Warren Tufts (1925-1982) was a self-taught artist and historian of the mid-19th Century Westward migration, and he combined both avocations into two of the most compelling and distinct adventure strips of the 1950s. In Casey Ruggles (1949-1954) and Lance (1955-1960) he brought visual and historical realism to an otherwise romanticized vision of the West that flourished in post-WWII pop culture. In Tuft’s West of the 1840s, settlers were as often selfish, greedy, cowardly, incompetent, sadistic and capriciously violent as they were an heroic forward guard of civilization and commerce. Tufts had a mixed view of human nature that allowed all of these qualities, good and bad, to coexist in many of his characters.
After short stints running radio stations and an ad agency, the California native decided he wanted to create a comic strip that captured his own boyhood enthusiasm for California history.. Tufts researched the Gold Rush thoroughly when preparing his pitch for Casey Ruggles, and his own childhood in that area of California was filled with lore. And so he was determined to bring the detail and challenging reality of the trek to this strip. This ironic take below on the technological sophistication of the revolver illustrates Tufts’ talent for weaving hard history with narrative. It is also worth noting Tufts’ early, clumsy attempt to depict female psychology. He got better, both at surfacing the psychological dimension of his characters and treating women as more than jealous romantics. But it is also true that like most Westerns, Casey Ruggles is essentially a contemplation of manhood, and especially the post-WWII cultural anxiety around over-civilization and perceived dwindling masculinity.
A native Californian raised on its historical lore, Tufts was passionate about educating his audience about the complexity and harshness of westward expansion. Casey Ruggles begins with the pre-Civil War California Gold Rush, and the first months of that strip are a wonderful immersion in the minutiae of the journey elided by genre westerns. We get an illustrated lesson in the tedium of loading the individual chambers of the earliest revolvers. We see how the earliest train rides were unsettlingly rough. Track ties would burst through passenger car floorboards. The engine would run out of fuel until passengers helped forage wood fuel from surrounding forests. And of course, the first crude boiler engines were prone to exploding. Tufts never lectured, however. He brought to the comics a strong sense of narrative pacing and characterization from years writing radio scripts, and was deft at weaving these bits of historical accuracy seamlessly into the story and adding to his
Tufts always seemed aware that he was framing his Western for an audience of 1950s suburbanites. In a post-war America steeped in new consumer comforts and abundance, rapid suburbanization, glamorized “space-age” technology, and a new corporate middle class of white collar managers, the Western genre flourished as a romantic counterpoint. In that sense, Casey Ruggles was at once the most authentic depiction of Westward expansion and the most modern. He seemed to understand why post-war America was embracing the genre, and so Tufts played with it knowingly. He brought to the Western comics genre a moral ambiguity that you find in Walter Clark’s The Ox-Bo Incident or Oakley Hall’s Warlock.
Early in the life of the strip, presumably when Tufts was still flush with his initial research, we get wonderful practical detail like the preparation for an Indian attack below. Throwing wet mud on shingled roofs to thwart flaming arrows and driving aiming and shooting holes into stone walls is a level of detail you will never see in comic and film oaters of the day. And yet, the untutored and inexperienced Tufts also showed a mastery of comic strip form that more experienced cartoonists lacked. He never lets that detail overwhelm the narrative. The final panel brings us back to the emoptional reality of the drama.
This is a wonderful panel sequence that illustrates Tufts’ mastery of angles, close-ups, timing, psychological realism. We hover around and then into Don Carlos’s thinking, which starts as argument and in the third ultra-close-up reveals itself to be mania. And the final panel pulls back to show the real world viscous consequences of that inner bitterness.
Tufts showed sympathy towards Native American grievances about their displacement and did not at all elide the vicious treatment too many tribes suffered at the hands of frontiersmen. And he projected the same mixed vision of human nature on these tribes, distinguishing between peaceful friends and violent warmongers.
Which is not to say Tufts thoroughly transcended the imperialist and often racist mythologies of the genre. He rarely doubts the native “savagery” of America’s natives, even if he acknowledges the injustice and brutality of their displacement. Many of his Mexican characters serve as comic relief. And his treatment of Black characters was ambivalent at best. While sometimes wise and integral characters in some storylines, Tufts can’t get beyond using illiterate dialect and natural servitude as his main tropes. Black servants are often heroic, but only insofar as they show servile loyalty to white masters.
To be sure, Tufts was more sophisticated than most of his pop culture peers in seeing moral complexity in all characters, even his ethnic types. Tufts’s conflicted view of human nature in Casey Ruggles was an extension of his views about nature altogether, which is itself a persistent force in the strip’s storyline and visual impact.
More than any other Western comic strip artist, Tufts understood nature as a main character in his melodrama. Visually he depicts its looming presence and often consumes the panel with wind and snow storms punishing his travelers. In an interview, he admitted to focusing on skyscapes, often identifying the vast and ever-changing Western airspace with “hope.”
Tufts commingled in nature beauty and brutality, as this color Sunday sequence embodies. He was raised on these western vistas, and he used color, framing and obsessive detailing to show the majesty of American landscapes. Aesthetically, one wonders if he was influenced by Ansel Adams’ high-contrast masterpieces of Southwestern photography. He similarly personifies his landscapes, depicting them with a sense of volition. But at the same time, Tufts is clear-eyed in depicting nature as indifferent to human suffering and random in meting out punishing conditions and disappointment.
Just as Tufts researched the Gold Rush vigorously, he also seems to have been a sponge of popular culture in all of its forms. The visual beauty of his panel progressions and point-of-view were deeply informed as much by his study of his hero Alex Raymond as they were by his love of film. He repositioned the “camera” thoughtfully across panels to heighten emotion, moved us in and out of faces to register passion, and pulled us back out to reestablish the social dynamic among the larger group of characters. In this sense he was very much of his era of “photo-realism” in 1950s adventure. While Alex Raymond (Rip Kirby), Leonard Starr (On Stage) and Stan Drake (The Heart of Juliet Jones) all adopted cinematic techniques in their strip to surface the psychological bent that was dominating 50s strips, Tufts was especially adept at using these techniques to make each daily a self-contained emotional scene,
And a singular strength of Casey Ruggles was Tufts’s imaginative range. He injected many genres into his Western. One storyline finds a half-man, half bird (“Aquila”) figure terrorizing settles and tribes. In another a mystical cult leader hypnotizes people into doing his criminal bidding. Some stories incorporated historical figures and incidents like the hunting of real life marauder Juan Soto. And he played with genre expectation. He satirized the popular romanticization of the Old West in the tale of the “Old Ancient,” a cranky incompetent who strikes a ridiculous figure trying to be a frontier tough guy. And in one weird storyline, Casey takes on a challenger for the title “King of the Horsemen.” But Casey and his rival end the sequence by racing out of town for good with no winner. “A heck of a way for a story to end,” comments one townsman in the final panel of the storyline. Crime, suspense, romance, satire, occult — all mainstays of pulp, radio, film serial fiction – found their way
In a memorable early tale, one schemer tries to hide his gold mine by erecting a saloon on top of it. When the mine tunnels and underground water weaken the ground, Tufts has the terrain literally swallow the saloon in a spectacular three day sequence.
Somehow Tufts got away with a remarkable explicitness. His liberal depiction of violence was neither gratuitous nor antiseptic. He had Raymond’s talent for visualizing fight and battle sequences with naturalistic dynamism. His warriors put their whole bodies into their punches, and the impact was palpable. Likewise, the violence had real emotional consequences in characters’ lives and the community. And he shows that violence with the intention of it having a similar impact on us. The villain Juan Soto is shot cleanly and in close-up through the forehead. A local tribe treats the marauding eagle-man Aquila as a god and stakes a half-naked woman from the tribe out as a human sacrifice. And this is the only instance I know where a fully exposed topless woman is depicted in the comics pages of American family newspapers. This was the gritty and raw frontier we would only see on screen over a decade later in the revisionist Westerns like Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch or Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller.
While Tufts played with and expanded the Western genre in daring ways for his time, Casey Ruggles remains grounded in the central masculine fantasy that animated the Western’s massive popularity in 1950s film and television. Like many “heroes” of the genre, Ruggles serves more as a moral mannequin than a recognizable person. He has the laudable, eccentric mastery over everything he tries and most people he meets, stated again and again in that boastful narrative style of the male adventure pulps. Women fall in love with him at first blush. Men recognize and obey his natural authority at first meeting. He out shoots, out rides and out smarts all comers. And he has no particular character of his own. He is Flash Gordon with six-guns. One of Tufts’s persistent conceits, both with Casey and later Lance, is having the hero teach bad men to be better men. The sequence with Don Carlos at the start of this piece is one example. As is always the case in male adventure, violence is cathartic, but the hero always makes clear that it is only justifiable in the service of order and morality, beyond which villainy lies. Finding ways to wrap male aggression and anger in honor and social order is pretty much the recipe for adventure fiction, from The Shadow to Jack Reacher. And Casey Ruggles is no different. The moral mission of the strip is not only bringing order to the Wild West but honorable manliness as well.