My comfort read: Doug Wildey’s Rio

In a year of pandemic and political chaos, I have found comfort in a certain kind of comics. These are great comics that don’t try to beat you over the head with their seriousness of subject matter, but still manage to demonstrate a mastery of the form. Some examples: Darwyn Cooke’s The Spirit, Mark Waid’s Daredevil (drawn by Paolo Rivera, Marcos Martin and Chris Samnee, among others), and Doug Wildey’s incredible Rio.

You know the work of Doug Wildey (1922-1994) even if you’ve never heard of him. He was the main creator of Hanna-Barbera’s Jonny Quest, a cartoon whose artistry and influence extended far beyond its brief run in the mid-1960s.

Jonny Quest Classics #2, published in 1985. Art by Doug Wildey.

Wildey also was a cartoonist, including a run on Atlas Comics’ The Outlaw Kid in the 1950s, the comic strip Ambler in the 1970s, and much more. Later in his career, he had a passion project, a Western about an ex-gunfighter named Rio.

Rio made his debut in 1983 in the anthology series Eclipse Monthly with a story that ran through three issues of that series.

Here is a luscious double-page spread (scanned by Scott VanderPloeg of Artist’s Edition Index and used here with permission) from the beginning of the story as reprinted in Doug Wildey’s Rio: The Complete Saga from IDW:

That first-story reads like it might have been storyboards for a movie, with a clever adventure that spans the country. Rio is working on assignment from the U.S, government to investigate a business that organizes train trips to shoot buffalo for sport from train windows, a practice that is threatening the peace with local Native American tribes. His work gets him framed for murder and he travels across the country to find the person who framed him.

A few years later, Comico collected the story in one volume which was my introduction to Wildey and the character. Note the silver embossed logo, which must have stood out on bookshelves at the time.

“This is a real labor of love for Wildey,” writes Frank Plowright at The Slings & Arrows Graphic Novel Guide. “There was no guarantee of any further Rio stories, so he threw everything into this three-chapter gem, covering an inordinate amount of familiar Western scenes and characters. Gunfighters, cavalry, Native Americans, a snowstorm, the railroad, buffalo, a bar brawl, a siege, a quest to clear Rio’s name and a trip to Mexico all feature.”

Wildey continued to work on Rio stories. The next one was published as the Marvel graphic novel Rio Rides Again in 1990.

If the first Rio story was a movie, the second one was more like a really good episode of a television show. Rio gets a job as interim sheriff of a small town in Kansas, and soon finds that the town’s peaceful atmosphere is a facade.

The original art from the Marvel cover sold in an auction in 2019, and I am jealous of whoever got it.

The next Rio story was Rio at Bay, published by Dark Horse Comics in 1992. It was good, but a notch below the previous two stories.

Two decades later, IDW gave us all a gift by publishing Doug Wildey’s Rio: The Complete Saga in 2012. The book includes all three of the previously published stories, plus “Red Dust in Tombstone,” which was previously unpublished in English, and “Reprisal,” a story that was unfinished when Wildey died in 1994.

In his introduction, Mark Evanier wrote that the greatest character Wildey ever created was himself.

“He was funny, irascible, colorful and blunt,” Evanier wrote. “Tact was not among his many skills, and if he didn’t like something, you heard about it, Did you ever. A hustler in the best sense, Doug had an approach to his vocation that was half Milton Caniff and half Sgt. Bilko. Deep down he wanted to be a TV or movie producer and maybe a director as well, and he probably had all the necessary skills; just not the opportunity.”

Doug Wildey was an incredible talent. Just look at this model sheet:

Some of Wildey’s work reminds me of the great Al Williamson. But the arc of Wildey’s career looks a lot like that of Alex Toth. Both were best known for their work in animation, and even worked together in animation, and both had long careers in comics in which they were drawing scripts that often didn’t live up to the quality of the art. Both also had passion projects that they wrote an drew, with Wildey’s Rio and Toth’s Bravo for Adventure.

My main complaint reading Rio is I wish there was more of it. These stories, especially the first two, are the kind that beg to be reread, with many pages and panels that make you want to stop in a moment of wonder. If you haven’t experienced this stuff, you should.