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SLICK DEXTER in ACE HIGH WESTERN COMIC
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Looking for rarities in the canon of Frank Richards will undoubtedly turn up quite a few characters. His earliest work was for publishers who are long-forgotten except to one or two historians: for instance, although he produced hundreds, if not thousands of stories for Trapps-Holmes Ltd., who remembers them? It is unlikely that these old Victorian and Edwardian papers will have survived, but a paper from a mere 50 years ago is more likely to have endured, you would think. At least the contributions of a famous writer like Frank Richards would be well known to collectors.

So, let me introduce Slick Dexter, one of the stars of Ace High Western Comic, who rode the wild ranges for the Circle-Bar ranch in all six issues of that paper.

Ace High was one of two comics published by Gould-Light Company who had offices in Fleet Street, but who were actually based in Wood Street, Bolton, to which address you could write to join The Ranger Club for a mere 1/- postal order; in return, you would receive a club badge and a free gift (although it was never stated what the free gift was). The club/editorial page of each issue was run by the Chief Ranger, who would discuss pretty much everything, from stamps to the Pitcairn Islands with his young fans.

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But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The Chief Ranger of Ace High was an artist by the name of Norman Light, whose wonderfully painted covers had been gracing science fiction magazines since around 1950. A long-time fan of SF, Light’s covers for various magazines published by John Spencer & Co. showed a high degree of science fictional savvy; long before the renaissance in SF paperback cover art on the 1970s spearheaded by Chris Foss, Norman Light had his covers dominated by monstrous spaceships with huge clusters of rockets blasting through space, usually under attack by small, deadly fighter ships emitting white ray beams. These covers had all the liveliness of the old American pulp covers, full of colour and energy, with vast crater-pitted moons in the background, and spaceships splashed with flame in the foreground. His book covers, which usually added a few human figures, would not have looked out of place alongside those of Earle K. Bergey on copies of Startling Stories.

Norman Light’s earliest known work was for Martin & Reid shortly after the war, illustrating magazines and providing filler strips for their Jolly Western comic. Westerns became his main output in comics for some years; apart from one-off back-up strips for Commando Craig and Prairie Western, he drew 9 ‘Five Star Gentry’ strips for Scion’s Five Star Western in 1951-52. For Scion he had already written and drawn ‘Commando Craig’, about a crime-fighting adventures of Craig and his two companions, ex-Navy type ‘Dusty’ Miller and pilot ‘Rocky’ Rockwood. Trying to cram 13-16 frames of story into a page didn’t allow Light to put in his customary detail, and his early comic work suffered in comparison to his covers.

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Light’s first science fiction strips appeared from Scion in 1952, but it was with his self-published Spaceman: Comic of the Future that Light really came into his own. This was the first publication from Gould-Light, published in around March 1953, and from the full-colour cover through the 24 pages of comic strips, everything was written and drawn by Norman Light.

The main star was Captain Future of the futuristic Space Patrol, and these adventures are still something of a Holy Grail to some fans of SF comics; they might not be the best SF published in that era or even the best drawn SF comics, but original copies are extremely scarce and there’s a delightful naivete about the stories, full of pulp cliches and post-war exuberance at mankind’s recent entry into the rocket age. Light’s breathless adventures carried the title through 15 issues between the Spring of 1953 and early Summer of 1954, a creditable run for an independently produced comic.

Ace High Western Comic appeared around January 1954 and followed the same formula as Spaceman, with a lead strip in each issue – in this case Light’s own ‘Gunfighter’ strip starring Johnny McBride, plus a continuing back-up strip (‘Sam Bass’, drawn by Jim Holdaway, later of ‘Modesty Blaise’ fame), various one-off strips by Terry Patrick, and a series of short text stories by Frank Richards.

These featured Slick Dexter, although he was often mistakenly referred to as Slim Dexter on the covers.

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Slick was a boy puncher, a sixteen-year-old newcomer from the Panhandle with a cheerful sunburnt face and slim good looks who had joined the Circle-Bar as a cowhand. The ranch was owned by Old Man Poindexter, a tall, grizzled, impatient Texan with a fiery temper, who took kindly to the youngster and put him on the payroll under his foreman, Barney Cash. Poindexter likes and trusts the boy from the very first; within a few days of Slick joining the bunch he’s sent into Bullwhacker to pick up a thousand dollars from the cow-town bank to pay all the hands. But as Poindexter explains, "You figure I don’t know a straight guy when I see one?"

From then on, the stories (and I have to admit I’ve only tracked down three of them) are enjoyable if unexceptional. The plots range from hold-ups to rivalry between ranches to facing down a gunman known for his itchy trigger fingers and quick-draw.

Frank Richards use of dialect was probably best shown in his westerns; although he didn’t write many when compared to the number of school stories he wrote, he was no stranger to the west: Slick Dexter came from the same Remington typewriter as The Rio Kid, Packsaddle, and – soon after Slick’s adventures in Ace High – a western novel, The Lone Texan, concerning another young cow-puncher by the name of Fresh who worked for the Bar-Seven Ranch. Slick’s language was as tough as his fists:

"I sure mean you to!" he answered. "I’m mentioning that I horned in here this evening, jest to tell you what I think of you, Mr. Carter. I’ve heard about you beating up a cayuse, like the dog-goned, dirty, cowardly skunk you are, Mr. Carter, and a Circle-Bar guy soiling his hands on you, and I’m telling you that if I’d been around, I’d have lammed you a few myself. I’ve been jest honing to tell you what a pizen polecat you are, Mr. Carter."

And:

"Why you big stiff, I’d take a quirt to you as soon as look at you, you pesky, pie-faced, pizen skunk."

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Whether realistic or not, the language – typified by words and phrases like "Mebbe" and "Git’n off that hoss" – was characteristic of British westerns of the time and proved that Richards was able to adapt to the markets he found himself writing for after the demise of The Magnet and Gem. Limited in length, the Slick Dexter yarns were mostly shorn of his memorable one and two word paragraphs and, not surprisingly, more akin to the Rio Kid yarns Hamilton had written as Ralph Redway in Popular and Modern Boy, and subsequently revived in Tom Merry’s Own.

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Unfortunately, Slick had but a short run to prove his worth: Ace High folded after only six issues and although the last issue – and that of its companion, Spaceman – noted that the two papers were to amalgamate after the suspension of the latter, it wasn’t to be. Ace High also disappeared, as did Slick, into the setting sun. Some of Slick’s adventures re-appeared in 1959 when G.T. Ltd. reprinted some of them in Strange Suspense Stories, Tales of the Mysterious Traveller and Sharp-Shooter Western Album.

 

 

 

CHECKLIST

Ace High Western Comic No.1 (circa January 1954)
(contents not known)

Ace High Western Comic No.2 (circa February 1954)
(contents not known)

Ace High Western Comic No.3 (circa March 1954)
The Man in the Flour Bag * ss [Slick Dexter]

Ace High Western Comic No.4 (circa April 1954)
(contents not known: possibly:
The Puncher from Panhandle * ss [Slick Dexter]

Ace High Western Comic No.5 (circa May 1954)
Gun to Gun! * ss [Slick Dexter]

Ace High Western Comic No.6 (circa June 1954)
Run on the Rope * ss [Slick Dexter]

 

© 2001, Steve Holland

Last revised: 30 March 2001



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