlier pulp issue. Seems another company started the character. They folded after thirteen issues. Then Thrilling picked it up.
The earliest Masked Rider wore all black, including cloak and a full face mask. Blue Hawk wore Mexican style clothing. Sure, things seemed an awful lot like the Lone Ranger. But there were important differences. One was that the never named Masked Rider often appeared as Wayne Morgan, a cowboy drifter. And Blue Hawk, thanks to attending Mission schools, spoke and read both Spanish and English.
My stories of the Masked Rider and Blue Hawk include all of these original differences.