Red Ryder comic panel (dutch version) by Fred Harman

Fred Harman was an American comics artist, most famous for his western comics 'Bronc Peeler' (1933-1938) and 'Red Ryder' (1938-1965). He was a master in creating atmospheric and captivating adventure stories. Particularly his signature series 'Red Ryder' inspired a stream of merchandising, including radio and film adaptations. The adventures of Red Ryder and his Native American sidekick Little Beaver were also popular in translation, particularly in Europe, where they influenced several similar western comics. Harman was furthermore an accomplished painter of Wild West-themed landscapes. 

Early life and career
He was born in 1902 in St. Joseph, Missouri and raised on a ranch in Pagosa Springs in Colorado, near the New Mexican border. His brother was Hugh Harman, the later co-founder of the animation department of Warner Brothers, originally titled the Harman-Ising Studios. The family moved to Kansas City in 1920, where Fred Harman took on a short-lived cartooning career at the Star, despite never having any formal art training. In 1921, he and his brother Hugh Harman got a job at the Kansas City Film Ad Company, working alongside future animation legends Walt Disney, Ub Iwerks and Friz Freleng. They mostly made animated shorts for advertising purposes. Harman also worked for Disney's Laugh-O-Gram Studio, but both enterprises went bankrupt. In 1924 Harman got a job as illustrator at Artcrafts Engraving Company and also painted and designed film costumes. Most of his business initiatives in California, Minnesota and Iowa failed. 

Harman
The Kansas City Film and Ad Co. in 1922. Fred Harman is on the far left, with Walt Disney sitting next to him.

Bronc Peeler
In 1933 (some sources claim 1934) Harman created his first comic strip, 'Bronc Peeler'. The title hero, Bronc Peeler, is a red-haired cowboy who works on a ranch in Colorado, alongside his rough, moustached but somewhat dim-witted sidekick Coyote Pete. Bronc's love interest is Babs, who nevertheless has to cope with the fact that Bronc often goes out on adventure for several months. Contrary to most western comics, 'Bronc Peeler' wasn't set in the days of the Wild West but in the present time. Bronc and Pete still rode horses to catch cattle thieves or bank robbers, but also drove cars or aeroplanes, if necessary. Certain episodes turned them into FBI informants and others brought them to a lost Aztec Empire in Mexico. On 7 October 1934 'Bronc Peeler' received a Sunday page too. The Sunday strip came with a companion panel, 'On The Range', describing western life and culture, also written and illustrated by Harman.

Bronc Peeler, by Fred Harman
'Bronc Peeler'.

Harman syndicated 'Bronc Peeler' all by himself, since only a few newspapers wanted to publish it. The humorous western adventure comic strip appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and the Philadelphia Record, among other papers. The low circulation also explains why the reproduction of his drawings often looked muddled. The printing wasn't fit for his delicate drawing style and colour schemes. Though it must also be said that Harman was still an amateur back then and thus unaware of printing techniques that would suit his work better. In 1935 the Western Newspaper Union redistributed the dailies to various weekly newspapers too, increasing his audience considerably. From 26 April 1937 on, 'Bronc Peeler' was syndicated by the John F. Dille Company. The same year the book 'Bronc Peeler, the Lone Cowboy' was published in the Big Little Book series. Following his wife's advice, Harman eventually dropped Coyote Pete from the comic and replaced him by a little Native American boy named Little Beaver in the hope of attracting more children among his readers. Yet by 10 April 1938 the Sunday pages were discontinued and by 2 July the daily adventures of 'Bronc Peeler' ended as well. 

King of the Royal Mounted
After moving to New York, Harman briefly succeeded Allen Dean as the artist of 'King of the Royal Mounted'. The adventures of Sergeant King, a Canadian mountie "who always got his man" had been popular for a while, but by April 1938 Dean wanted to retire. At first Harman tried to continue the series, but he failed to meet expectations. His successor was Dean's assistant Charles Flanders, but from 1939 'King of the Royal Mounted' was continued by Jim Gary until February 1954. For Harman this brief excursion into a different comics series wasn't a total waste of time, though, because it brought him in contact with scriptwriter Stephen Slesinger, while Gary would become an assistant for his next comic strip: 'Red Ryder'. 

Red Ryder, by Fred Harman (1945)

Red Ryder
At the initiative of Fred Ferguson, president of the Newspaper Enterprise Association, Harman was assigned to create a new western strip for his syndicate. On 6 November 1938 'Red Ryder' (1938-1965) made its debut as a Sunday comic. From 27 March 1939 on it became a daily comic too. Stephen Slesinger - who also wrote 'King of the Royal Mounted' - was scriptwriter, though in the late 1930s and early 1940s Gaylord DuBois also penned some narratives, as did Russ Winterbotham. 'Red Ryder' was in some ways a hangover of 'Bronc Peeler'. The title character, Red Ryder, was a similar handsome cowboy hero, though with blond hair instead of red. Little Beaver remained on board as his sidekick and adopted son. All action was once again set on a ranch in Colorado, where Red is accompanied by his trusty horse Thunder, his assertive aunt "the Duchess" and ranch hand Buckskin Blodgett. Red also had a sweetheart, Beth. A main difference, however, was that the stories were now set in the 1890s, during the mythologized era of the Wild West. The tone was different too. Just like 'Bronc Peeler', 'Red Ryder' is a humoristic adventure comic, but more realistic and less aimed at children. In some episodes Red, for instance, merely wants to earn some money and isn't motivated by a moral compass. The stories are exciting and well-paced, with lots of action and suspenseful cliffhangers. Thanks to Harman's firsthand experience with ranch life he was able to portray Red's daily adventures with accurate precision. And since he grew up in Colorado he had no trouble making all backgrounds look believable. A final comparison between the two comics was that 'Red Ryder' also came with an educational panel, 'Red Ryder's Corral of Western Lingo'. 

Red Ryder, by Fred Harman

Merchandising
Another major difference between 'Red Ryder' and Harman's previous comic was that 'Red Ryder' actually became a huge hit. Between 1940 and 1956 a 'Red Ryder' comic book series was published by Hawley Publications and later Dell Comics/Western Publishing, accompanied between 1949 and 1958 by several solo comic books about 'Little Beaver'. These books featured mostly reprints of the newspaper stories, but also original stories illustrated by Western Publishing's house artists, such as Tony DiPaola, Tony Sgroi, Sparky Moore, August Lenox, Dan Spiegle and John Ushler, while Dick Calkins was involved as a writer. Red Ryder's popularity also inspired a radio series (1942-1951), a film serial (1940-1950) and many toys, of which the Red Ryder BB gun remains the most iconic. Daisy Air Rifles also manufactured a Red Ryder air rifle.

Red Ryder comic book cover by Fred HarmanRed Ryder by Dupuis
A U.S. 'Red Ryder' comic book by Dell Comics, and a European comic album by Éditions Dupuis.

Influence
'Red Ryder' was published in over 750 newspapers worldwide and translated in ten different languages. In Belgium 'Red Ryder' ran in Spirou magazine as 'Cavalier Rouge' for twelve years, while in their Dutch-language sister magazine Robbedoes it appeared under the title 'De Roode Ruiter'. During World War II, when the US comic pages couldn't reach the publication, local artist Jijé created new episodes, imagining how the interrupted story might continue? It was his first experience with the realistic western genre, which he would further explore in his own 'Jerry Spring' series. Willy Vandersteen's western comic series 'Bessy' (1954-1997) featured educational intermezzos much like 'Red Ryder', though in his case right in the middle of the adventure itself. In the album 'Lucky Luke contre Joss Jamon' by Morris (1958), Red and Little Beaver have a brief cameo as villagers held at gun point by Jamon's gang. In fact: 'Red Ryder' was so popular in Turkey in the 1950s that the Turkish version of 'Lucky Luke' was named 'Red Kit', as a nod to the series!  'Red Ryder' also inspired Berck, Frank Frazetta, and (more ironically) Kamagurka and Herr Seele's 'Cowboy Henk'.

Retirement from comics
Harman returned to Pagosa Springs in 1940, where he founded the Red Ryder Ranch. He became a painter of western scenes and one of the founders of the Cowboy Artists of America. Throughout the years, he regularly handed over art duties on his strip to ghost artists like Jim Gary, John Wade Hampton and Edmond Good. Harman continued to work on 'Red Ryder' until 1960, when he handed the strip over to Bob MacLeod. MacLeod continued Red's adventures until 30 September 1965. 

Painting by Fred Harman
Painting by Fred Harman.

Final years, death and legacy
Harman then focused on painting, which he continued to do until his death in 1982. His comic creation lives on in an annual weekend event in Pagosa Springs called the "Red Ryder Round-Up". The city also harbors a museum dedicated to the character.

Fred Harman
Fred Harman in 1950, © Denver Post.

www.HarmanArtMuseum.com

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