13 Famous Horses, Fictional or Otherwise, That Starred in at Least One Issue of Their Own Comic Book
Honestly, you kids today, looking at your reality-TV stars and your UFC fighters and your American Idol runner-ups and thinking you know what a real celebrity looks like. Try this on for size: in his time, Gene Autry loomed so big over the pop-culture landscape he could get his goddamned horse its own comic book. Actually, scratch that: he was so big he could get Champion his own comic book, radio show (1949-50) and television show (26 episodes on CBS in 1955-56), just because he was Gene Autry’s horse. And if such things existed back then, you can bet Champion would have scored his own Nike deal and Twitter account, too. Appearing in nearly 100 movies and TV episodes with his human partner, Champion (which was actually the name for several horses; the first died while Autry served in the Air Force during the Second World War) was able to do many tricks, like kneel, bow and do dance steps — and, as evidenced by his own comic series (16 issues between 1951 and 1955) and several issues in Dell’s Four Color Comics, he could also show any ornery wolf, cattle rustler or train robber just who’s the boss. But alas, the joys of the printed page just can’t convey his mightiest power: inspiring rousing TV theme songs.
Like a streak of lightnin’ flashin’ ‘cross the sky
Like the swiftest arrow whizzin’ from a bow
Like a mighty cannonball he seems to fly
You’ll hear about him ever’where you go
The time’ll come when everyone will know
The name of Champion, the Wonder Horse!
As popular as Champion was, the title of Most Famous Horse in Hollywood probably belonged to Trigger, the golden palomino who appeared alongside Roy Rogers in all 81 of his movies and 101 episodes of his TV show. At the height of his popularity, Trigger received 200 fan letters a week and was featured, alone and with Rogers, on everything from wallets and pencil cases to lunchboxes and jigsaw puzzles. Billed as “the smartest horse in the movies,” Trigger knew as many as 60 different tricks, one of the more useful ones being the fact he was housebroken, which comes in handy when you’re a horse making public appearances in hotel lobbies. Like Champion, Trigger starred in several issues of Four Color Comics before graduating to his own series (which also lasted 16 issues); in his solo stories, Trigger was always the horse who saves the day in one Rogers-less adventure or another. For instance, in one 1951 adventure, Trigger’s quick thinking and fast hooves help save an entire town that got swindled by a couple of hucksters selling claims to phony gold mines, and it was Trigger’s keen senses that found an actual vein of gold for the whole town — now renamed “Trigger City” — to mine. Alas, all the gold in the Old West didn’t help him in the end; he retired from show business in 1957, died in 1965 at age 33, and ended up stuffed and mounted in the Roy Rogers Museum.
“Ok, so the Lone Ranger gets his own comic book, that’s a given. And hey, let
that Tonto fellow have a few issues of his own to show how culturally sensitive we are to the Indians. But how else can we milk this franchise? It’s not as if the TV show has any other regular characters for us to work with. Wait, are there any Junior Lone Rangers or adorable orphans on the show? No? Well, scratch that, then. What? Put out two comic series starring the Lone Ranger at the same time? Don’t be an idiot, Jensen. You think kids will ever be dumb enough to buy two different titles starring the same guy? Hey, what about that horse he rides? Silver, right? Yeah, kids love horses. Let’s put him in a few solo adventures, sort of like a ‘before he met the Lone Ranger’ deal. And we’ll get the Lone Ranger in there by having him tell stories to pioneer kids about Silver’s childhood fighting cougars and wolves and, I don’t know, badgers and stuff. Brilliant! What did you say? ‘How would the Lone Ranger know what adventures a young Silver had before he became the Lone Ranger’s horse?’ Fer crissakes, Jensen, we’re not writing Shakespeare here! Just have that script on my desk by Monday.”
4-5. Francis the Talking Mule/Mister Ed
The mid-20th century was an odd period in pop-culture history, with all kinds of frankly insane ideas thrown around in a bid to find the next big thing. And since
“rose-themed whorefests” and “televised testicle eating” were a few years down the road, that meant wacky films and TV shows starring movie-monster families, possessed cars, flying nuns, subservient genies, housewives with magical powers, you name it. And hey, why settle for one talking horse when you can have two? Francis was the movie star (six films between 1950 and 1956, including Francis in the Navy and Francis Goes to West Point) who regularly got his human G.I. buddy, Peter, in trouble with military psychiatrists (who had trouble believing Francis was offering Peter advice to help him overcome his natural incompetence), while Mister Ed was the TV star (six seasons on CBS, 1961-66) who got his human friend into all kinds of crazy predicaments that can only come from owning a talking horse. It seems inconceivable to us younger folk that a show based on this slim premise lasted six years, but ask anyone who remembers those times and they’ll likely tell you they can’t see the name “Wil-burrrrr” without hearing it in their head the way Mister Ed said it. As was the norm for all big stars at the time, both Francis and Ed scored their own comic books, with Francis getting a few issues in Dell’s Four Color Comics anthology and Mister Ed a short-lived title of his own from Gold Key.
6. Black Jack
Speaking of Mister Ed, did you know he didn’t actually do his own voice work? It’s true! The voice of Mister Ed was supplied by Allan “Rocky” Lane, star of many cowboy movies and TV Westerns in a career that stretched from 1929 to 1966. He also starred as a straight-shooting Mountie in many Mountie movies including The Yukon Patrol and King of the Mounties, which I only mention because, you know, Canada rules. Anyway, Lane was also known for partnering with a horse named Black Jack, making more than 30 Westerns with his faithful steed by his side between 1947 and 1953. True to his B-movie status, Black Jack also starred in a short-lived series (1957-59) by B-list comic publisher Charlton Comics, which bumped historical hero Jim Bowie out of his own Western book to make room for the horse (explaining why issues #20-30 are the only ones that exist of Black Jack’s book). Black Jack had many exciting adventures wandering the West, fighting mountain lions, rattlesnakes, wildfires and, um, “the lashing forces of nature in a fight against time!” Okay, fine, so we’re not talking time-traveling cyborg levels of excitement here, but come on, people. It’s the Old West, and it’s a horse. Time was, that was all a comic needed to entertain the kids. (mutter mutter stupid Sputnik…)
7. Black Fury
Don’t be fooled by the cover. This improbable scene doesn’t take place anywhere inside the book — though if it did, you can be sure Black Fury knew exactly how to get himself safely to shore. Never a major player in the comics business, Charlton did have the good sense to pump out lots of whatever the kids were into, and in the mid-’50s that meant Westerns. Black Fury, unlike Trigger or Champion, never suffered a saddle on his back — he was a wild horse who spent most of his 57 issues roaming the range and protecting his manada (not a hotel franchise as I first thought but the Spanish word for herd — though I’m not above watching a sitcom starring a hotel-owning horse, especially if John Cleese provided the voice). His wanderings through the American Southwest often inserted him in the affairs of men; witness the story with early Steve Ditko art in issue #16, where Black Fury finds a wounded man in the desert, drinks his canteen dry and leaves him to die in the sun. But that’s kosher, because the guy was a no-good gun-runner on his way to deliver rifles to a group of renegade Native Americans, who leave their prearranged meeting spot empty-handed and undoubtedly see the guy’s no-show as a sign to give up their vengeful ways against the white man. Which of course is totally what Black Fury planned all along.
8-9. Black Beauty/Son of Black Beauty
With 20 million copies sold so far, Black Beauty is one of the better-known novels starring a horse. First published in 1877, Anna Sewell’s story of a steadfast 19th-century horse who is passed from owner to owner led to a huge outpouring of concern for animal welfare in her native England, and it’s generally seen as the forerunner for the “pony book” genre of children’s literature. No surprise, Hollywood has adapted the story no less than five times, the latest film version of the tale appearing in theatres in 1994, and The Adventures of Black Beauty ran on British television for 52 episodes between 1972 and 1974 (with a sequel series debuting in 1990). Comic publishers have also made several attempts to capitalize on the novel’s enduring popularity: Gilberton, the comic publisher behind Classics Illustrated, adapted the novel in 1949, issuing reprints with new covers in 1960 and 1968; Dell Comics put out a Black Beauty adaptation as part of its Four Color Comics anthology in 1952; and Puffin Books offered a graphic-novel version of the tale, adapted by artists June Brigman and Roy Richardson, in 2005. And for those who love a good sequel, there was Son of Black Beauty, a novel written in 1950 as a follow-up to the original story. That novel was turned into two one-issue adaptations in Dell’s Four Color Comics in 1953 and 1954 — and not much else.
“The stallion only an orphan boy could ride”… presumably because there aren’t any pesky parents around to press charges when the kid is flung from his back? Your guess is as good as mine, really. Fury was an NBC television series (116 episodes, 1955-60) starring a pre-Mission: Impossible Peter Graves as the owner of the Broken Wheel Ranch and Billy Diamond as Joey, an orphan that “teaches the proud horse what it means to have a friend!” Think of Timmy and an ill-tempered Lassie, and you get the idea. From the show’s narrator in the first season: “This is the range country where the pounding hooves of untamed horses still thunder in mountains, meadows and canyons. Every herd has its own leader, but there is only one Fury — Fury, King of the Wild Stallions!” So there. Dell made an honest effort to give the hot-tempered Fury his own series, putting him on the cover of no less than nine different issues of Four Color Comics between 1957 and 1962, but despite comic stories packed with thrilling adventures involving horse rustlers and locomotives careening off cliffs, it just wasn’t meant to be. Fury trotted back to television sets, where he was seen in reruns until 1966.
11. Zane Grey’s Wildfire
Say the words “the Old West” and take a minute to think about the mental pictures that phrase conjures up; chances are whatever images you’re thinking were put there by Zane Grey. A novelist who wrote dozens of Westerns between 1908 and his death in 1939 (and whose stories have inspired more than 110 Hollywood films so far), Grey often attracted controversy for his depictions of a violent Old West and his progressive views regarding its settlement; his sympathetic treatment of the Navajo in The Vanishing American earned him the ire of religious groups who didn’t appreciate him saying missionaries had a negative influence on Native American culture. Far as I can tell, there was no outpouring of outrage over Wildfire, his 1917 novel about a stallion named for its temper and its fiery color. In the novel, Wildfire is found tangled in a bed of cactus by racehorse trainer Lucy Bostil, who rescues him and later enters him in a race against her father’s champion racer, Sage King. Wildfire was turned into a “picturized edition” as part of Dell’s Four Color Comics anthology in 1952; alas, Wildfire proved too wild for Dell’s publishers to corral, and he didn’t graduate to his own series.
“The Thoroughbred with an Inferiority Complex” was how they billed Stormy, and who can blame him — he apparently didn’t inspire enough confidence to merit a whole book to himself, with the bottom third of every story page given over to the antics of Pluto. Released in 1954, Stormy the Thoroughbred was a Disney live-action short (running 46 minutes) that told the story of a scrawny young colt who grows up to be a prize-winning polo pony, but not without a few challenges along the way. See, Stormy — who was born on a stormy night on a Kentucky horse farm — was seven months behind the farm’s crop of yearlings, and because of this he’s regarded as a bit of a misfit by everyone around him. While the rest of the young horses are sold into the racing world, he’s sent to work on a California ranch; fortunately, he’s soon recognized for the thoroughbred he is and trained to become a polo pony, finally finding “his own special place in the world.” Awww.
13. Gypsy Colt
Not content to let Disney corner the market on wholesome family fare featuring amazing horses, MGM released its own “wonder horse” movie, Gypsy Colt, in
1954. Starring Gypsy — who, according to the movie trailer, would be “bright enough to go to school with his best friend [and co-star] Donna Corcoran,” if he were human — the movie was basically Lassie Come Home redux, with a horse instead of a collie and a shift of scenery from England to the American West. As summarized in the Internet Movie Database: “It begins in a drought-stricken region where Frank and Em MacWade dread to tell their young daughter, Meg, that her beloved colt Gypsy has been sold, for financial reasons, as a potential racehorse. The horse breaks away from its new owner twice, and is admonished by Meg each time, before the horse is transported 500 miles away to a race track. But Gypsy escapes again and begins his trek back to his young mistress.” Which I’m sure will make for a totally believable story when the cops show up. Gypsy only starred in this one film and this one comic adaptation is his only comic appearance. But considering most horses’ best chance at fame is lead role in an Alpo commercial, he can’t complain.