(In its October 2011 issue, True West published an interview with me in its popular What History Has Taught Me feature. The interview was well received, and I’ve heard from a number of the magazine’s readers since it appeared. However, True West–and virtually every other publication–edits its pages for content and space, and much of the original interview wound up on “the cutting room floor.”
For those of you who have asked to see the interview in its entirety, it is published herewith.)
On my father’s ranch I learned
to sit a horse, and to work cattle and sheep. I learned that no task was beneath me and that if a job needed doing somebody needed to do it. As the “kid” of the outfit that somebody was often me. “Whoever you work for, ” Dad said. “Make them a good hand.” That piece of parental advice became a work ethic that helped me to succeed even at jobs I didn’t like all that much.
We lived in every kind of dwelling
I was born in the very heart of the Great Depression. Jobs were hard to come by, and Dad considered himself fortunate to find work herding sheep at $30 a month on the open ranges of the Crow Indian Reservation in southeastern Montana. With my mother and myself, Dad followed the sheep to new grass and a variety of temporary homes–sheep wagons, tents, dugouts, cabins, and ranch houses.
The Inspiration for my first comic strip Rick O’Shay
As a small child I loved the comics. My parents read the daily strips and Sunday pages to me, and I thought they were magic! One day, when I was about five, I asked where comics came from and was told they were written and drawn by people called cartoonists. That revelation was a major epiphany for me. It had never occurred to me that a person actually wrote and drew comic strips; I guess I thought they were some kind of natural wonder, like Old Faithful or the Grand Canyon. Anyway, I resolved from that day to someday, somehow, become a cartoonist. I could imagine no better vocation.
I had little contact with other children in those pre-school years, and hung out instead with cowboys and ranch hands. I loved to listen to their stories, and the cowhands were my heroes. They took time to answer my questions, they played make-believe games with me, and tolerated my presence in their bunkhouses. My resolve to become a cartoonist added a refinement; I would be a cartoonist who wrote and drew about cowboys. Years later, my ambitions were realized; everything came together in Rick O’Shay.
Growing up my comic strip heroes were
Fred Harman’s western strip Red Ryder, Milt Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates, Al Capp’s Li’l Abner, and many others–but chiefly, Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant. The incredible artwork and color set a standard I admired and tried to emulate.
In the almost 20 years I did Rick O’Shay
the strip developed a devoted following. Readers wrote to say they were sure I’d based the fictional town of Conniption on their home towns. My gunfighter character Hipshot regularly received romantic mail, from little girls to women in their eighties and nineties. Men and boys wanted to be Hipshot. Followers found models for living and even for their spirituality in the strip’s story lines. Now, 34 years since I drew my last Rick O’Shay strip, I still hear from readers who grew up with the strip and not only read it for entertainment but also for its values. I don’t fully understand that level of devotion, but I am humbled and awed by it, and more grateful than I can say.
My second strip Latigo was inspired by
Shortly after leaving Rick O’Shay I was contacted by Field Newspaper Syndicate, who commissioned me to create a western strip for them. Latigo was the result, and the strip began its run in 1979 and grew to include just under 100 client newspapers nationally. The strip was well received by its readers, if not to the extent Rick O’Shay had been. The early years with Latigo were ironic in some ways. In 1979 some newspapers actually carried both Rick and Latigo on their comic pages! By 1983 the story strip had all but disappeared. Readers were not as willing to wait ten to thirteen weeks for a story to unfold in their daily newspapers. Mini-series on television told their stories in three or four nights and feature films told theirs in two hours. Gag-a-day strips would become the norm in newspapers, and story strips would fade out. Reluctantly, I retired Latigo and moved on to writing western fiction.
The two strips are different but…
Rick O’Shay began in 1958 as a humor strip and a satire. At a time when newspapers were casting a wary eye on the new medium of television, newspaper feature syndicates were all too happy to pick up a strip that might lampoon television programming. In that year the networks were saturated–there’s no other way to say it–with westerns. At least two dozen westerns ran each week on all the major networks, some well-written and produced, and some, in the apt phrase by Gary Cooper, were “easterns in big hats.” Rick O’Shay spoofed the formula westerns from the standpoint of the real west and its values, The strip evolved into a character-based story of the West, but balanced dramatic stories with humor, and has maintained devoted followers to the present day.
Latigo was different, necessarily, but similar as well. The qualities and icons that exemplify the western story carried the narrative, but the strip went beyond the traditional rustlers, train robbers, and bad men to the corporate greed of the nineteenth century robber barons who answered to no other law than the bottom line. Latigo wasn’t as somber as that might indicate, however. Like Rick O’Shay, the strip alternated between drama and humor.
I don’t miss
the man-killing schedule writing and drawing a daily strip requires. Producing six dailies and a Sunday page each week is something like shoveling coal on a freighter or trying to go up the down escalator. Required by contract to produce new and original material seven days a week for life, cartoonists who draw a daily strip compete against themselves.Their best ideas are used up at a steady, unforgiving rate, and unless they find a way to renew their muse (the muse to amuse?) they may begin to repeat themselves or suffer burnout. Still, the good outweighs the bad. After a nearly thirty-year career in cartooning I find it has been all I hoped it would be and more. As Montana’s own Charlie Russell put it long ago, “Any time I cash in now, I win.”
The best advice I ever got was
The main thing I’ve learned about good advice is that you seldom appreciate it until you’ve ignored it for awhile. There’s a great scene in the Robert Mitchum film The Lusty Men in which an old, broken down cowboy tells Mitchum “the trouble with books on success is they’re all written by successful men. Now if you had a book on success written by a failure, why then you’d really have something.”
I’ve certainly had my share of good advice, some of which I acted on to good effect, and some that I ignored to my regret. Some of that good advice was humorous but deeply wise, like another old cowboy who said, “Don’t like life too serious…you ain’t gettin’ out of it alive anyway.”
My dad always told me
I received a leather-bound autograph book for my twelfth birthday, and asked my dad to make the first entry. He looked at the page thoughtfully for a moment, and then drew a series of elk tracks diagonally across the page. Then he wrote, “As you go through life, you will make tracks. Be sure to make yours plain and clear.” Dad didn’t explain his entry, and I didn’t ask him to. But as I thought about it over the next several days I came to recognize it as fatherly advice and a lesson for life. “Live in such a way that you have nothing to conceal,” it seemed to say. “Leave your mark on the world boldly and clearly, with honesty and pride.”
I haven’t always followed Dad’s advice, but I have tried–with varying degrees of success–to make my tracks “plain and clear.”
My third strip, Grass Roots, was born
in the fall of 1984 as a self-syndicated feature for weekly newspapers, principally in the west. I believe that much of the national media–for a variety of reasons–seldom reflects the views and values of people in “grass roots” America, and my cartoon series was designed from the beginning to do just that. Through my characters Billy and Shag I set out to express the convictions and attitudes of the people who are the very heart of America, honest, hard-working folks who live out their lives, pay their taxes, raise good kids, worship together, and serve their communities without fuss or feathers.
The initial cartoons in 1984 and 1985 were set in the Old West, with Billy and Shag working for an old-time rancher. That first series dealt with contemporary issues and concerns, including inflation, gun control, agriculture, victims rights, child abuse, religion, patriotism, politics, pride and prejudice. The series was well received but failed to generate enough revenue to keep the wolf from the door. I took a break from cartooning for a time, doing some commercial illustration, oil painting, and writing.
With fellow cartoonist Barry McWilliams and long-time friend Jim Wempner, I spent the next few years promoting and organizing The Great Montana Centennial Cattle Drive, which celebrated the state’s cattle industry during the fall of 1989. From September 4-9, 100 drovers pushed 2,812 cattle 60 miles from Roundup to Billings, Montana, followed by 208 covered wagons, 3,337 horses for 2,397 people, and 79 horse wranglers. The drive received international news coverage and proved to be an unforgettable event for all who took part.
The person who has had faith in me from the beginning
is my wife, Lynda. I married Lynda Brown in 1989 and shared my stories with her. She must have been impressed. Lynda read a film treatment I’d written and instantly brought the same total commitment to my career as she has to our marriage and our blended families. Lynda encouraged me to write western fiction, we formed our own publishing company, and I began work on my first novel. We also produced a number of books reprinting cartoons from Rick O’Shay, Latigo, and Grass Roots. Her faith in me and my work has never wavered in the 22 years since. She has believed in me when I wasn’t all that confident myself!
In 1998 and 1999 we re-syndicated Grass Roots, once again offering the cartoon to weekly newspapers across the west and midwest. I expanded the cast–Billy and Shag worked for a contemporary cattleman with a weight problem–and the feature was placed in the present instead of the Old West. The cartoons and commentary were published by our company and are still available in book form at retail outlets and through our distributor, Mountain Press Publishing. The cartoons also appear weekly here on my blog.
I wrote my first novel in 1995
My first effort turned out to be a coming of age story of a boy’s struggle to deal with his father’s murder and to become a man. To my surprise, the book turned out to be a struggle as well. I’d been writing westerns all my life in one form or other, drawing on remembered incidents and people, research, and my own experience. Why, I wondered, was this story so difficult?
The answer, of course, is that a novel is different from a comic strip or screenplay. I realized I would have to put in some time and effort to learn the new form. I was not really such an old dog, but I would have to learn some new tricks. I was blessed to have a gifted writer as a friend and advocate. Author of the best-sellers Blood Red Wine and The Triton Ultimatum, Larry Delaney became my drill sergeant and mentor. Larry taught me how to give life to my writing and encouraged me to raise my standards. He helped me to become a novelist.
I continued to struggle with my coming of age story, and finally gave up and put it aside. I went back and re-read some of the western authors I most admired–A.B. Guthrie Jr., Dorothy M. Johnson, Ernest Haycox, Luke Short, Will Henry–and one day I heard a new voice inside my mind. The voice, it turned out, belonged to a young cowboy with a story to tell. The cowboy was Merlin Fanshaw, and his story became my first novel, The Bodacious Kid.
Since then six more books featuring Merlin’s adventures have been published, and the Kid has grown older and wiser with each one. I’ve been asked which of the books is my own favorite. I usually say, “The next one.”
The award I’m most proud of is
Western Writers of America’s 2009 SPUR Award for the original audio book of my novel Vendetta Canyon. The SPUR Awards, given annually for distinguished writing about the American West, are among the oldest and most prestigious awards in American literature. Receiving the award was especially gratifying because it was something of a double win. I not only wrote the novel but narrated the recording as well.
Of all the places I have lived, I love
Montana! Fourth largest state in the Union after Alaska, California, and Texas, Montana is long on beauty, rich in history and friendly independent people. Still under a million in population, Montana feels more like a community than a commonwealth. Its citizens like to say, “Montana is a small town…with long streets.”
Montana has blue ribbon trout streams and some of the best hunting and fishing in the world. It has prairies and lakes and includes all or part of two national parks. Best of all, from my point of view, Montana has mountains. Years ago, I drew a Sunday page featuring Rick and Hipshot riding in the high country. Rick was going on about all the famous and historic churches and cathedrals there are in the world and how they couldn’t compare to the beauty of the mountains. Hipshot agreed, but said, “Don’t be too hard on them man-made wonders. These mountains had a better architect.”
I love to
Sing! And I love all kinds of music, from classical to country, from opera to rock. Because my interest in things western is so strong, people are often surprised to learn that my taste in music is so broad. I especially enjoy the torch singers and crooners of the American Song Book, but especially the ladies of song: Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn, June Christy, Anita O’Day, and–on the country side–Patsy
Cline. Favorites on the current scene include Norah Jones and Margie Nelson. I’m neither talented nor good myself, but I certainly appreciate the great song stylists.
I am good enough to hold down a place in a church choir. Fortunately, most churches are desperate enough for singers to even allow me in!
What makes me laugh hardest are
Peter Sellers movies, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, comic strips Pogo, The Far Side, and Calvin and Hobbes. Cowboy poet Baxter Black, stand-up comics Richard Pryor and George Carlin. My grand-kids are usually good for a laugh, too!
History has taught me
that the times may change but not the people. We humans have long since discovered all the sins and virtues; we just keep on repeating them. But good will triumph over evil. How do I know?I’ve read the Book.