Fred Harman is one of the best known American western artists, famous for his comic series 'Red Ryder and Little Beaver' as well as his many paintings of the Wild West. He was born 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 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 joined 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. In 1934 he created his first comic strip, 'Bronc Peeler', which he syndicated himself until 1938. This western strip featured a blond cowboy, Bronc Peeler, and his sidekick Coyote Pete. Only a few newspapers were willing to publish it.
After moving to New York Harman briefly succeeded Allen Dean as the artist of 'King of the Royal Mounted', but failed to meet expectations. At the initiative of Fred Ferguson, president of the Newspaper Enterprise Association, Harman was assigned to create a new western strip for his syndicate. 'Red Ryder' debuted in 1938, with Stephen Slesinger as a scriptwriter. In 1938 and the early 1940s, Gaylord DuBois also wrote some scripts.
The title character of 'Red Ryder' was basically the same blond cowboy from 'Bronc Peeler', but with a new sidekick: the little Native American boy Little Beaver, who also originated in 'Bronc Peeler'. Both live on a ranch together with Red's trusty horse Thunder, his assertive aunt "the Duchess", his love interest Beth and ranch hand Buckskin Blodgett. 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. Comic books were published by Hawley Publications and later Dell Comics. Its popularity 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. 'Red Ryder' was published in over 750 newspapers worldwide and translated in ten different languages.
It was a huge inspiration for several other western comics, including many from Europe, where 'Red Ryder' ran in Spirou magazine for twelve years. When the US comic pages couldn't reach the publication during World War II, local artist Jijé filled in on the running story. It was his first experience with the realistic western genre, that he would further explore in his own 'Jerry Spring' series. 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. The strip also inspired Berck, Frank Frazetta, and Kamagurka and Herr Seele's 'Cowboy Henk'.
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.
Painting by Fred Harman
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 in 1950, © Denver Post