Tom Mix has a complicated relationship with violence

I’m not really familiar with Tom Mix (nee real name), save for that movie about the time he met Wyatt Earp and the two of them battle the mob. Or corrupt movie moguls. I’ll be honest, I don’t remember the movie that well. The point is that my familiarity with the character began and ended with the fact that he was a cowboy hero with a horse named Tony. And that tidbit I picked up from ‘Changeling’.

As I started reading this Fawcett comic about his adventures, I wasn’t entirely surprised to discover that he was a kid’s hero, the sort of cowboy who shoots the guns out of people’s hands, rather than the eyes out of their heads.

Now, I’m not saying that I want him to be more violent than he is, I’m just pointing out that I find the lax standards about violence that allowed some fairly brutal imagery to make it into even children’s comics before the CCA was implemented. Take, for example, the following scenes from two stories in “Tom Mix Western” Issue No. 61.

First, a little scene-setting – The Tom Mix of these stories isn’t the actual Tom Mix (in that he was not transformed into ink and printed, like the late Mark Gruenwald). Mix is one of those actors who, while always playing a ‘character’, was so well known as himself, and played so many similar roles, that his audience tended to think of the characters as being ‘Tom Mix’. This misconception was helped along by the fact that he generally played characters named Tom. This comic is just taking things a little further, essentially acting as if the type of character that Mix generally played was a single person, a frontier lawman named ‘Tom Mix’.

So these aren’t stories about Tom Mix, crime-solving Hollywood actor, they’re about Tom Mix, heroic Dobie lawman. Also, I have no idea what year these stories take place. Mix lived from 1880 to 1940, and his western films were set throughout the period of western expansion. I’d like to just confidently say they take place in the ‘old west’, and based on the guns and trains, announce it’s around the 1880s, but these comics can get incredibly confusing – Golden Arrow, for example, despite being a cowboy archer who battles Bandits and Injuns, seems to take place in the present day of the comic (the late 30s-early 40s). The only thing I can say for sure is that these stories take place before 1903, since the opening panel of the first story mentions that the airplane has yet to be invented.

The first scene of violence appears at the end of a story about Tom Mix battling a group of spies hired by the Chinese to kidnap a scientist who’s very close to developing a flying machine! After a few fights and escapes, Tom and the sheriff find their way to the boat the spies had planned on using to escape.

See that guy on the mast behind Tom? Well, in the next two panels-

This is a totally justifiable self-defense shooting – the guy was going to shoot Tom, and Tom got him first. Nothing wrong with that – yet the comic goes out of its way to point out that the guy’s going to be fine. Which is a little odd, because he clearly won’t be. Even if the bullet didn’t kill him, falling fifteen or twenty feet to the wood deck might well finish the job.

Compare the overexplanation of a man’s survival to this scene from another story in the same issue.

This time a group of gun thieves are heading out to – you guessed it – their getaway boat. Tom Mix confronts one of them on the cliffs leading down to the river, and tragedy ensues. When the thug has Mix off his guard for a second, he decides it’s time to finish the job!

But as anyone who’s seen the film Cliffhanger knows, that kind of dirty pool is rarely rewarded.

It’s not really clear whether Tom Mix is tripping the thug, or whether it’s just his momentum that’s carrying him off the trail, but in any event, the guy heads downhill very fast. Tom Mix wonders just what might have happened to the thug as he climbs down the trail – he mentions to himself that if the thug missed the rocks and landed in the water, he might still be alive enough to answer some questions about his bosses.

This proves to be not enough for the comic’s creators, though, who jump back in time to show just what happened to the thug from the POV of his two partners.

Note the way his neck is landing right on the side of that boat. That’s just all kinds of gruesome.

Now look at these two fights – in one, Tom shot a guy in self-defence, and the comic went out of its way to explain that the sailor hadn’t been killed, but here, Tom instigated a fight that ended with a guy dying in a horrible fashion, and not only does the comic not play down Tom’s involvement, but it shows the death in surprisingly brutal detail.

So where was the line back in 1953? Were they just nervous about gun-related violence, and felt that anything else goes? Or was no thought put into it at all, and things just randomly turned out to be a weird contradiction?

Hopefully future Tom Mix stories will provide me with a better sense of just what these cowboy comics were like. And a greater understanding of the weird phenomena of, eight years after an actor’s death, starting a line of comics about the ‘idea’ of the actor, as opposed to his life.

I mean, it’s not like after Sylvester Stallone dies there’s going to be a comic about Sly’s adventures as a special forces operative throughout the Vietnam era and then into the 80s, is there?

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