Rethinking “Rusty Riley” . . .

Charles Pelto was kind enough to send me a complimentary copy of the Classic Comics Press reprint of the 1948 Rusty Riley dailies and of almost the whole year of the 1949 Rusty Riley dailies. The book presents the reprinted strips in a very good fashion, somewhat enlarged, with two strips per page.  I already have most or all of the strips shown, as extracted from newspapers — and although the “newspaper” versions may be fine as collectibles, for the most part they are not ideal for reading.

For one thing, the paper on the “newspaper” versions is generally a tannish color, and that means less contrast than is present when (as in the reprint under discussion) white paper is used.  Next, the strips as extracted from newspapers are quite small.  Moreover, I have found it quite easy to cause them to be out of sequence.  And probably the majority of my Rusty Riley strips as extracted from newspapers are not the full version.  (Rusty Riley daily strips were often — possibly always — offered to newspapers in at least two formats:  a tall format, and a short format that was lacking the “bottom” area of the full strip.  And from what I gather, newspapers sometimes made additional “cuts,” not necessarily at the bottom.)

I have read most, if not all, of the introductory text(s) by Charles Pelto, Howard Chaykin, and Dennis Wilcutt, but I mostly haven’t read the strips (though I did notice that a few appear to be missing and that a couple were repeated).  But in looking through the book, I was struck by something that I have kind of noticed when looking at my newspaper strips, and that is this:  the art seems to have a certain rhythm to it.

It waxes and it wanes.

The art is brilliant at times, and then, almost as though Godwin is recovering from the strain of detailed work, it becomes more mundane.  There are periods where the art is lively, and there are periods when it is little more than people talking.  Even when people are talking, there are times when Godwin lavished great care on the strips, and there are other times when he appears to have spent less time on them.

At the moment, these are just impressions, though — I would really have to look at the strips further (more methodically) and think about them more.

Howard Chaykin argues that the story plots are on the mundane side, and that they exist primarily as lay figures, for draping Godwin’s artwork upon.  Those aren’t Howard’s words exactly.  I don’t totally disagree with that, but I don’t totally agree, either.  All of the stories I am familiar with — in the Sunday strips as well as the daily strips — appear to be workmanlike in their construction.  They are competently written.  They have moments of drama, conflict, suspense, and so on, and they seem to have problems that are resolved as of the end of the story.  I haven’t really thought about them in this way, but they probably have a fairly conventional three-act structure.  And they are reasonably entertaining.

On the other hand, over the almost twelve years of the strip’s existence, there was a fair amount of repetition — lots of stories that were somewhat different from each other, but which were fairly similar to one or more other stories.  For instance, and I have probably mentioned this before, but it seemed like Rusty was always falling under suspicion of having committed some misdeed, such as theft.  Mr. Miles — from the very first story — seemed ever-willing to believe, on the flimsiest of evidence — that Rusty had done something wrong.

In this context, it is useful to compare Rusty Riley and Roy Powers, Eagle Scout (during the time Godwin worked on the Roy Powers strip).  A couple of years ago, in another post, I said the following (which I’ll kind of blend into the present post — I’ll mention when the excerpt ends).  I have modified it a little:

There are significant differences between Roy Powers, Eagle Scout and Frank Godwin’s other comic strips. One thing that the Roy Powers strip lacks is . . . uh, let me see . . . oh, yeah — females!  They are few and far between. In the strips I have seen, there is not the slightest romantic interest hinted at, and the only girls or women who exist in the stories — and there are very few — are strictly incidental.

The Roy Powers stories that I have examined (from the Frank Godwin era of 1938-1940) seemed fairly well structured and at least reasonably interesting. I have not read all of the strips, but the ones I have seen compare favorably with Rusty Riley. A number of “angles” or types of plots exist in both strips. Here are a few situations that occur in both strips:

Being framed for a theft

Stolen property disguised by paint

Hero dressed as circus clown

Thwarting smugglers

Wallet stolen by pickpocket

Major flood, threatening life

There are a couple of other plot-similarities I have noticed, as well, and of course all this involves less than three years of Roy Powers strips — the ones drawn by Godwin. And, mind you, I do not claim to be an expert on the content of the Roy Powers strip or the Rusty Riley strip!

While the Roy Powers strip and the Rusty Riley strip do have similarities, differences between the two strips abound. Roy and Rusty are very different people. At least a couple of times, Rusty is identified as being 14 years old, while Roy Powers is 17. Both Roy and Rusty have their moment or moments of brilliance, but Rusty, sorry to say, is burdened, from time to time, by his exercise of unbelievably poor judgment and by a high level of gullibility, seasoned with occasional bouts of cluelessness. Both of them, however, know right from wrong, and although Rusty is repeatedly accused of wrongdoing, whether it be theft (multiple occasions) or defacing school property, he is never guilty of anything more serious than not having a license for his dog, Flip.

That’s the end of the extract from the earlier post.

What am I getting at here?  Well, the stories were okay — especially for an audience of youngsters for whom the plots would in many cases seem “new.”  For adults they are mildly entertaining when illustrated by Godwin’s art.  But overall there is little, if any, real innovation in the plots.

For adults, the story was often a means of delivering the art.  For kids, the stories were interesting, and the art was cool.  Or, the art was often cool.  But sometimes it was perhaps a little ordinary.  So what existed was an ebb and flow of stories (as well as art), some stories being better than others, and there might be an ebb and flow within each story — with some parts of a story better than others.

In the end, there was art of varying quality superimposed on stories of varying quality.  I think most collectors recognize that not all of Godwin’s Rusty Riley art was of super-high quality.  When a collector says, “Wow, that’s a great daily,” it implies that other dailies are at least “less great.”

I probably should not be theorizing at this stage, but a few thoughts on this occur to me.  It seems that in the beginning, Godwin concentrated seriously on making the strip a horse-racing strip.  The Sunday strip pretty much opens with the story in which Rusty rides in the Plug Horse Derby — and there is plenty of intrigue during the early months of the strip.  And in the two years covered in the new reprint, there are at least two separate attempts by underworld characters to do damage to Blaze.  Also there is a controversy in which Rusty comes under suspicion of secretly clocking a horse.

Apart from it being more of a “horse” strip in the beginning (as far as I know), the first few months of the daily strip were rather convoluted (story-wise), and there was a certain amount of a “soap opera” slant to it, with Patty concerned that he dad might marry Cherry Norton, who was Junior Norton’s mother.

Unfortunately I know essentially nothing about the stories portrayed in any other strips of the late 1940s and early 1950s by other artists, so I don’t know how to put the Rusty Riley stories into any perspective.  But it seems to me that in time — after more than one somewhat improbable tales (the eohippus story, and one involving tracking down a spy, and maybe others) — the strip seemed to settle down.  The art seemed to stabilize more in the later stories, with perhaps somewhat simpler art than in the early days — especially in the later years of the strip.  But I’m not sure of that.

—Tom Sawyer

March 24, 2014

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One Response to Rethinking “Rusty Riley” . . .

  1. Liz (Godwin) Rizzo says:

    This is a very good critique!

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