By Warren Tufts (Western Winds Productions)
The newspaper strip Casey Ruggles – A Saga of the West used Western motifs and scenarios to tell a broad range of stories stretching from shoot-‘em-up dramas to comedy yarns and even the occasional horror story. The hero was a dynamic ex-cavalry sergeant and sometime US Marshal making his way to California since 1849 to find his fortune (this was the narrative engine 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.
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: Ruggles and the elegiac, iconic Lance.
Sadly he began his career at a time when the glory days of newspaper syndicated strips were gradually giving way to the television age and ostensibly free family home entertainment. 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 Christmas Day, 1925 Tufts was a superb, meticulous draughtsman with an uncanny grasp of character and a great ear for dialogue whose art was effective and grandiose in the representational manner, favourably compared to both Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant and the best of Alex Raymond. On May 22nd 1949 he began Ruggles as a full-colour Sunday page, and added to it with a black and white daily strip which began on September 19th of that year.
He worked for the United Features Syndicate, who owners of such popular strips as Fritzi Ritz and L’il Abner, and his lavish, 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” on the series and Cardy’s stint is reproduced in this volume.
Due to a falling-out with his syndicate Tufts left his wonderful western creation 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 formed 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 ‘planes. 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 six volumes (to my knowledge) of Casey Ruggles adventures. This fourth stupendous black and white volume (approximately 15 inches x 10 inches) contains stories that highlight Tufts’ love of Western history, facility for comedy and innovative willingness to take chances in three tales strip’s third year.
The first is a traditional cowboy story featuring the clandestine return of an old foe. ‘King of the Horseman’ originally ran from 14th May to 23rd June 1951, and saw a mysterious “Sonoran” (in actuality Mexican bandit Joaquin Murietta) challenge all the miners in a gold town to test their riding skills against his own.
Bored and cash rich but not stupid, the gambling fools call in Marshal Ruggles to do the rough riding…
This is a engrossing and informative little gem, softly sardonic and luxuriating in the minutiae of the historical west and cowboy mythology. Art lovers will also have the joy of comparing two master realists as Tufts, ever-strapped to meet his punishing deadlines surrendered the greater part of the tale (all the racing, chasing and action-stunting) to Nick Cardy, keeping only the first and last weeks’ episodes for himself.
This was probably to give himself a little leeway on the next adventure ‘The Prophet Julius’, a dark, clever yarn about a greedy flim-flam man and the eerie power he exerted on an isolated outpost. Running from June 25th to August 11th 1951, the action begins with a shooting star crashing to earth, closely followed by a mesmerising soothsayer terrifying, coercing and even hypnotising miners into handing over their wealth. With even Ruggles helpless the township pull together to craft a solution no Hollywood hack has ever considered…
The six-gun thrills conclude here with another unsung innovation wherein Tufts adapted the documentary/Film Noir style prevalent in the B-Movie gangster films of the time to create a prototype graphic-novel police procedural that would do Rick (A Treasury of Victorian Murder, The Saga of the Bloody Benders) Geary proud.
The predominantly Mexican Vasquez Gang terrorized the simple folk of rural California for almost 15 years with outlaws being captured or killed only to be replaced by ever more bloodthirsty villains ‘Juan Soto’ was one such and the hunt for him was perfectly incorporated into a clever tale of organised man-hunting by Tufts. Soto was actually killed in a gunfight with Alameda County Sheriff Harry Morse.
Here however the bandit’s increasingly obnoxious depredations draw Ruggles into a posse with five other lawmen who undertake a legendary trek through rugged country, ending in a fearsomely authentic, grimly chilling siege and showdown.
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. Westerns are a uniquely perfect vehicle for drama and comedy, and Casey Ruggles is one of the very best produced in America: easily a match for the usually superior European material like Tex or Lieutenant Blueberry.
Surely the beautiful clean-cut lines, chiaroscuric flourishes and sheer artistic imagination and veracity of Warren Tufts can never be truly 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.