In the 1950s, millions of Americans followed the pastoral adventures of Timothy "Rusty" Riley, a fictional orphan boy on a fictional Central Kentucky horse farm outside the very real town of Lexington.
Rusty stopped crooks from doping a racehorse to rig the Selby Cup. He stayed up all night nursing a sick foal. He exposed Cherry Norton's scheme to trick Mr. Miles, his wealthy boss, into marrying her. He shared banana splits with his sweetheart, Patty, the boss's daughter.
Published in several hundred newspapers (including the Lexington Herald) from 1948 to 1959, the comic strip Rusty Riley was drawn by acclaimed book illustrator Frank Godwin. Godwin labored up to 10 hours a day rendering detailed pen-and-brush portraits of the Bluegrass.
Lexington readers initially complained to Godwin, who lived in New Hope, Pa., that he wasn't drawing their community accurately. So the artist made several trips over the next few years with his sketch pad, studying local farms and racetracks. The effort paid off.
"That was the greatest attraction for me, that Godwin captured the rural Kentucky landscape so well — the trees, the fences along old country roads, the barns, the Antebellum houses," said Dennis Wilcutt, 67, a retired bank president in Glasgow who collects Godwin's artwork. "That's the Kentucky that I remember from my own childhood."
King Features Syndicate canceled Rusty Riley after Godwin died of a heart attack in 1959. Six decades later, the comic strip is all but forgotten, even in the region it so lovingly depicted.
But a handful of Godwin fans want to revive interest in Rusty. Classic Comics Press has published a snazzy hardcover collection of the first two years of the three-panel daily strip. (The much larger Sunday strip offered separate story lines to accommodate newspapers that carried one but not the other.) Rusty Riley by Frank Godwin, Volume One Dailies 1948-1949 retails for $49.95.
Other artists say the book proves that Godwin was a master of his craft.
"Godwin delivers a beautifully realized and executed visual re-creation of what, even then, was a vanishing rural America, with rewards for the viewer that remain deep and profound to this day," comic book artist Howard Chaykin wrote in the collection's introduction.
In this series of Sunday strips from November 1954 to February 1955, someone attempts to fix a race in which our hero rides.
- Nov. 28, 1954
- Dec. 12, 1954
- Dec. 19, 1954
- Dec. 26, 1954
- Jan. 2, 1955
- Jan. 9, 1955
- Jan 16, 1955
- Jan. 23, 1955
- Jan. 30, 1955
- Feb. 6, 1955
- Feb. 13, 1955
The intricate lines and cross-hatching in every panel ofRusty Riley
gave depth to the landscape and character to human faces, said Jonathan Gilpin, 52, a Lexington native and comics art enthusiast.
"A modern comics artist is taught, 'For a beautiful woman, you don't want to put any lines on her face because you don't want to make her appear old and wrinkled, or sick and tired,'" Gilpin said. "But Frank Godwin knew how to make use of those lines."
Apart from the Rusty Riley strips, the book contains samples of Godwin's other work, including his painted book illustrations and his previous comic strip, Connie, featuring a feminist Jazz Age aviatrix. There also is an interview with Godwin's daughter, Diane, conducted by Wilcutt.
Chicago-based Classic Comics Press specializes in reprinting talented, obscure cartoonists of yesteryear, particularly those behind the adventure and romance serials that newspapers gradually replaced with simple gag-a-day strips that require less time to produce and space to present.
Several years ago, Classic Comics Press publisher Charles Pelto got a call from Wilcutt, who was one of his readers. Was Pelto familiar with the work of Godwin? A bit, he said. Would Pelto like to see more? Sure, he said. Wilcutt mailed Pelto a hefty batch of photo-copied Rusty Riley strips.
"I was absolutely blown away," Pelto said. Their plans for a Rusty Riley book began immediately.
"I really, really wish I had been able to find the originals or the production proofs rather than these copies," Pelto said. "Once we decided to do the book, it took me two or three years to produce it the way I wanted it. These were shot from copies of 60-year-old newspapers. I had to go through each one and clean it up with Photoshop. But in the end, they turned out really nice."
It's hard to locate original artwork from old comic strips, the actual oversize boards on which cartoonists put ink. Few people bothered to save them. Nobody realized that original comics art one day would be featured in museums and sell for thousands of dollars at auction. Even a complete set of old strips clipped from a newspaper and stuck in a scrapbook can be valuable.
"This was a disposable form of entertainment. You spent two or three minutes a day reading it and then you threw it out, and that was true of the original art, too," Pelto said. "You hear stories about the offices of King Features Syndicate, how they used Hal Foster's pages from Prince Valiant to cover the floor when they had a spill."
These days, there is so much interest in old comic strips that the reprint book market is getting too crowded for Classic Comics Press, Pelto said. He has sold only about half of the 1,000 copies he printed of the first volume of Rusty Riley strips from 1948 and 1949. He doesn't know whether he can justify the second volume, which would take the daily strips through 1951.
"The problem is, there are only so many customers for this sort of thing, and everyone is reprinting everything now," Pelto said.
Frank Godwin knew next to nothing about Kentucky horse farms when he started Rusty Riley.
The artist had just returned to the United States from living in Cuba, where his marriage fell apart. He liked drawing animals, though, and feeling at loose ends in a family way, he wanted to produce a strip that could include his son and daughter, who would become the models for Rusty and Patty.
As the strip began, young Rusty ran away from an orphanage to save Flip, his unlicensed mutt, from the county dog catcher. Rusty found a new home working as a stable boy at Milestone Farm for millionaire horseman Quentin Miles and horse trainer "Tex" Purdy.
In story lines that lasted no more than a few weeks, Rusty and friends solved mysteries, prevented crimes and rescued hapless victims, often involving some facet of the horse industry. Although the cast traveled widely, much of the action took place in and around Lexington. Godwin worked in local references, like the Plug Horse Derby, a one-day fair at The Red Mile that was popular after World War II.
Godwin's initial unfamiliarity with the Bluegrass showed. He placed Lexington near the state line. His Thoroughbreds sometimes looked more like ponies. Milestone Farm's barns were the ramshackle, wide-open kind where you parked tractors, not expensive racehorses.
But Godwin welcomed suggestions from his Lexington readers, who weren't shy about telling him when he erred. Escorted by Lexington Herald sports editor Ed Ashford, Godwin repeatedly toured Central Kentucky to learn the place and its people. For the remainder of Godwin's life, his new Kentucky friends received his hand-drawn Godwin family Christmas cards, including Gov. Earle C. Clements, who made him a Kentucky Colonel.
"He loved those visits," Godwin's daughter, Diane, told Wilcutt in their interview for the book. "He said if he was ever to move to the South, it would be to Kentucky.
"The people in Kentucky on the times he spent there were happy to have him visit, and they gave him carte blanche to visit all the horse farms, people and race horses, tracks, how they lived, barns, fields, stables, things like that," she said. "He got first-class treatment when he visited Kentucky. He wanted everything in Rusty Riley to be perfect."
Rusty Riley was an anachronism. Newspapers carrying the strip simultaneously had headlines about atomic bombs, the Korean War, urban housing shortages and civil rights protests. Yet, in Rusty's world, Kentuckians happily rode their horses over gentle hills, pausing to play an occasional song on guitar next to a campfire.
"You have to wonder if maybe this was the life that Frank Godwin thought should be lived — the slower-paced life of his youth," said Gilpin, the Lexington comics enthusiast. "And it might be that, in the 1950s, you had a large part of the audience that wanted to see a more soothing, supportive world that could help them to relieve their stress from dealing with modern society."
Popular as Rusty was, he didn't survive the death of his creator in August 1959 at age 69. The syndicate hired a fill-in artist to finish the last two Sunday episodes, although there was no grand resolution for the characters, not even a "The End" in the final panel. Today, only a few websites run by dedicated Godwin fans have anything to say about Rusty Riley.
"For such a high-quality, nationally syndicated strip, with Lexington as its stage, it's amazing that I didn't even know that it existed until a friend from a drawing class told me about it six or seven years ago," Gilpin said. "I guess we forget things pretty quickly."