Tumbleweeds, by Tom K. Ryan 1971

Tom K. Ryan was an American cartoonist and the creator of the long-running gag-a-day western spoof 'Tumbleweeds' (1965-2007). With a publication history in American newspapers for over 42 years, it was one of the longest-running western comics made continuously by the same author. 'Tumbleweeds' was remarkable for its large cast of characters and deadpan humor.

Early life
Thomas K. Ryan was born in 1926 in Anderson, Indiana, and developed an early interest in drawing. He received basketball scholarships, but instead attended both Notre Dame University and the University of Cincinatti. The young man held several odd jobs before venturing into commercial art, designing football helmets, but also drawing editorial and sports cartoons for local newspapers. Although largely self-taught, he took a correspondence course in art to finetune his skills. Out of boredom he began reading western literature, and before he knew it, he was captivated by the tales of the Old West. As the genre was omnipresent at the time, Ryan got the idea to poke fun at all the western clichés and stereotypes in his own comic strip.

Outlaw Snake-Eyes McFoul and his twelve(!) year old kid brother Snookie (6 July 1971).

Publication history
'Tumbleweeds' was picked up by impresario Lew Little, who syndicated the first strips through his Lew Little Syndicate from 6 September 1965 on. It then moved along with Little when he served as editor/manager/director at the Register and Tribune Syndicate (1967-1972), King Features Syndicate (1972-1977), United Feature Syndicate (1977-1980) and Field Enterprises (1980-1986). The latter was acquired by King Features in 1986, and 'Tumbleweeds' was distributed by the subsidiary label North America Syndicate until the end of its run in 2007.

'Tumbleweeds', 2 October 1977.

Ryan, who signed with "T.K. Ryan", named his title hero after the dried out pieces of plants which tumble away in the wind, a symbol often used in movies to illustrate the desolate and dry plains of the Western frontier. The tumbleweed was also a perfect fit for the strip's dry wit and the stoic expressions of the comic's large cast. Ryan tackled every cliché in the 49 or 50 inhabitants of Grimy Gulch; the exact population depended on whether the town bandit Snake-Eye McFoul was around for a little bankrobbing or killing. Title hero Tumbleweeds is a cowboy, but that is the only resemblance between him and his more gritty movie colleagues. Unmotivated, laconic, wandering... even Tumbleweeds' (second) horse, an army reject, prefers chewing tobacco and drinking booze rather than roam the prairies. Still Grimy Gulch's only (known) woman, Hildegard Hamhocker, lingers for Tumbleweeds' affections. The town also houses the innocent-looking orphan girl Echo, who is accompanied by Pajamas, the laziest dog of the West (not counting Rantanplan in Morris' 'Lucky Luke'). The law is enforced by the sheriff, the Texas lawman Quiet Burp and Deputy Knuckles, who walks around with a yo-yo instead of a gun. Grimy Gulch of course also has its fair share of businessmen and public servants, including saloon keeper Blackie, newspaper editor Grover Galley, hangman Hogarth Hemp, undertaker Claude Clay and his gravedigger Wart Wimble, and the pompous Judge Horatio Curmudgeon Frump. Outside of the city borders we find the Poohawk tribe, with even more colorful characters, and Fort Ridiculous, homebase of the 6 7/8 Cavalry.

'Tumbleweeds', 18 December 1983.

Style and inspiration
Much of the comic's humor came from its silly dialogues and the artist's hilariously stylized characters, both the humans and the animals. Ryan's style can be best compared to Johnny Hart of 'B.C.' fame. Ryan worked six days a week, initially from a second floor studio, but from 1977 from his house in Muncie, Indiana. In an interview with the Logansport Pharos-Tribune of 28 December 1977, Ryan said he got his ideas while reading, or watching television. An unusual word could also trigger his imagination. The artist also tried to study his audience, which ranged from college age to 30 years old, to keep his comic relevant. Although his depictions could be considered stereotypical nowadays, Ryan had a large following among Native Americans because of his respectful use of these characters. The strip was therefore published in the Pacific Northwest, a newspaper of the Nez Percé, which was distributed among several tribes. The cartoonist also had the pleasure of seeing his undertaker Claude Clay inducted into the Arizona Funeral Home Directors Association.

'Tumbleweeds' was collected in several paperbacks over the years by Fawcett's Gold Medal Books imprint, and has also known some interesting adaptations in other media. It was featured in the first episode of 'The Fabulous Funnies' (1978), an animated TV series with heroes from popular newspaper comics. 'Tumbleweeds' was however removed from the show when Filmation learned they didn't have the rights to the title. It was nevertheless present in the 1980 TV special 'The Fantastic Funnies' with animation under production of Bill Melendez. In Las Vegas, T.K. Ryan's creations were part of an attraction in the MGM Grand Adventures Theme Park as well as a 1984 stage show. 'Tumbleweeds' was furthermore adapted into a musical comedy for high school productions in 1983.

'Tumbleweeds' ran in over 300 newspapers and was translated in many languages. In Dutch the series was known as 'Jippie'. 

Final years and death
In 2007 Tom K. Ryan announced his retirement. The final episode of 'Tumbleweeds' appeared on 30 December of that year. Ryan had written and drawn the strip all by himself for an impressive 42 years, although between 1969 and 1978 he was assisted by 'Garfield' creator Jim Davis. Tom K. Ryan passed away on 12 March 2019, at the age of 92.

Tumbleweeds, by Tom Ryan
'Tumbleweeds', 21 October 1983.


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