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How I Came to Know Tex Willer, Italian Comic Book Hero of the Old American West

A column by Julianne Jennings about Tex Willer.

I was first introduced to Tex Willer while attending a pow wow in Italy; yes Italy— where Indians are served cheese lasagna and vino as opposed to frybread and lemonade for their participation after a days-worth of dancing and drumming. Dinner conversations varied depending on with whom and where you sat. Mine was with an Italian gentleman by the name of Domenico, who happened to be a Tex Willer enthusiast. “I started reading and collecting Tex in 1950, he says.” I asked, “Who is Tex?” He explains, “It’s a monthly comic book series of Western stories that give Italians an opportunity to experience the American frontier (with action taking place primarily in Arizona), and one of the few publications to showcase Indian people in a more favorable light at that time.”

Claudia Haddad (Mi’kmaq) has a different perspective. She says, “Tex offers an unreal prejudicial belief of white superiority by race and gender through cartoon illustration of militant devotion and glorification of colonization, and fanatical patriotism. It’s all about them and not about us!”

I know the general public is confused with facts and more apt to understand fiction and comic books than the reality of either history or current affairs; based on these two opposing views, I became curious to investigate just how “authentic” the portrayal of the old American West legend lives-on in European comic satire and expression.

Created by writer Gian Luigi Bonelli and illustrator Aurelio Galleppini, was first published in Italy on 30 September 1948, the Tex Willer series is an Italian-made interpretation of the old American West, inspired by the mythology of American Western movies. Stories usually center on the life of a lone cowboy or gunfighter in his quest to tame the “savage” wilderness in the name of “civilization.” Tough, loyal and infallible with guns, Tex Willer like the iconic John Wayne was the first Italian western hero to incorporate the point of view of American Indians (as imagined by the authors). The Tex series is the most popular character comics, with translations in numerous languages all around the world, and has a large fan base in Brazil, Finland, Norway, Turkey, former Yugoslavia, and Israel.

Tex is depicted as a ruggedly handsome tough guy, ala Chuck Norris with a simple philosophy: to fight against all kinds of injustice and defend the rights of the Navajos and all oppressed people. Moreover, Tex has no pity for outlaws, of every race and census, nor regard for their rights, if they do not immediately cooperate with the law.

Historically, the Arizona Rangers also known as Twenty-Six Men (preceded by the organization of the Arizona Territorial Rangers in 1860) were first created by the Arizona Territorial Legislature in 1901, disbanded in 1909, and subsequently reformed in 1957, to deal with the criminals of Arizona’s sparsely populated regions, especially along the international border with Mexico. At their highest enrollment, there were twenty-six men (limited to financial reasons): a captain, a lieutenant, four sergeants, and twenty privates divided into two squads; and of course, Tex Willer, the main fictional comic book character, leads the way.

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Nellie, a history major at Arizona State University asserts, “The stories of these Arizona Rangers were filmed in the early fifties for television and made popular by one of singer/song writer Marty Robbins’ (born in Glendale, by the way) biggest hits: “Big Iron” about a gun-fighter who had killed numerous Mexican and Indian people as well as around twelve whites. They have a gun fight in the streets of the town of Agua Fria (the old name for Glendale Arizona).

Indians are portrayed wearing buckskin, feathers and beads among the colorfully illustrated, 200 page gag cartoon, emphasizing positive and negative aspects of their culture. The writers also attempt to incorporate, what they believe, exists a singular “Indian language” using words like, “how” and “ugh,” supplemented by hand signs, or smoke signals, just like our ancestors did many moons ago. In reality however, there are hundreds of Native languages and dialects in North America—a degree of linguistic diversity much greater than Europe, and comparable to all of Eurasia. American authorities, like the US Army, politicians, business-men, sheriffs or the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) are also woven neatly into this comic book classic.

Tex had a son, named Kit Willer (who would become a ranger too), by a woman, named Lilith, the daughter of a Navajo Chief (she would later die of smallpox). Later, Tex himself went on to become the Chief of the Navajo tribe, known as Eagle of the Night. By using the character name Lilith the author is perpetuating an unproven Christian myth of Adam’s first wife (also named Lilith), who was put away for flagrant adultery, thus implying the Chief’s daughter was also an adulteress, and by extension, all Indian women. From this, the word Squaw comes to mind. This term and act eventually was carried westward in America’s transcontinental parade of Manifest Destiny.

It appears not much has changed, even across the Atlantic. The same myths, stereotypes and misconceptions about Indians and the old American West are still being disseminated, but this time through comic book folly, and for some, holds greater weight then knowing the actual truth itself. Where is Tex Willer when you need him?

Julianne Jennings (Nottoway) is an anthropologist.