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Book Review: Unmasked: The Forgotten Origins of Hollywood’s Most Famous Western Heroes, Edited by Tom Roberts

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Black Dog Books specialize in reprinting classic stories from the long-ago era of pulp magazines. Those anthologies had their heyday in the early part of the twentieth century, and while many may dismiss them as “old fashioned,“ they are nothing of the sort. As publisher Tom Roberts has repeatedly shown, there is a treasure trove of great writing contained in those dusty pages.

A favorite genre for the company is the Western. I have always been a fan of the books of authors such as Louis L’Amour and Max Brand, but had never had access to really early Western material before now. With the publication of Unmasked: The Forgotten Origins of Hollywood’s Most Famous Western Heroes, Black Dog Books has taken the reprint idea to a whole new level.

The stories contained here are the literary origins of such famous television and movie heroes as Hopalong Cassidy, The Cisco Kid, and Zorro. The fourth and arguably most famous is The Lone Ranger, who did not actually originate on the printed page, but rather on radio. When the character’s popularity took off, the decision was made to launch The Lone Ranger magazine in 1937, where our hero’s exploits were first documented on the printed page.

Clarence E. Mulford’s Hopalong Cassidy was very different from the one we came to know from television. The original character had a limp (hence his nickname) and a penchant for rowdy behavior. As Francis N. Nevins writes in his introduction, “Welcome to the world Mulford made! Sanitized cowboys keep out!”

The first Hopalong Cassidy story appeared in the December 1905 issue of The Outing Magazine. The remaining five followed from April to August 1906. When the stories were later anthologized into book form, there was a great deal of alteration done by editors, either by cutting some sections to pick up the pace, or adding new material to create continuity. Thankfully, Black Dog has gone back to the originals and published these short stories exactly as they were originally written.

Although I have been watching repeats of The Cisco Kid on television for decades now, I had no idea that he was created by one of the greatest American writers of the early 1900s, O. Henry (William Sydney Porter). The story originated in the June 1907 issue of Everybody’s Magazine. “The Caballero’s Way” was the only Cisco Kid tale O. Henry ever wrote. Rather than the white knight character we came to know through television, O. Henry’s Cisco was a bad-ass outlaw.

Zorro has enjoyed an amazing run of popularity over the years. The other characters in Unmasked hit their peaks in the 1950s, when Westerns were all the rage. But Zorro managed to linger on, long into the modern era with films such as The Mask Of Zorro (1998) and The Legend Of Zorro (2005).

His first appearance was in the All-Story Weekly magazine in 1919. “The Curse Of Capistrano” was serialized over a five week period. In Unmasked, editor Tom Roberts chose to print the second episode of the serial, which picks up and advances the action at a crucial moment in the story.

Finally, we come to The Lone Ranger. As previously stated, he did not originate on the printed page, but on radio. As the popularity of the character steadily grew, the decision to launch The Lone Ranger Magazine was hatched. The story included in Unmasked is “The Masked Rider’s Justice,” which actually appeared in the second issue of the magazine, dated May 1937.

The Unmasked collection of stories provides a fascinating glimpse these characters in their early, development stage. And thanks to the respect Black Dog Books has for the source material, they appear here exactly as their authors intended. For a host of other imaginative Westerns from the early days, and a great deal more, check out Black Dog for yourself.

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