Sunday, October 4, 2020

A Crowded Life in Comics –

 The Best Of the West.

Rick Marschall.

My good friend Ferd Johnson, about whom I will write copiously here was a talented and funny cartoonist, who began assisting on Moon Mullins while his bullpen pal at the Chicago Tribune was still assisting Sidney Smith on The Gumps. Ferd was a working cartoonist before Little Orphan Annie was even created. Walking history when I knew him in the 1970s and ‘80s.

And his own strip, signed and full-page color Sunday, commenced about the same time as Annie. And that leads to this “Crowded Life” account. Ferd told me that Captain Patterson, owner of the Daily News, had an abiding belief among his myriad instincts about comics, that a Western strip would be a big hit. 

Potential “hit” or not, he had faith in the theme, and its inclusion among the News comics. So Ferd Johnson created Texas Slim. It was quite a funny strip, well drawn, full of broad visual humor and colorful characters and… resembling Moon Mullins out West. Logically.

When Ferd’s duties assisting Frank Willard on Moon grew too time-consuming – traveling around the country, inking while the boss golfed and drank – he gave up Texas Slim. (By the way, Willard often partied and golfed with Billy DeBeck and George McManus, so Ferd bonded with their assistants Fred Lasswell and Zeke Zekely, respectively.)

This Western obsession also explains the introduction of the classic White Boy / Skull Valley by Garrett Price, who returned to the Trib, where he was a member of the art staff in the late ‘teens.

The Trib experimented with a comic-book sized insert in the 1940s, and Patterson wanted Texas Slim revived; and Ferd did a great job with it. The Western theme still echoed in the corridors of Tribune Tower and another Western strip was launched – Vesta West

The only cause of Slim’s ultimate demise was the demise of Frank Willard… and Ferd was obliged to devote 100 per cent of his time on Moon Mullins.

I hope this has not seemed like a meandering calf needing to be lassoed and roped. The point of the Sagebrush Saga was told to me by Ferd Johnson. When Slim ended, the syndicate still wanted a Western strip in its “stable,” so to speak. 

By serendipity, a young cartoonist from Montana had just submitted samples – well-drawn, funny, and redolent of authenticity – of a cowboy strip. Ferd was not sure whether Stan Lynde ever knew about the coincidences… but that is how Rick O’Shay was born in the late 1950s (a time when TV Westerns were the rage, one season seeing more than 30 cowboys shows on the networks… a fact that did not hurt Stan’s chances, either).

Stan Lynde (whose name rhymed with “lined,” unlike the comedian Paul Lynde) built the strip around the young and somewhat naive sheriff Rick O’Shay; a diamond-in-the-rough gunslinger Hipshot, and side characters like the pretty saloon hostess Gaye Abandon.

My interactions with Stan were relatively often; however – like chapters in a Saturday morning serial – spread apart by intervening years.

When I was about 10 I wrote a fan letter, and Stan generously responded with a nice note and sketch; cherished, always tacked to my wall during high school years.

In 1961, Only around 12 years old, I attended my first National Cartoonists Society meeting, the guest of Al (Mutt and Jeff) Smith. In those days the monthly meeting in Manhattan were elaborate affairs, well attended, with entertainment and featuring a “Shop Talk,” where cartoonists from out of town, or perhaps celebrities who had something interesting to share, would speak and be interviewed. 

At that “inaugural” meeting of mine, Stan Lynde, “creator of that terrific new cowboy strip Rick O’Shay, and a living, breathing cowboy himself,” was the guest at the Shop Talk. He was gracious enough to spend one-on-one with me that evening, and we began a friendship that continued via the Pony Express, or its modern equivalent.

About a dozen years later I became Stan’s editor at the New York News – Chicago Tribune Syndicate. By then – bucking the trend in newspaper strips – the daily Rick O’Shay had evolved from being a humor strip, to a continuity and adventure strip. This reflected Stan’s literary development, intrigued by deeper narratives, serious conflicts, and characters with faceted personalities. He employed violence and emotional dilemmas; rough then, too rough for sissy editors and readers today. Good! but edgy. 

Stan’s art grew more sophisticated too; more realistic. Occasionally, in his efforts at exactitude, he would draw hands with six fingers or figures with two right hands. Such times gave me extra excuses to call his studio.

But attrition – lost papers – was ambushing Rick O’Shay. After I left the syndicate, so did he. After a dispute with his syndicate chiefs, he left, and Rick O’Shay was given to Alfredo Alcala to draw, 

I had moved on to be Comics Editor at Field Newspaper Syndicate in Chicago. Stan had new projects in mind, and many fans will recall his Latigo strip. I could not convince the dunce of a syndicate president, Dick Sherry, to consider Stan’s work while I was there. The sales staff loved it, and around 1970 it bought Latigo. And never promoted it much.

Subsequently I tried my hand at being an agent – taking strips to syndicates, sometimes helping to develop properties, and in the course of that work, and my contacts with European publishers – and Stan asked if I would show his work around. I did, through the offices of Edward J Keating, the legendary sport agent of Cleveland. I forget how he knew Stan (I think he owned a ranch in Montana), but we “schemed” the best we could to get a major publisher, a major syndicate, a major magazine to pick up Stan’s work, old or new. It was exceedingly frustrating.

It was during these years, I believe, that Stan found Jesus in a personal and powerful way, and forever after as a born-again believer, his faith animated his work as much as sagebrush and Western skies and cottonwood (he launched his own publishing imprint for books and graphics named Cottonwood).

So many of our conversations, and some hours spent I think in 1982 at San Diego Comicon, we talked about faith as much as about comics. I was writing books then, in a variety of fields, and Stan was to write, and not only draw, too – a series of respected fiction that is often compared favorably to Louis Lamour. 

Eventually, in a pattern that mirrors the success of Spaghetti Westerns, Stan Lynde’s work found a more receptive home in Europe. Especially in Scandinavia did his work appear in great variety… and longevity: his reprinted work still appears in journals.

In person, Stan was a plausible cowboy, a Gary Cooper type, the strong and silent stereotype. He died in 2013, aged 81. By then a respected painter and novelist – and, always, a strip cartoonist – I don’t know if he died “with his boots on,” or even at the drawing board. But if you can’t picture those scenarios… well, smile when you say that.


1 comment:

  1. I love these little sketches of the arttists and their strips.