White Indian/White Wolf
By Steven Ringgenberg
This article written by Steve Ringgenberg was published almost 30 years ago and has never been reprinted. It focuses on a White Indian story from Durango Kid comics about a white wolf. It's considered to be the artistic high point of the series.
The White Indian strip ran under the title “Dan Brand and Tipi,” when it was the backup feature in The Durango Kid comic book. The first 16 installments varied in length between six and eight pages and featured art by the peerless Frank Frazetta. Dan Brand was a sort of frontier Tarzan who had been adopted by Indians in Revolutionary War-era America. After Frazetta’s departure for greener pastures, other hands took over the art chores on Dan Brand, including the excellent Sid Check and Angelo Torres. Torres has always identified Frazetta as one of his primary influences in comics, and both he and Check collaborated with Frazetta on some early comic book pages and covers. Interestingly enough, their work was so Frazetta-esque that it’s been mistaken by fans for Frazetta’s work and even billed as such in at least one reprint (Fantastic Exploits #21), which incorrectly identified as Frazetta’s work, a story Torres did titled simply “White Indian” from White Indian #15. Since this issue of CBM focuses on westerns, I’m including the White Indian strip which deserves consideration here, even though technically it’s more of an “Eastern” than a “Western,” taking place as it does among the 13 original colonies during the late 1700s. However, geographical quibbling aside, it can be included here by virtue of its content; for it has all the elements of traditional westerns: Indian attacks, gun battles (albeit with flintlocks instead of six-shooters and Winchesters), chases on horseback and mano-a-mano duels between Dan Brand and a horde of loathsome baddies that ran the gamut from cruel and haughty British officers, treacherous Tory spies, scheming Indian medicine men and slimy pirates to brutish frontier renegades.
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Tipi, Dan’s teenaged Indian sidekick, wasn’t bad as teenage sidekicks go. He
was loyal and courageous, and more than once saved Dan’s bacon when a back shooting bad guy imperiled the heroic frontiersman’s life. In addition to these sterling qualities, Tipi served the age-old sidekick function of giving Dan Brand someone with whom to discuss plot details and further the story so he wouldn’t always be muttering to himself. And like many of the teenaged male sidekicks of the day, there’s an almost homoerotic quality to his relationship with Dan. At least once during Frazetta’s run on the strip Dan is asked to settle down with a typically gorgeous Frazetta woman, but no, Dan insists that he wants to go back and live in the woods with Tipi, and departs without giving the frontier fox so much as a peck on the cheek. The White Indian strip took place during an extremely interesting period in our country’s history, and occasionally featured actual historical figures like George Washington. However, there is at least one whopping historical mistake in the series in the story, “Massacre” (Durango Kid #8), which has evil French generals stirring up the Iroquois and the Huron warriors to attack the white settlers. This story ignores the fact that the French and Indian Wars ended in 1763. Seven years before the first White Indian story starts in 1770. The rest of the continuity takes place during the Revolutionary War. But even a cursory reading of one or more White Indian stories shows that historical accuracy wasn’t a priority on the strip; it always took second place to the kind of slam-bang action Frank Frazetta has become famous for.
DURANGO KID #14 TITLE SPLASH
The art on the White Indian strips was strong from the beginning, with Frazetta showing continual improvement with every strip he drew. The final installments, one of which is featured here (“White Wolf” from Durango Kid #15), are some of the most beautiful early comic book pages (1949-1951) Frazetta drew. Handling both pencilling and inking chores, Frazetta’s art displayed the results of the early art training, hard work, and natural talent that made him one of the best American comic book artists ever. Obviously highly influenced by Hal Foster’s work on Tarzan, Frazetta’s Dan Brand could almost be the younger brother of Foster’s handsome jungle lord. White Indian is also interesting to Frazetta scholars as one of the very few continuing characters he ever drew. Except for the two years he drew the daily strip Johnny Comet, or his run on “The Shining Knight” for DC, or the nine years when Frazetta ghosted the Sunday and daily L’il Abner, he never did as many pages (over 100) of any character as he did with Dan Brand.
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Frazetta’s backgrounds of the Colonial American wilderness are particularly lush and detailed throughout the strip. His forest background for the story “Sleep of Death” (Durango Kid #10) is particularly lush and well rendered. At this point Frazetta was already working in the gnarled trees and mossy rocks that would eventually enter his repertoire as a fantasy painter. When the scripts allowed him room, Frazetta really went to town depicting the giant trees, rivers, sheer cliffs and massive rock formations of the frontier landscape. Having grown up in an era when westerns were omnipresent in popular culture, Frazetta wound up drawing his share of them, for Toby, National, Magazine Enterprises, even a shock
story set on a modern, 1950s-era ranch for E.C., done with Al Williamson (“Fired” in Crime SuspenStories #17). As a painter, Frazetta didn’t venture into the western idiom very often, though he certainly could have. The few western paintings he has done, a mere handful of book covers and advertising illustrations, have all been excellent. But White Indian is one of his finest early accomplishments in the western genre. With that said, “The White Wolf” is, without doubt, Frazetta’s masterpiece from this fine early series. The art is Frazetta at his most rambunctious. He lovingly renders “Ba-Lu” the eponymous albino wolf in 27 of the story’s 39 panels. And in almost every panel he’s in, the white wolf is the most visually exciting element present.
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By contrast, Dan Brand and Tipi, the strip’s ostensible stars, are shown in only 24 panels, and Si Bannis, the strip’s brutish, unmemorable villain, is seen in only 8 panels. The subplot of Bannis scheming to ambush Dan Brand and Tipi is obviously secondary to the story of their befriending of the great white wolf, the story’s real star. It’s an unusual entry in the series, which, to be honest, had pretty formulaic scripts. In fact, I suspect The White Indian strip would only be remembered today by hardcore western buffs if it weren’t for Frazetta’s bold art. The first sixteen issues of Durango Kid containing Frazetta White Indian strips are the most valuable and sought-after comics in the title’s run. Artwise, the Durango Kid stories that lead off each issue are pretty blah by comparison. The White Indian strip was cancelled after issue 17, though the Durango Kid title lasted until issue #41 (1955). Interestingly enough, there were five White Indian anthologies (#s11-15) issued. 11-13 featured an even dozen of Frazetta’s stories. The White Indian stories from Durango Kid #s 6, 8, 13 and 14 were never reprinted in a White Indian comic. The other two issues of the White Indian title featured Dan Brand stories that never appeared in the. Durango Kid comic. White Indian #15 is of special interest to Fleagles fans, for it boasts the aforementioned Frazetta-esque art by Sid Check and Angelo Torres that was misidentified years ago as Frazetta art and has been continually misidentified since in subsequent Frazetta checklists. For the record, Sid Check and Angelo Torres, not Frank Frazetta, drew the story, titled simply “White Indian,” that appears White Indian # 15. Actually, any Frazetta fan with a halfway discerning eye can tell that Torres and Check’s art, while good, is definitely not Frazetta. Frazetta was well suited to the Dan Brand stories. His lush, larger than life backgrounds and vivid action sequences imbued the stories with an outsized grandeur the scripts certainly didn’t generate. The first White Indian story (Durango Kid #1) shows Frazetta’s powerful style in the process of evolving. It’s vigorous and fun to look at, but it still shows traces of his earlier influence by Caniff. His characterizations are still somewhat cartoonish.
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As the series progressed, Frazetta’s figures would get more realistic, and his inking would grow steadily more Foster-esque. It’s fair to say that the art on all of Frazetta’s Dan Brand and Tipi strips was at least somewhat reminiscent of Foster’s tenure on Tarzan. (1929-1937). But, this bimonthly backup strip, with stories that varied from 6-8 pages an issue was a good opportunity for Frazetta to flex his muscles and grow artistically. As the series progressed, Frazetta’s figures would get more realistic, and his inking would grow steadily more Foster-esque. It’s fair to say that the art on all of Frazetta’s Dan Brand and Tipi strips was at least somewhat reminiscent of Foster’s tenure on Tarzan. (1929-1937). But, this bimonthly backup strip, with stories that varied from 6-8 pages an issue was a good opportunity for Frazetta to flex his muscles and grow artistically. Frazetta’s anatomy and panel compositions grow steadily more assured right up until the last one he drew. Frazetta may never have been a storyteller on par with Eisner or Kurtzman, but his draftsmanship and powerful figures always had the ability to draw you in even when the scripts were less than enthralling. Although wild animals were never as prominent in the other stories as they are in “The White Wolf,” they often figured in White Indian plots. Dan Brand fights a bear in the first story, one of four times he did this (In “Trail of the Traitor,” Durango Kid #13, Dan and Tipi fight two bears for good measure) during Frazetta’s run on White Indian (I wasn’t kidding when I said the scripts were repetitive), and Frazetta draws the bear with panache. “The Trail of the Traitor” includes a fierce three-panel skirmish with a bear on page 2, and then on page 6, Dan and Tipi battle another bear, which Dan assumes is, “the mate to the one we killed.” This battle is even more ferocious than the first one and ends after 7 panels with the dead bear collapsed across a rather battered-looking Dan Brand. In “Brothers of the Wilderness,” (Durango Kid # 4) he fights a savage-looking puma (for variety’s sake, one must assume). While full of action, the White Indian wasn’t especially violent as comic strips go, but there were a few moments when it lived up to the violence-soaked reputation of pre-Code comics, such as the scene at the end of “Tory Treachery” (Durango Kid # 9). A brief 4-panel sword duel ends with Dan shoving his blade a good three or four inches into D’Arcy, his Tory antagonist, and blood gouts freely from D’Arcy’s open mouth. The next panel shows Dan brandishing the bloody sword blade. Aside from the explicit violence on page 7, “Treachery” also features some nice background landscapes in the first 4 panels on page 2. Panel 5 contains an image that was used as the cover of White Indian #13, though Frazetta didn’t draw it.
Durango Kid #15 - Page #6
The editors at Magazine Enterprises missed a good bet not using the young Frazetta for White Indian covers. His covers for some of Magazine Enterprises’ other western titles (Ghost Rider and Straight Arrow) from around the same period show what he was capable of, and they’re very impressive. Landscape plays a particularly important role in “The Blood of Valley Forge” (Durango Kid # 11). Frazetta starts with a beautiful splash panel of Dan and Tipi skiing down a snowy hill with white-wreathed pines and rocky cliffs visible behind them, and does a splendid job of delineating the cold, snowy landscape of Valley Forge throughout the story. “Massacre’s frenetic splash panel left no doubt that Frazetta had become a master of comic book action. The battle scenes in this story are great, starting with the first one, and Frazetta peoples it with a cast of hundreds of Indians, settlers, and British troops. Every page of this 7-page gem pulses with life and action. The backgrounds are particularly nice in this story, too. Frazetta throws in panels showing lush meadows or thick forests of gnarled, vine-draped
trees in an economical, but effective manner, giving just enough detail to create an environment.
trees in an economical, but effective manner, giving just enough detail to create an environment.
British Colonel George Washington makes a cameo, as does British General Braddock, another real-life historical figure. “Underworld of the Wilderness” is the last new White Indian story Frazetta drew and it would be great to say that it, too, was an artistic leap forward. Unfortunately, it’s not as good as “The White Wolf.” Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good story, but Frazetta seems less inspired by the plot of frontier brigands trying to rob Dan and Tipi of a chest of money destined for the Colonial Army. There are some good action scenes, and the bad guys are pretty rough on Dan and Tipi, tying them up near the story’s climax, and earlier leaving them strung up by their thumbs to die in a fierce rainstorm. However, Frazetta’s art here seems more rushed, and not on the same level as “The White Wolf.” Perhaps “Wolf”’s shorter six-page length enabled Frazetta to really excel instead of just rushing to meet a deadline. (Frazetta was notorious for putting things off to the last minute and then banging out a masterpiece.) As evidence of this, check out panel 5 from Page 5 for the magnificently rendered headshot of the white wolf. Frazetta follows this up with a lithe, wonderfully alive full-length view of the wolf slinking ahead of Dan and Tipi. The wolf’s prominence in the splash panel and in the story’s last panel leave no doubt that the white wolf is this story’s real star, but then Frazetta always did like drawing and painting wolves. He once mentioned in conversation that he would have loved to have done non-fantasy paintings of western and frontier scenes, presumably including wolves. “Underworld of the Wilderness” is not nearly as artistically satisfying as “The White Wolf.”
Despite his usual deft touch with animals, Frazetta barely draws the coach horses at the beginning of the story, and his forest backgrounds are more minimal than usual. The fight scene on the last page plays out against mostly empty backgrounds. Perhaps by then, Frazetta was just burned out on the characters. This is one of his longest early projects and he was presumably ready for other challenges. According to colleagues like Harvey Kurtzman, in the early 50s Frazetta was always as busy as he wanted to be, and was picky about whom he worked for.Yet, despite thin characters and predictable plots, Frazetta’s bold art made Dan Brand the White Indian memorable for a brief time. Fortunately for Frazetta fans, almost all of the Dan Brand stories have been reprinted, either in the White Indian title, or in one of innumerable fanzine reprints that started in the mid-60s and have continuing into the present. It’s an early gem by a man who would go on to be one of the best artists in comics despite a relatively small body of published work. Though, like White Indian, almost every page of comics art he drew was made unforgettable by Frazetta’s unique touch.
© Steven Ringgenberg/Frazetta Girls, inc