By Warren Tufts (Western Winds Productions)
Warren Tufts was a phenomenally talented illustrator and storyteller born too late. He is best remembered now – if at all – for creating two of the most beautiful western comics strips of all time, but at a time when the glory days of newspaper syndicated strips was gradually giving way to the television age. Had he been working scant years earlier in adventure’s Golden Age he would undoubtedly be a household name – at least in comics fans’ homes.
Born in Fresno, California on 12th December 1925, Tufts was a superb, meticulous craftsman with a canny grasp of character and a great ear for dialogue whose art was stately in a representational manner and favourably compared to both Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant and the best of Alex Raymond. On May 22nd 1949 he began the seminal Casey Ruggles – A Saga of the West as a colour Sunday page, following with a daily black and white strip beginning on September 19th of that year, working for the United Features Syndicate, who owned such landmark strips as Fritzi Ritz and L’il Abner.
Ruggles was a dynamic ex-cavalry sergeant and sometime US Marshal making his way to California in 1849 to find his fortune (the storyline of both features until 1950, where daily and Sunday strips divided into separate tales), meeting historical personages like Millard Fillmore, William Fargo, Jean Lafitte and Kit Carson in gripping two-fisted action-adventures. The lush, expansive tales were crisply told and highly engaging, but Tufts, a compulsive perfectionist, regularly worked 80-hour weeks at the drawing board and consequently often missed deadlines.
This led him to use many assistants such as Al Plastino, Rueben Moreira and Edmund Good. Established veterans Nick Cardy and Alex Toth also spent time working as “ghosts” (uncredited assistants and fill-in artists) on the series.
Due to a falling-out with his syndicate Tufts left the strip in 1954 and Al Carreño continued the feature until its demise in October 1955. The departure came when TV producers wanted to turn the strip into a weekly television show but apparently United Features baulked, suggesting the show would harm the popularity of the strip.
Tufts created his own syndicate for his next and greatest project, Lance (probably the last great full page Sunday strip and another series crying out for a high-quality collection) before moving peripherally into comic-books, working extensively for West Coast outfit Dell/Gold Key, where he drew various westerns and cowboy TV show tie-ins like Wagon Train, Korak son of Tarzan, The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan and a long run on the Pink Panther comic. Eventually he quit drawing completely, working as an actor, voice-actor and eventually in animation on such shows as Challenge of the Super Friends.
Tufts had a lifelong passion for flying, even building his own aircraft. In 1982 whilst piloting one he crashed and was killed.
The Pacific Comics Club collected many “lost strip classics” at the start of the 1980s, including a number of Casey Ruggles adventures. This third colossal black and white volume (approximately 15 inches x 10 inches) contains stories that highlight Tufts’ love of Western history and delightful facility for comedy and satire in three tales from the peak of the strip’s run.
The first of these is a wonderfully whacky history lesson. ‘The Pomo Uprising’ which originally ran from 20th November 1950 – 17th February 1951, described a little remembered period of West Coast lore.
In 1812 expansionist Russians annexed what are now Northern California, Oregon and Washington State to augment their possessions in Alaska. For nearly thirty years Cossacks and fur traders operated out of the colonial base Fort Ross until over-hunting and changing politics at home forced the Tsar to sell the entire kit and caboodle.
In this tale Casey is asked by an old friend to assess the value of Fort Ross – which he has recently purchased – just as a column of Russians explorers, lost for a decade, return utterly unaware that their old home now belongs to the USA. Refusing to believe their changing fortunes they declare war on the Yankee interlopers and bribe the local Pomo Indians to attack the American outpost of San Francisco…
Spectacular action and barbed wit mix brilliantly in this clever tale (crafted during the early days of the Cold War) and which features a classy star turn for Casey’s Indian sidekick Kit Fox, before the epic segues into pure comedy as Casey’s sometimes girlfriend Chris is abducted in (and by) ‘Old Ancient’ a grizzled dime-store owlhoot in a mood for marrying – a wicked parody of silver screen cowboy William Boyd whose super-sanitized Hopalong Cassidy wowed generations of movie and TV viewers who might perhaps have been better served by picking up a history book instead…
This volume concludes with a return to authentic Western action in the eponymous ‘In Old Angeles’ wherein the Marshal is summoned to the newly American city to halt a gang of miners who claim to own the entire city and are rapidly reducing it to one colossal gold mine. Yet their deeds and claims seem completely legitimate and genuine….
Human intrigue and fallibility, bombastic action and a taste for the bizarre reminiscent of the best John Ford or Raoul Walsh movies make Casey Ruggles the ideal western strip for the discerning modern audience. These lighter tales also prove that George (Destry Rides Again) Marshall would also feel right at home with Tufts’ first masterpiece.
Westerns are continually falling into and out of fashion yet surely the beautiful clean-cut lines and sheer artistic veracity of Warren Tufts can never be out of vogue? These great tales are desperately deserving of a wider following, and I’m still praying some canny publisher knows a good thing when he sees it…
© 1950, 1951United Features Syndicate, Inc. Collection © Western Winds Productions. All Rights Reserved.