One of the reasons why the “Rusty Riley” comic strip basically did not continue after Frank Godwin’s death . . .

After Frank Godwin’s death, Rusty Riley continued for a number of weeks (daily strip) or months (Sunday strip), but in the big picture, it basically wound up with Godwin’s passing.

When Frank Godwin passed away in early August 1959, no equally capable artist was standing in the wings, ready to take over the art duties, or so it would appear.  The final Rusty Riley syndicated daily-strip was the one for September 19, 1959, and the final Sunday strip appeared in early November 1959, so the strip went on for weeks after Godwin died (months in the case of the Sunday).

How could this be?  Easy!  Comic-strip artists normally worked a measurable period in advance. In Godwin’s case, at the end, this was about six weeks in the case of the dailies, and about eleven weeks in the case of the Sundays.  But Godwin did not quite complete the final Sunday story, and (putting things very simply, maybe overly simply) Bob Lubbers drew the final two weeks of the Sunday strip.

It has been indicated again and again that Rusty Riley was appearing in around 150 newspapers at the time Godwin passed away. It’s hard to know which papers this included. Papers with large circulations could bring in a lot of money to a comic-strip artist, and the contrary goes as to smaller-circulation papers. However, I think it is safe to say that Godwin did quite comfortably with the Rusty Riley strip.

But anyway, it seems that the 150 or so papers were nothing to sneeze at, yet King Features did not continue to syndicate the strip. When you think about it, there were not many people who could have carried the strip on with the same je ne sais quoi. One would pretty much have to look among illustrators who were not involved in comic strips, because the ones who were already doing comics probably would not have been interested in taking over the Rusty Riley strip.

Nonetheless, the evidence is that King Features Syndicate turned some unfinished daily strips over to an illustrator.  The first I heard of this was something that Allan Holtz told me in an email. I believe he said that he had actually seen the strips, and he told me the illustrator’s name. At this point, I am not certain who he mentioned, but I have the impression that it may have been Rico Tomaso. (Wikipedia gives Rico’s dates as 1898-1985.) Whoever it was, at some point I came to the conclusion that it would have been nice if that illustrator, whoever it was, had carried on the strip.

After I saw the actual strips — which pretty much have to be the same ones that Allan was talking about — I quickly changed my views, as the non-Godwin aspects of the art would have been unpleasing to those who relied upon Rusty Riley to provide a wonderful art-experience. This is what makes me think the artist was not Rico.

Below is an example of a panel from the strip that would have appeared September 26, 1959. Most people who are well-versed in Godwin art will immediately recognize that the work is fundamentally not by Godwin, though I think Godwin probably pencilled the work (including the lettering).

Some might say, “Gee, that doesn’t look half bad,”and indeed there are certain parts, at least in the size shown, that look pretty nice. Example: Plunky’s left arm, holding the suitcase.  I’m not sure whether much purpose would be served at the moment by a more detailed discussion of the art.

However, below is shown a portion of a Godwin Rusty Riley, on top of the art shown above. The differences should be immediately apparent.  The portrait of Rusty in the strip on the left is nothing like that of a “generic boy,” and (unlike the face in the other drawing) his face shows real expression. Even though Rusty’s head is bigger in the Godwin image, Godwin was perfectly capable of drawing similarly detailed heads in less space. (On the other hand, I think it can be said that Godwin sometimes, perhaps often, left out details on small drawings.)

Dave Karlen has said, “Godwin’s richly textured compositions, meticulous cross-hatching, and attention to detail made this purely an artist’s strip.” I don’t know whether I am completely in agreement with Dave on that, but it was principally the art that set Rusty Riley apart from every other comic strip. It is difficult to name other strips that could semi-objectively be considered as good, art-wise, as Rusty Riley. (I’m sure, however, that some people would think that Salinas’s Cisco Kid, or Frazetta’s Johnny Comet, or Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon, or any of a number of others that could be mentioned, were or are as good.)

—Tom Sawyer

May 11, 2017

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