Wild ’n’ Woolly American Mythology
A Ramblin’ Look at Cowboyin’ in Strips
In the Hall of Statues just off the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., each state is permitted to place statues of two of its native sons whose lives or works were somehow worthy of enshrining. These bronzed personages on pedestals include presidents and statesmen and general—Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, Robert E. Lee, and so on. Exactly the kind of roll call you’d expect. Until you get to Montana.
Montana’s two statues are of Jeannette Rankin and Charles M. Russell. Never heard of ‘em, you say? How can they be heroes if they’re unknown? Depends on your idea of heroism, I guess.
Jeannette Rankin (1880-1973) was a leader in the women’s suffrage movement and in 1917 became the first female member of the U.S. House of Representatives. She served until 1919 and was one of only 50 members of the House to vote against declaring war on Germany. She was back in the House in 1941, and when war was declared on Japan following the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, she voted against the declaration—and this time, she was the only dissenting vote. Why? She was a pacifist, first of all; but she also felt that “a good democracy” should not be on record as voting unanimously for war.
Charlie Russell (1864-1926) is renowned as the self-taught “cowboy artist” whose depictions of the old West in watercolor, oil, pen-and-ink, and in clay and bronze sculptures are highly regarded for their authenticity. And for their sense of humor. Before he became famous as an artist, Charlie hunted and trapped, herded cows, and broke broncs. One winter, he lived with the Blood Indians in Canada. They gave him the name “Ah-wah-cous,” or antelope (possibly because the pattern of his riding breeches in the back reminded them of the south end of an antelope running north). Charlie always spoke of Indians as the only “real Americans,” and he was an early conservationist and environmentalist (before there was such a term).
A pacifist equal rights advocate and an artist. With heroes like these, Montana is my kind of place.
Russell’s is the only statue of an artist in the Capitol. Fittingly, the only artist monumentalized in the Capitol is a cowboy artist: the West, after all, is the most distinctive aspect of American cultural history, and the history of the country’s expansion into the West—and the legends and lore associated with that expansion—is the nation’s mythology.
We call this mythology “the Western.” The classic formula—a lone sometime gunman rides into town and single-handedly defeats the land-hungry mogul or the marauding band of bad guys or the lurking tribes of blood-thirsty natives—the formula embodies the spirit of the American experiment. Like the American political experiment, the Western champions the individual: the former guarantees his rights; the latter trumpets his prowess, his fitness. Like any good literature, the American mythology contains an animating conflict. Unlike most literature, however, the conflict in this mythology seldom, if ever, surfaces. The conflict is between the individual and society, a conflict inherent in the contradictions of the formula. Individual rights are guaranteed by the rule of law; individual prowess, by the rule of individual might. Each threatens to destroy the other; neither can triumph while the other survives.
The myth manages this contradiction by never confronting it. The myth insists that the solitary champion emerge only when the rule of law has been overthrown. And, once order is restored, the champion rides off into the sunset—alone—leaving society to thrive now that the rule of law has been reinstated. Whether the champion could himself thrive under the rule of law--whether he would, in effect, submit to being ruled by something other than his own sense of justice--is a question never actually examined. After all, the champion usually believes in the rule of law and enacts its spirit (if not its letter). But with all the power and resourcefulness he represents, he could, if he wished, stand against that rule. But in our mythology, he never does. We invent him in a way that insures that the contradiction never arises.
Invention is the peculiar province of the Western mythology. Mythology, generally, is the made-up folk version of history; fittingly enough, two famous persons intimately associated with the West are made-up people. They invented themselves, and in so doing, they made themselves the heroes of their own, personal mythologies. Invention is the literary version of fraud: these guys were hoaxes, pure and simple. One of them—a magnificently appropriate happenstance, a colossal stroke of poetic justice—was the first King of the Celluloid Cowboys, a champion fraud in the tinsel capital of make-believe. Tom Mix (1880-1940).
Mix was, above all else, a showman. In his movies, he created with flash and action and costume, the movie cowboy. The power of the motion picture lies in its ability to blur the line between reality and illusion, and Mix set about doing just that. His big screen personality defined the future for the Hollywood Western. And in his personal biography, he defined himself. In his version of his life, he was the epitome of a soldier of fortune: he went to Virginia Military Academy, fought in the Spanish American War in Cuba, joined the marines, went to China to fight in the Boxer Rebellion and was wounded in the chest, returned home, recuperated in time to go to South Africa to fight in the Boer War, and, when back in the U.S. again, accepted numerous lawman assignments throughout the West. He was back in uniform for the Mexican troubles in 1915 or thereabouts, and he somehow acquired all the riding, roping, bronco-busting, sharp-shooting skills of a cowboy so that when he arrived in Hollywood, he was ready to assume his on-screen persona.
Actually, Tom Mix never attended the Virginia Military Academy, and although he did enlist in the army at the outbreak of the Spanish-American hostilities, he served in a regiment whose job was to guard the DuPont powder works in Delaware. He saw no action. He re-enlisted in 1901, though, hoping to get sent to South Africa but wasn’t. Disappointed at this unglamourous turn of events, Mix deserted and took off for the West. In Oklahoma, he got a job as a drum major in a marching band. He was, at last, in show business, and he was soon a member of the Miller Brothers 101 Real Wild West Show, an operation in the tradition of Buffalo Bill’s traveling extravaganza. From then on, it was all showmanship.
In comic books, the Mix legend was perpetuated by Fawcett in Tom Mix Western, 1947-1953. It was a memorable performance, arguably the best work ever by Carl Pfuefer teamed with inker John Jordan—lively, energetic action on every page. And Pfuefer could draw Tom Mix to look exactly like Tom Mix. (If you want a taste of this visual feast, check the backlist at AC Comics, P.O. Box 1216, Longwood, FL 32752; Bill Black and his henchmen have revived the Pfuefer-Jordan Tom Mix in an assortment of reprint titles.)
The other famous Western fraud was a cowboy artist like Russell. Neither ever made it to comic books, but Will James (1892-1942) wrote stories, books of them—which he illustrated himself. He wrote the books in a fabricated lingo that suggested, with artificially induced bad grammar and country syntax, that the author was a somewhat less-than-educated person—like a real cowboy, in other words. But James’ jargon was as phony as his own personal history.
One of his most celebrated prose works is The Lone Cowboy, which James asserts is his “life story,” the story of the youth and maturation of a cowboy artist. According to the book, James was born in a covered wagon in Montana. He was orphaned at an early age and subsequently raised by a French-Canadian trapper named Bopy, with whom he wandered the Judith Basin in Montana, learning how to survive and how to draw. I read this tome as a youth. Avidly. Hungrily. I was growing up in Denver, a West somewhat different than that of the Lone Cowboy’s, admittedly; but I’d just figuratively apprenticed myself to Dick Sebald, who was producing a quaint weekly masterpiece of cartoonery that humorously retailed the amusing “doin’s” of a ordinary cowpoke named Balin’ Wire Bill on his one-steer spread at Broken Spoke, Wyo.; of which, more anon. (“Apprenticeships” among cartoonists entail nothing more exotic than copying religiously the work of an admired cartoonist.)
Will James and Dick Sebald and Balin’ Wire Bill and me—we all seemed pointed in the same direction, and I devoured the paragraphs in The Lone Cowboy about James’ artistic aspirations and exercises. Wonderful stuff.
All invented. Well, the French-Canadian trapper and orphan stuff anyhow. Will James was actually born in Canada and raised in a French-speaking household in and around Montreal. He fell in love with cowboying at an early age and left home, with his parents’ blessing, at the age of fifteen (after completing an education) to spend three years in western Canada, learning the cowboy trade and how to speak English. At eighteen (or about 1910), he crossed the border to the U.S., realizing that only in the American West could he be a real cowboy. Beginning with Chapter Nine, The Lone Cowboy starts to resemble James’ actual life, but only approximately. He bummed around the West for the next decade, rustled some cattle, spent a year or so in jail for it, and drew pictures a lot. He left the rustling and jail time out of the book.
While he was drawing pictures, James also told stories, and when he wrote down the story of his experiences with a horse named Smoky and submitted it to a magazine, his career as an artist-author took off. He didn’t survive fame well: he drank himself to death by the age of fifty.
We probably wouldn’t ever have found out about his fraudulent personal history if he hadn’t left money in his will to Ernest Dufault in Ontario, Canada—“the sole heir and survivor of my dear old friend, Old Beaupre [Bopy}, who raised me and acted as a father to me.” This was a mistake: James probably meant to write “Auguste Dufault,” the name of his brother. Will James was himself Ernest Dufault. And in tracking down the beneficiary of the Will James’ legacy, the diligent authorities found Auguste who told them about his famous artist-author brother, Will James.
Despite all the make-believe, Tom Mix and Will James had actual accomplishments to point to. Mix’s daring as his own stunt man probably equaled anything he claimed to have done as a soldier of fortune. And he created, as I said, the Hollywood cowboy hero, which, more than any other version, established the Western as our mythology. Meanwhile, Will James, in manufacturing his own past, created one of the most luminous portraits of the West and of living the great adventure in it that our literature affords. And his pictures of cowboys and, particularly, of horses in the old West are festooned with authenticity. Because most of his artwork illustrated his books, he left far fewer color paintings than did that other painter of the West, Charlie Russell, but the genuineness of James’ work is in the same league.
To speak of fraud when discussing the Western is to describe the American mythology, after all. The lone champion of that myth is a piece of fiction, a literary construct, as much make-believe as Will James or Tom Mix. But myths are like that—engaging, absorbing, and their truth, like Will James’ and Tom Mix’s, is in the make-believe.
But even in make-believe, I opt for authenticity. In art, Russell over Remington, say. Admirers of western artists usually pit Remington against Russell, and, while I admire Remington, I love Russell. Frederic Remington (1861-1909), like Russell, was born in the East—Canton, New York, though, not St. Louis—but unlike Russell, Remington never lived in the West. He just visited there. And while visiting, he took copious notes in the form of sketches of the indigenous population which he subsequently turned into a visual record of the West, a remarkably accurate and detailed portrait, albeit focused mostly on the occupation forces (U.S. cavalry), tribal costume, and fur trapping. Not many cowboys. And Remington had never pushed cows through a frozen winter as Russell had done.
According to one of the numerous tales of Russell’s youth, he would acclimate himself to the descending temperatures in the fall of the year by putting on another shirt. Every time it got a little colder, he’d add yet another shirt to the layer on his back. Then in the spring as temperatures rose, he’d start removing the shirts, one at a time, pacing the removal to the increasing warmth. When he got down to bare skin, he took his annual bath and bought a new shirt and started all over again.
Remington undoubtedly changed his clothes regularly whether he was back home in the East or making sketches out West.
In the art of the West, Russell over Remington. And on the funnies page, Red Ryder over Hopalong Cassidy.
The gimpy trouble-prone redheaded saddlebum of Clarence Mulford’s novels about the boys at the Bar-20 ranch lost limp and all semblance of scruffiness when transformed by William Boyd into the black-garbed silver-haired Hoppy of the silver screen and, later, tv. The novels had a flavor of the old West; the movies, of the “new” West—that is, Hollywood. Boyd had the perspicacity to acquire ownership of the 54 Hopalong Cassidy films he’d starred in from 1935 to 1943, and when tv kicked in across the country, he made a fortune exhibiting the old films and the new ones he subsequently made. And in 1949, no doubt seeking diversity in merchandising options for the character, Boyd decided to take his version of Hoppy into newspaper comics.
At just about this moment, a young artist and WWII Navy veteran named Dan Spiegle, having exhausted his share of the G.I. Bill with three years’ study at the Chouinard Institute of Art in Los Angeles, was hoping to sell a cowboy comic strip he’d concocted. A chance encounter with the brother-in-law of one of Boyd’s managers led to a meeting with Boyd. As Mark Evanier tells it, quoting Spiegle: “I was very fortunate to find Bill Boyd in an agreeable mood, and he really liked the way I drew horses. He said it didn’t matter how I drew him—that would come with practice—but you could either draw horses or you couldn’t.”
Spiegle was soon hired, and Hopalong Cassidy started January 4, 1950. Written at first by Dan Grayson, one of Boyd’s minions, and later by Royal King Cole, it ran until 1955, but it was Spiegle’s art that distinguished the strip. He started off good, and he got better and better. Said Evanier: “Gil Kane later called it the best-drawn western strip of all time.”
The Denver Post started publishing it right from the start, and although I was not yet a fan of the tv Hoppy (television didn’t arrive in Denver until a few years later, a delay caused, we all understood, by the curvature of the earth and the straightness of the video waves along which tv was broadcast in those primitive times), I was smitten with Spiegle’s artwork, its spare linear quality, the vastness of the desert horizons across which Hoppy rode, and the increasingly sophisticated use of Craftint gray tones. He achieved an almost photographic tonal gradation sometimes, occasionally even leaving off defining outlines.
But further down the comics page in the Post was Fred Harman’s Red Ryder, and it had a knottier reality that I recognized from my own rambles through hillside stands of shaggy pine trees and straggly juniper bushes. Red wore chaps (not always but often) and looked bow-legged. And all the fences at his ranch and the boardwalks of his hometown, Rimrock, looked like real wood, weathered and warped, and the wheels on wagons almost certainly wobbled. At my first encounter with Red, I thought his jaw was too large and his shock of red hair too unruly, but I could never fault Harman for the picture of the West he drew.
Harman (1902-1982) was born St. Joseph, Missouri, but his father took the family to his ranch near Pagosa Springs, Colorado, shortly thereafter, and Fred grew up on a horse. That’ll give you a real feel for the old West. The Harmans were in Kansas City for a couple years spanning World War I, and Fred returned to the big city again in 1920, learning animation with Ub Irwerks and Walt Disney at Kansas City Film Ad Company. But when Disney went to California in 1923, Harman stayed in Missouri. (His brother, Hugh, worked for Disney in California, then partnered with Rudolph Ising to produce Merrie Melodies and Happy Harmonies, a series of musically accompanied cartoons from the propitiously dubbed Harman-Ising Studio. Say it aloud.)
Harman didn’t linger in Missouri long: for the next ten years or so, he wandered through California, Iowa, Minnesota, and California again before settling near Pagosa Springs. During one of his sojourns in California, he met Will James. “He and I had some memorable times together,” the cartoonist once recalled. Probably. By the mid-1930s when Harman met him, James was famous as a best-selling author, but he was also drinking with great determination.
In 1934, still in California, Harman began self-syndicating a comic strip called Bronc Peeler. How Bronc Peeler became Red Ryder is described elsewhere in these parts in a vastly more detailed biography of Harman, which is available here. Set in the 1890s, Red Ryder started on Sunday, November 6, 1938 (a daily was added five months later on March 27) and eventually ran in 750 newspapers. It was unquestionably the most popular of the newsprint Westerns: the redhead entered the cinematic log 22 times, and Harman, who returned to Pagosa Springs in 1940 and started the Red Ryder Ranch, became a Colorado celebrity and radio personality.
The Red Ryder comic book debuted with a single issue in September 1940, appeared sporadically August 1941-December 1943, then bi-monthly until January 1946, when it began a monthly schedule until it ceased in April 1957 with No. 151. Harman reportedly drew Red’s adventures for the first 99 issues, which, in their earliest manifestations, included short comical material, a juvenile gang feature called “Kiyote Kids,” and reprints of the King of the Royal Mounted strip as well as separate stories about Red Ryder and Little Beaver. By the mid-1950s, Harman was phasing himself out of drawing the strip; in the 1960s, he took up oil painting seriously, producing scenes evocative of Russell and helping found the Cowboy Artists of America. The comic strip, produced at the end by Bob McLeod, trailed off in December 1964.
Only J.R. Williams, something of a range-riding veteran himself, could rival Harman for authentic reek. But Williams’ single-panel cartoon, Out Our Way (1921-1977), which regularly but not exclusively featured cowboying, hadn’t Harman’s graphic energy. Harman’s horses in particular were dynamos, prancing restlessly and rearing up at the slightest provocation. Williams’ weary cowpokes didn’t change their shirts all that often, I’m sure, but Harman was the old West with knotholes and bowed legs. Harman drew with a juicy brush, splashing his drawings through the panels in a fluid, sketchy manner and drenching them in black shadow. Realistically for a Western, Red was on horseback much of the time, and Harman could make his hero sit a horse convincingly. Not having studied the situation like Harman, I can’t say with authority that horses tilt like motorcycles when cornering, but that’s the way Harman drew them, and, realistic or not, it imparted to the equestrian sequences a dramatic sense of movement, and, with that, visual excitement.
Perhaps the most spectacular of the comic strip Westerns were the two produced by Warren Tufts, Casey Ruggles, Sunday and daily (1949-1954), and Lance, a stunning full-page Sunday (1955-1957). Tufts’ stories were realistic, even brutally so sometimes, but Casey, a freelance lawman wandering the West (mostly California), and Lance, an officer in the U.S. cavalry, wore meticulously pressed duds, freshly laundered every day. Tufts’ artwork was expert and elegant—Alex Raymond in a broad-brimmed hat but still a fashion plate—and altogether admirable, inspiring a cult-like devotion among afficiandoes of the medium, but it was too much Hollywood and not enough cookfire smoke and wood ash.
For the last of the Western strip realists, we go to Stan Lynde, who came along right about the time Harman was losing interest in the linear Old West. Born in 1931 in Billings, Montana, Lynde grew up on a ranch near Lodge Grass on the Crow Indian reservation where his father raised sheep. After graduating from high school, Lynde went to the University of Montana in Missoula for a year and then found himself in the Navy during the Korean War. Although he repeatedly requested sea duty, he served instead in the personnel office on Guam. There he created his first regularly published comic strip. Running daily in the base newspaper, Ty Foon featured the misadventures of the title character, a hilariously lucky sailor, and an assorted supporting cast. Lynde was having such a good time doing the strip that when his 18-month tour was up, he requested, and received, a 6-month extension. When finally discharged in 1955, he worked for a time as a newspaper reporter and artist in Colorado Springs, Colorado, then trekked off to New York to try his luck. Unable to sell his strip about Navy life despite the trailblazing done by Mort Walker’s Beetle Bailey for the Army, Lynde fell back on his typing skills to survive, enrolled in the School of Visual Arts, and, with the rest of the nation, watched tv in his spare moments.
By this time, 1957, the Western commanded prime time on television. For at least an hour (sometimes two) every evening, cowboys and Indians and gunfighters and rustlers galloped across the tiny screen. This was the year of Maverick, Restless Gun, Cheyenne, Tombstone Territory, Wagon Train, Zorro, Colt .45, Gunsmoke, Have Gun Will Travel, and even Sgt. Preston of the Yukon. Lynde, long enthralled by the romance and glamour of the West, had yearned, at one time, to do a Western along the lines of Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant or Tufts’ Casey Ruggles or his later Lance. Historical. Pretty much a serious adventure.
But it didn’t work out that way, Lynde told me when we talked several years ago: “By 1957,” he said, “I had decided to produce a feature which would satirize the fictional Western, the tv Western, from the standpoint of the authentic West in which I’d grown up, taking the Western conventions and stereotypes of fiction and standing them on their heads. So Rick O’Shay began May 19, 1958 as a spoof on the synthetic West, or what Gary Cooper used to call ‘easterns in big hats.’
“Fiction’s honest, brave, fighting marshal became the amiable naive Rick O’Shay,” Lynde continued; “the steely-eyed, remorseless gunfighter became the hard-boiled but soft-centered Hipshot Percussion; the Indian, noble redman and victim of the white oppressor, became the sly, avaricious capitalist Chief Horse’s Neck, who emerged triumphant and wealthier after every encounter with his would-be exploiters.”
“Oddly enough,” I said, “despite all the Westerns on television, there weren’t that many comic strips that were Westerns. In fact, I can think of only a couple. Dan Spiegle’s Hopalong Cassidy had stopped in about 1955.”
“Yes, and I admired his work very much,” Lynde said. “He was very good with Craftint doubletone in those days. Having tried it myself and found what a difficult medium it is, I think probably Dan was the best since Roy Crane at that.”
“Fred Harman’s Red Ryder was still going then,” I said.
“Yes,” Lynde said. “The ones that appealed to me the most—the Westerns that I saw and was exposed to as a kid—were Red Ryder and J.R. Williams’ Out Our Way. I admired them for the same reasons. Both Harman and Williams had been here and were coming from a place of authenticity, so I admired them especially.”
“I thought Harman had such a feel for things like fence posts and board walks,” I said. “Everything looked like it was made out of wood, and his horses were so great, too.”
“They were,” Lynde said. “The style was rough—in some cases, almost a dry brush style—but I thought it especially befitting the Western. But Red Ryder was on its way out in 1957. In fact, the Western wasn’t all that hot with syndicate editors then in spite of all those television shows. I ran into that opposition, very definite prejudice against Westerns on the part of a number of syndicate editors to whom I submitted my stuff before Tribune Media Services [then the Chicago Tribune-New York Daily News Syndicate] accepted it.”
It was Maurice “Moe” Reilly who made the decision for TMS, hoping Rick O’Shay would replace Ferd Johnson’s Texas Slim in many newspapers’ line-ups. (Johnson was dropping his cowboy comedy romp, which he had invented in 1926, stopped in 1929, and resumed in 1940, in order to take over Moon Mullins for Frank Willard, who died early in 1958.) Reilly nurtured both Rick O’Shay and its creator, as Lynde recounts in his memoir, Rick O’Shay, Hipshot, and Me. The sequences of the strip reprinted in the book show how dramatically Rick O’Shay changed over its twenty-year run. Unique in the history of the funnies, it began as a mock Western taking place in the mid-20th century and then evolved into a realistic saga set in the old West. I asked Lynde how that happened.
“I think probably it goes back to what I’d originally planned,” he said. “I’d wanted to do an illustrative fairly authentic not a big-foot type art style, and eventually it sort of eased that way. I did a lot of learning. And some of the characters matured and developed faster than others. Hipshot chief among them. And I found I had to bring the rest of the characters up to his standards. Rick had sort of lagged behind. And the readers themselves urged me on. At first the strip was something of an anachronism. It dealt with the twentieth century intruding upon this sleepy little Montana town. But the readers tended to want their West to be the Old West. And I kept hearing that, and finally, I thought to myself, That’s what I want too. So in the late sixties I adopted a centennial theme: if it was 1969,it was 1869 in the strip. And I kept that going. Once we were in the Old West,” he continued, “I felt I had to be authentic about it. Again back to Russell: Russell sort of set the standard.”
Once Rick O’Shay turned realistic, the satiric West was left entirely to T.K. Ryan and his anachronistic Tumbleweeds. But that’s another story for another day.
From the beginning, Rick O’Shay was tightly rendered with a crisp line and judiciously spotted blacks, and as the strip became more realistic, Lynde preserved his style but increased his workload: tightly rendered wrinkles and authentic background details take time, and Lynde took on assistants (among them, Russ Heath).
“One of my frustrations,” Lynde said, “has always been that the prevailing wisdom on the part of newspaper editors or TV or movie people—or whoever, or syndicates—is that Westerns don’t work. Then we get a good one like Lonesome Dove, and everyone says, Well, yeah—Hey, that works. And then they do some more Westerns and they do a bad one or two, and they don’t work, and they go back and say, Westerns don’t work. That stuff doesn’t work. Well, Westerns do work if you do them right and authentically.”
Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven was one of those successful Westerns. And it was influenced by Rick O’Shay. Michael Price, movie critic of the Fort Worth Star Telegram, made the observation in his review of the film: “The very mentors to whose memories Eastwood has dedicated Unforgiven, Don Siegel [The Shootist among others] and Sergio Leone [Fistful of Dollars, etc.], had long ago acknowledge the funny papers’ Rick O’Shay as an influence.”
Lynde noted one striking similarity: “There was one scene in The Unforgiven where the Eastwood character was shooting at a tin can and missing and finally goes back for his shotgun, which came from a Sunday page I’d done in Rick. In fact, I’d done it a couple times, with different punchlines. A friend suggested that I send one to Eastwood with a note saying, Saw Unforgiven—and I forgive you,” he finished with a laugh.
Lynde left Rick O’Shay in 1977, and in 1979, he launched Latigo on June 25. Latigo was an unabashed serious, realistic, historically accurate Western strip, but it lasted only four years, ending May 7, 1983. Since then, Lynde has concentrated on novel-writing—four at last count (The Bodacious Kid, its sequels Careless Creek and Saving Miss Julie, and Vigilante Moon). And he also produced a panel cartoon, Grass Roots, about a couple of Montana rannies who comment on the passing scene, and a 2-issue comic book series, The Price of Fame, in which Hipshot is challenged by young gunfighters who seek fame by besting him in a shootout.
Lynde has done a great deal of research in producing his strips and novels, including reading historical accounts and logbooks and personal diaries written during the period of his stories. And his research gives his strip an authentic flavor beyond the realism of its pictures.
“Even the language,” I said, “the way the characters talk, sounds authentic. I have no way of knowing whether it is authentic. But it certainly doesn’t sound like Hollywood cowboys: it sounds like real cowboys.”
“Well, I appreciate that,” Lynde said. “I hope that’s true. Cowboys were colorful talkers. They may not have been altogether literate, as far as reading was concerned, but they had mastered their language. You’ll find a lot of exactly what we’re talking about in a book called Trails Plowed Under. It’s a book of stories by Charlie Russell, told in dialect or by a ‘character.’ They’re wonderful. Russell’s stories are perhaps almost as good as his art.”
I said: “I ran across an expression in one of your novels—someone who didn’t have ‘enough clothes to pad a crutch.’”
“Yes,” Lynde laughed. “That’s from Charlie Russell. Really descriptive. It’s the kind of thing the old timers did a lot of.”
All of Latigo has been reprinted in three volumes, and a Rick O’Shay reprint project is up to 1964 with four volumes. Some are still available from Mountain Press Publishing (catalog from P.O. Box 2399, Missoula, MT 59806 or at www.Mountain-Press.com or 1-800-234-5308).
Another of those paper-and-ink cowpokes who seemed to me steeped in authenticity was the aforementioned Balin’ Wire Bill—an unknown, I’m sure, if ever one wandered in off the prairie, scuffing the cow-pie off’n his boots as he crossed the front stoop and smilin’ a shy smile. Unless you grew up in the so-called “Rocky Mountain Empire” as proclaimed and defined by the Denver Post, you probably never heard of Balin’ Wire Bill. So, let me change that forever. Return with me to the days of yesteryear. Out of the past come the hoofbeats of the cow pony Kate . . . .
Somewhere in this vicinity is the first drawing I ever saw of Balin’ Wire Bill. I clipped the drawing but neglected to clip the newsstory that accompanied it. Now, yellowed with age, it still conjures up fond memories for me of a year spent waiting for Bill’s weekly appearances. But without the text that doubtless ran with this faded clipping, I can tell you nothing about Dick Sebald, the man who produced the comic strip that was the favorite of my youth. The drawing speaks volumes, though, of its artist’s graphic invention, his playfulness. Notice how the line that makes Bill’s eyebrow gets carried away with itself and becomes a string somehow attached to his wrist as he types. Notice the cigarette butts strewn around, signifying that Bill has been agonizing over his composition. Notice the texture of the aged tree trunk and the initials carved thereon. “CMR” is Russell, and “WR” is doubtless another former wrangler, Will Rogers, one of this country’s fabled folksy heroes and humorists.
Rogers got started as a humorist when he began to talk as he did his rope tricks on the vaudeville stage; pretty soon, the talk got so interesting that he forgot about doing rope tricks. He never met a man he didn’t like, Rogers said. He also said that all he knew was what he read in the newspapers. And he specialized in political commentary of a mildly bemused sort. “Every time we have an election,” he said, “we get in worse men and the country keeps right on going. Times have proven only one thing and that is you can’t ruin this country ever, with politics.” And: “Common sense is not an issue in politics; it’s an affliction.” I’m not so sure, any more, that we can’t ruin the country with the inferior caliber of the politicians we elect; but Rogers’ notion of common sense in politics is still undeniably true.
Sebald was clearly evoking the right gods in this drawing—the gods of authenticity and humor that he hoped would smile upon his creation, just about to be launched. Whimsically entitled Sage, Sand, and Salt, the strip had humor as its object—not western action or, even, much adventure. In the strip, the contemporary West of the late 1940s found its voice in a weekly “letter” from Balin’ Wire Bill. The letter was Sebald’s strip. It ran in “Sunday format,” several black-and-white panels on two tiers.
Its humor wasn’t biting satire; it was folksy. And the artwork wasn’t particularly spectacular—although it had a homespun charm, capturing the fustian atmosphere of a one-horse ranch in the modern arid West. But the reason that few are likely to recall this strip is that it ran for less than a year (1949) exclusively in the Denver Post Sunday magazine section, Empire. Appearing in a magazine that used halftones permitted cartoonist Sebald to embellish his work with a wash, which he did more and more towards the end of the strip’s run. And very effectively, too.
I was a passionate fan of Sebald’s in those days—and I copied his drawings slavishly. (But I couldn’t handle wash, so that aspect of his artistry was merely something to admire.) I learned how to draw horses by copying “ol’ Kate.” Sebald drew cartoon horses as well as Russell drew real ones. And he also authoritatively evoked the ambiance of the country—the rocks and trees and shrubs and the fence posts and tangled barbed wire. And the mountains. Not to mention Levis and boots and saddles. I copied it all. I drew a character that was Balin’ Wire Bill’s spitin’ image for a year or more, decorating my school books and homework papers with pictures of him.
Somewhere along the line, I felt so strongly about the strip that I wrote to Sebald, sending him a drawing of my own. And he responded with a drawing of ol’ Bill. My first piece of original art. I’ve still got it. And it’s still framed in the very frame I bought for it fifty-three years ago. Sebald drew his hero on ordinary typing paper, the kind that is almost tissue. Here’s Bill, seated on a box and surrounded by heaps of comic books (he was an avid reader of the four-color fables). Sebald drew with blue pencil and red pencil: red, he used for Bill’s face and hands (the flesh tones) and the comic books; the rest of the picture is in blue. Alas, it has faded over the years to such a degree that only I, familiar with its outlines, can make out the drawing. But it’s still on my wall.
Bill had nice, friendly sorts of adventures. Beginning April 10, 1949, the introductory sequence acquainted us with Bill’s ranch and its population—namely, Kate, his horse (hopelessly enamored of Roy Rogers’ Trigger), and Tex, the resident obligatory longhorn steer. In the first “story,” Bill tries to put his own brand on the already copiously branded Tex. No luck. The savage animal trees Bill, and while up in the tree, Bill tells us how Tex got all those brands all over his body: he did it himself, plugging one of his horns into an electrical socket, and then using the other end, now charged and hot as a branding iron, to draw the brands all over himself. That way, the steer reasoned, no one could claim him, and he’d be able to run free over the range. Bill gets out of the tree by singing “Deep in the Heart of Texas,” a particular favorite of Tex’s, who, overcome by the sentiment of the moment, lets Bill climb down and resume his ordinary life on the ranch.
In other adventures, Bill goes to the famous Cheyenne Frontier Days in July. He buys himself a fancy cowboy suit for the occasion, but Kate is so frightened by the Hollywood outfit that she runs off, so Bill hangs it in the closet and dons his customary jeans. He enters the calf-roping contest, but he’s so inept a cowboy that when he ropes a calf, he ties himself up with the piggin’ string, not the animal. A pretty young woman shows up as the school marm one week, and Bill is smitten. Well, you get the idea. My last clipped strip is dated December 11, 1949, and I think that might, indeed, be the last date it ran. It was a short but inspiring run. All make-believe, of course, but, like all Western mythology, not fraudulent at all.
Footnit: An earlier version of this essay was published in the Comic Book Marketplace, No. 98.