Casey Ruggles: The Marchioness of Grofnek

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 strip debuted in 1949, a centenary tribute to the California Gold Rush, and its ever-capable hero was a dynamic ex-cavalry sergeant and sometime US Marshal making his way to that promised land 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, Tufts 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, a wicked sense of storytelling 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 supplemented it with a black and white daily strip on September 19th of that year.

Tufts worked for the United Features Syndicate, owners of such popular strips as Fritzi Ritz and L’il Abner, and his lavish, expansive tales were crisply told and highly engaging, but – a compulsive perfectionist – he regularly worked 80-hour weeks at the drawing board and 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.

Due to a falling-out with his syndicate Tufts left his first 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.

During a year spent creating the political satire feature Lone Spaceman 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 an archival collection). He then moved peripherally into comic-books, working extensively for West Coast outfit Dell/Gold Key, illustrating various westerns and cowboy TV show tie-ins like Wagon Train, Korak son of Tarzan, The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan as well as a long run on the Pink Panther comicbook.

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 designing and building his own planes. In 1982 whilst piloting one, he crashed and was killed.

During the early 1980s, the Pacific Comics Club collected many “lost strip classics”, including six volumes (to my knowledge) of Casey Ruggles adventures. This fourth stupendous monochrome tome (approximately 15 x 10 inches, or 381 x 254 mm) contains stories that highlighted Tufts’ splendid grasp of irony and love of comedy…

The first, however, is a stirring and chilling cowboy thriller featuring a legendary Western figure return of an old foe. ‘A Real Nice Guy’ originally ran from 5th January to 23rd February 1953, and found Ruggles and old scout Christopher “Kit” Carson heading towards Shasta City in a deadly snowstorm just as a devoted and loving wife murders the sheriff to free her murderous husband from the brand new Jail. As the blizzard hits hard the fugitives take refuge in a line-shack also sheltering Carson and Ruggles…

When the storm subsides the killers steal the heroes’ guns, horses, boots and even Carson’s trousers to combat the cold, leaving them to die as they flee for warmer climes. However the determined lawmen break free and track the pair through horrific polar conditions in a tense and deadly race to survive before the next lethal ice storm strikes…

The second adventure jumps from fraught life and death to something far more serious as ‘The Marchioness of Grofnek’ arrives in Shasta in all her resplendent Eastern European glory. With her comes an army of nobles, pots of cash and jewels and a burning desire to marry again…

This surreal and hilariously wry yarn ran from February 24th to 11th April and brilliantly depicted the true nature of friendship as Carson tried to get Ruggles hitched and the canny Marshall countered every ploy with one of his own…

The final tale in this stupendous monochrome collection is a marvellous slapstick wheeze which completely ignores the titular hero to feature the further exploits of a returning “villain”.

Running from 13th April – 23rd May 1953, ‘The Highwaymen’ marked the reappearance of Old Ancient. This guy was a grizzled dime-store owlhoot and 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.

The scofflaw cunningly offered to help out destitute blacksmith Cyril by teaching him the finer points of hold-ups, stage robbing and banditry. Of course the mouthy old coot had no chance of making a success of his criminal crash-course but did provide some of the most side-splitting cock-ups ever seen on a comics page.

Equal parts Keystone Cops, Destry Rides Again, Buster Keaton’s Go West and Carry on Cowboy, this delightfully fast-paced and razor-barbed spoof perfectly closes this charming, twice-lost comic strip treasure-trove…

Human intrigue and fallibility, bombastic action and a taste for the ludicrous reminiscent of 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 generally superior European material like Tex, Comanche 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 at a time when so many great strips are finally being revisited, I’m praying some canny publisher knows another good thing when he sees it…
© 1949, 1950, 1953 United Features Syndicate, Inc. Collection © 1981 Western Winds Productions. All Rights Reserved.