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Scalphunter: The Devil's Pay

on Mon, 11/24/2014 - 00:00

From their inception, comic books were never exclusively about superheroes. While Action Comics #1, featuring the first appearance of Superman, in effect established the new medium as a legitimate source of entertainment, publishers branched out in the early days with issues ranging from romance to war, horror to science fiction.

In many ways, the selections offered during the period reflected the same genres popular at movie theaters and on television sets. This included westerns, and by the time World War II had ended, all of the major publisher had their own line of comic books dedicated to the Old West. DC launched Western Comics in 1948, for instance, and the series lasted until 1961 before giving way to a renewed interest in superheroes.

Just like with anything else, what goes-around-comes-around within the comic book industry, and DC again began publishing western comics in 1972. Although Weird Western Tales initially centered on bounty hunter Jonah Hex, a new hero—Scalphunter—was created in 1977 to take over the reins of Weird Western Tales when Hex was given his own series.

Scalphunter was born Brian Savage, and his origin story tied into the Western Comics of the 1950s by establishing that Savage’s father was Matt Savage, the final main character in that particular comic book series. Abducted by Native Americans as a child and raised by Kiowa Indians who named him Ke-Woh-No-Tay, Brian Savage later made his way back to white society, donned the moniker Scalphunter and fought injustice throughout Nineteenth Century America.

In a 1980 issue of Weird Western Tales, meanwhile, Scalphunter’s journeys led him to the Steel City of Pittsburgh.

“Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on a gray day in mid-December 1862,” Weird Western Tales #66, subtitled “The Devil’s Pay,” announces on its opening page. “It lies embraced by two gleaming rivers, the Allegheny and Monongahela. A spot of almost unparalleled natural beauty, a beauty marred by the billowing clouds of black smoke which pour from the city’s foundries, like an oily smudge on the face of a young woman.”

Scalphunter had been injured during the preceding issue, shot by a Confederate Patrol during the early days of the Civil War. Burning with fever, he makes his way to Pittsburgh for medical treatment but is immediately ambushed in an alley by a trio of muggers upon his arrival. Although Scalphunter attempts to defend himself, it takes the intervention of a Scottish immigrant woman named Candace to ultimately rescue him. As Candace and her younger siblings nurse Scalphunter back to health, feelings between the two begin to grow.

“There is something about the quiet strength of this woman which reminds him of the squaws in the Kiowa Camp where he was raised,” it is explained within the pages of Weird Western Tales. “A sense that she, like the squaws, had been born to a life of struggle and suffering, and yet somehow, despite the daily anguish, she has found a peaceful place within herself where, at day’s end, she can retreat and become whole once more.”

As Scalphunter heals and a romance blossoms between him and Candace, the former Brian Savage decides it is time to earn his keep and repay the woman who has given him food to eat and a place to rest.

In Pittsburgh in 1862, employment meant the foundries where iron was forged into weapons for the war effort. In fact as well as within the fictional world of Scalphunter, the Steel City was the arsenal of the Union during the Civil War, producing over 3,000 cannons from 1861 to 1865. Scalphunter is immediately hired at a wage of five cents a day, but the owners of the mills immediately suspect that he might be trouble. They are, of course, correct.

“The work is hard, the foundry is hot, and before an hour is past, Ke-Woh-No-Tay is almost blind from the sweat and the soot. Around him, the other workers have expressions like those of dead men—blank, hopeless, despairing. For what have they to hope for but work where one mistake can cost a man his limbs or even his life?”

When Candace accidently spills water on a foreman, Scalphunter springs into action to defend the woman in much the same way that she rescued him upon his first arrival in Pittsburgh. Instead of gratitude, however, Scalphunter is met with pleas from Candace to stop as the Scottish immigrant is worried that she will lose her job if he continues to antagonize the operators of the foundry.

“This war between your people,” Scalphunter replies. “Is it not fought to end slavery? But how can this be, when children are forced to work here, and women are treated like property, and men are killed and maimed?”

Pittsburgh was a different city in the late 1800s and life in the region, as Scalphunter discovers, was not an easy one. It wasn’t just the steel mills that were polluted—the three rivers of the Steel City were likewise fouled by the factories while the air was thick with smoke. Long hours in the mills, low pay, and unsafe work conditions were likewise the norm.

To Scalphunter, it was the same as slavery and a contradiction to the moral campaign of a Civil War in which he himself fought. Scalphunter thus flees Pittsburgh, leaving his newfound love behind, as he cannot bear to live in a place where the people blindly accept their fates.

“There is nothing more to be said, and a great sadness tightened in Ke-Woh-No-Tay’s breast,” ends the narrative. “For he knows now that for some in this world, there will always be a gulf between what they desire and what they can do, and the name of this gulf is fear. Fear not just of the unknown but what tomorrow might bring, and ultimately fear of their own ability to cope and to change the life they have been born to. For these people, the war will change nothing—it brings neither hope nor freedom, neither revolution nor change. Their war must be fought in their hearts and souls, with victory ever in doubt.”

Change eventually arrived in Pittsburgh when the Nineteenth Century gave way to the Twentieth, with better work environments at the mills and a concerted effort by elected official to clean both the air and water. Over 150 years have passed since Scalphunter’s fictional visit to the Steel City, but if he were to return today, the former Brian Savage would no doubt be proud of the region and more forgiving of the people who toiled for decades—including a red-haired Scottish immigrant named Candace.

Anthony Letizia

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