Monday, January 14, 2008

Frank Godwin's Rusty Riley

In 1948, after a successful seventeen year run on the beautiful comic strip, Connie, Frank Godwin decided to propose a new idea to King Features Syndicate about a young boy and his cow on a rural Kentucky farm. When King Features expressed interest in the feature, but with a horse instead, Rusty Riley was born. The first Rusty Riley daily debuted on January 26, 1948, by writer Rod Reed and illustrator Frank Godwin. A Sunday page was added on June 27 of the same year and was written by the artist's brother. Godwin used the blue grass section of the Kentucky hills as the setting for his new creation, depicting the adventures of a boy, who after running away from an orphanage with his feisty fox terrier, Flip, ended up deep in thoroughbred horse country. In search of adventure, Rusty comes upon wealthy racehorse owner, Mr. Miles, who hires the lad to be a stable boy on the celebrated Milestone Farm. Rusty eventually realizes his dream of becoming a first-rate jockey and over time, winning the Kentucky Derby on his beloved horse, Bright Blaze. The storylines continue with Rusty and his pals involved in horse breeding, amateur crime detection, foreign adventures, and even a little romance with his employer's daughter, Patty Miles.

Frank Godwin made two brief visits to Lexington in the late forties shortly after he began drawing the feature. The first trip was to get some background information and reference material for the strip. Godwin had always loved the beauty and grandeur of horses, but unfortunately had never made any detailed studies of them. He quickly made the mistake of picturing blue grass farms and their horses before he had seen any of them first hand. A few weeks after starting Rusty Riley, Godwin received some complaints from the locals that the barns, gates, and fences he drew, just didn't look like Kentucky barns, gates, and fences. Furthermore, some of his horses didn't even look like thoroughbreds, which they were supposed to be. Instead of ignoring these complaints, as some cartoonists might have done, Godwin made another trip to Lexington to visit his critics. For more than a week, he toured the central Kentucky horse farms, took pictures and made numerous sketches of the horses, fences, gates, barns, farm homes, horse cemeteries, country lanes, trees, and other references necessary to make his strip correct. He talked with the thoroughbred horsemen, standard-bred horsemen, saddle horsemen, racetrack officials and newspapermen to get all the information he needed. He also took many pictures in and around the Keeneland and Lexington Trotting Tracks, which were a couple of the sites he later used frequently in his comic strip. Godwin was now ready to make his strip better than ever.

Ed Ashford was the local reporter assigned to escort Godwin to the various places he wanted to visit on his stay in Lexington. He stated that Frank was so sincere in his desire to make Rusty Riley authentic in every way, that he bombarded him with questions by the score night and day. A lot of those questions were about little things that would appear to be of no consequence, but to Frank Godwin, they were all important. "It's those little things you get wrong that people notice," he said.

The following year, Godwin made a return trip to Lexington to attend the 1949 Plug Horse Derby. He enjoyed the event so much that Frank featured it several times in some of the most popular episodes of the strip. Over his many trips back to Kentucky, Godwin made a number of friends in Lexington and would never fail to remember them at the holidays. Every Christmas, from his home in New Hope, Pennsylvania, cleverly drawn personalized greeting cards from Frank and his wife, Georgiana, Rusty, and the whole comic gang went out to all his new friends down south. Frank would also draw local figures in the dailies like newspaper reporter Ashford, for a few days, and a week later Ed would receive letters from several of his old army buddies who were happy to have seen him, "in the funny papers."

One of the last great penman in the business, Godwin had forty years experience as an illustrator, painter, and cartoonist when he started his last great story strip. Being influenced by both James Montgomery Flagg and Charles Dana Gibson, he developed his own unique style in his ability to create tones and especially facial characteristics with his pen and brush. His skill at portraying recognizable and realistic characters, animals, and lush outdoor scenes made Rusty Riley one of the most beautiful comic strips ever produced. Using every panel to its fullest, Godwin's richly textured compositions, meticulous cross-hatching, and attention to detail made this purely an artist's strip. After a wonderful eleven year run and appearing in more than one hundred-fifty newspapers, the feature ended in 1959, just a few weeks before Godwin's death.

I remember the first Rusty Riley I ever saw was a wonderful Sunday page with a birthday party in which the cook burned the cake and smoke curled out the oven. I was amazed by the amount of work and realistic effect down to every last delicate brush stroke wisp of smoke. That piece alone quickly helped me change my focus from collecting comic book art to the photorealistic illustration of classic story strips. My search for new examples of Godwin's work fortunately lead me to Godwin's family and my chance to represent his estate in selling some of his works. A family member related how they had recently discovered a large collection of dailies in the attic of the old Godwin estate when cleaning it out in preparation to sell the home. They were giving the originals away at church raffles and carnivals and trying to sell them in garage sales. The family was surprised that there was still interest in comic strips that ended over forty-two years ago, but were happy to sell these newly found examples to Godwin's many fans. Unfortunately, in their extensive search, none of the rare Connie strips were found and very few paintings or illustrations have survived. After a few years of successful sales, the family decided to keep the remainder of the collection. Surely, Godwin should be remembered as one of the premier penman of his day, a man who could perform miracles with brush and ink. Anyone with a Frank Godwin piece would have to agree he was one of the finest illustrators of our time and a rare talent to have worked in the comics' field.


Scott Dunbier said...

Thanks for another interesting and informative posting, Dave.

Lee said...

Great Post. Especially since so few of the younger generation (myself included) knows about strip art.

Keep up the good work!

Dave Karlen said...

Thank you both for the kind words, I'm glad you enjoy the post as much as I like writing them.

Super Edco said...

Wow, he is fantastic. New to me, but I love the fact that I can still be shown talent unknown to me every now and again. Thanks for the insight and discovery!

Mike Lynch said...

After seeing Godwin painting with those ink stokes, and just marveling at his work -- I really gotta wonder why he's not in print. Godwin deserves to be lionized along with Caniff, Foster, Sickles (who is finally getting a reprint of his work this year), Raymond, etc.

Thanks for this, Dave!