Lance: Warren Tufts’ Beautiful…Strange America

Lance (1955-60) was Warren Tufts’ masterful exploration of mid-19th Century American expansion, and it remains among the most breathtaking uses of the newspaper comics medium in its history. Tufts, who had previously fictionalized the Gold Rush in his wonderful Casey Ruggles (1949-55), was a self-taught savant of realistic illustration and frontier history. Lance embodies some of the signature qualities of the American newspaper strip. Visually, and much like Winsor McCay, Cliff Sterrett, Frank King, Hal Foster and Alex Raymond before him, and scouted new ways of using the full-page Sunday format and especially color to evoke emotions and a sense of place. And like Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy, Percy Crosby’s Skippy and Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie, Tufts’ rendered a highly personal, idiosyncratic and often weird vision of America and humanity. Lance demonstrates how such individual and offbeat perspectives were still possible in the comic strip format, and could make this medium much different from other modern mass media that had become corporatized and collaborative.

Lance is set during the Westward Expansion and specifically between 1834-1847 when Native Americans were being pushed and battled regularly from military outposts like Lance’s base in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Tufts often used accurate historical detail and events, even people like Kit Carson, to endow the strip with the same kind of authenticity as its predecessor Casey Ruggles. And while we certainly wouldn’t mistake him for a post-colonialist progressive, Tufts brought a more nuanced view to the Western than most of the genre in the 1950s. His settlers were as greedy as they were nobly ambitious, prejudiced and backward as they were pioneering. He showed a particularly sensitive understanding of Indian tribal differences, traditions and grievances with U.S. tactics. At the same time, Tufts could trade in horrendous stereotyping. His depiction of the Black servant class usually descends into a bizarre melange of bad dialect, Mammy tropes and servile devotion that I guess he thinks is laudable.

At the center of this weird and beautiful strip is Lance St. Lorne, a cavalry officer who is of course in the post-WWII mold of masculine icon. He is as much institutional loyalist as he is renegade, headstrong adventurer – a uniformed hard-driving daredevil who thrills to danger.” His superiors are inevitably vain and clueless, and his frequent defiance of direct orders ultimately proves correct…and quickly forgiven.

Like most post-WWII Westerns, Lance is driven by fantasies of a lost masculinity. In Tufts’ case, however, proper manhood is one of his hero’s main tropes. As in Casey Ruggles, Lance teaching wayward men he meets along the way lessons in “being a man” seems to be as compelling a mission as settling the West. And the masculinity theme takes decidedly strange paths. In one early episode, a sallow, clearly effeminate and intellectual journalist brings his new wife to the frontier fort. Both the U.S. troops and the nearby native tribe become ridiculously unnerved by the presence of a woman, and the husband’s antics lead to a misunderstanding with the tribal chief, who comes to believe he has “purchased” the woman as his own. Indeed, Tufts’ plots get that odd. In the end, and after being kidnapped by the tribe, the young wife decides to remain an Indian maiden because it keeps the peace and is better than returning to her increasingly mad husband. In another sequence, Lance is called upon to defend the honor of a young lady whose father has sold her marital contract to a villainous rival in order to finance an attempt to undermine that enemy’s exploitive business practices. Which is to say that Lance is often energized by extreme, misfired ideas of male and female honor and propriety. It gives the strip an eccentricity that reminds me of Annie and Tracy. Gray’s populist argument for 30s America and Tracy’s surrealist approaches to character. This, too, is a highly personal vision of American culture that may not hav been possible in the collaborative media of film, radio and TV but remained expressible perhaps only in the comic strip, novel and essay media of mid-century America.

Tufts himself appreciated the traditions of eccentric tall-tale-tellng in American folklore. He had been raised on such things. He spent his childhood near key sites in California’s Gold Rush history, and he was acquainted with both its history and fable. When Lance’s friend and traveling companion “mountain man” Big Fallon recounts his own history, Tufts devotes a full Sunday number to visually depicting the comic realism of the frontier boast, while also demonstrating how that fabulism came from the frontier itself.

Tufts’ respect for American frontier history, as well as its fantasy, made Lance one of the richest and most gratifying expressions of the Western genre in a decade where film and TV screens were often dominated by hackneyed, a-historical plots, unreal heroism and imperialist jingo.

More than anything else, Tufts’ Lance visualized both the majesty and danger of the American land like no one before or since. He took Hal Foster and Alex Raymond as his guides to what was possible on the comics page, but he also brought to the medium the same attention to American landscape, light, color and spirituality that informed John Ford, Ansel Adams, Georgia O’Keefe. The Sunday below from May 27, 1956 is among the most beautiful I have seen.

This scan, even from the pristine restorations in the recent Classic Comics reprint of Lance, can’t do justice to what Tufts was trying to achieve here. For several weeks in that period he was minimizing his reliance on cartoonish outlines and relying on color washes and tonal changes to build his scenes. In that magnificent second panel his uses of blurred lines and earthen palette can make you wipe sand from your eyes. And in that concluding panel Tufts brings all of his mastery of color, detail, depth to dramatize for the viewer the “canyon’s savage majesty, its awesome power.”

Tufts was able to achieve some of these effects not only because of his technical skills and understanding of the newspaper technology, but because of Lance’s unique business model. Unlike the vast majority of comics strips in major papers, Lance was self-syndicated. Tufts, and especially his father, went paper to paper selling and distributing the strip rather than work through one of the major syndicates. That gave Tufts an extraordinary amount of control over the content as well as the final appearance of the strip in different papers. According to an interview with him later in life, Tufts was aware that certain client newspapers had superior printing capabilities and so he would send those papers enhanced proofs designed to make the most of their better presses and processes.

Tufts showed genuine understanding and respect for the mythologies around American individualism, and he was himself an example of it. His take on the Western genre in both Casey Ruggles and Lance were historically rigorous but also imaginative and idiosyncratic, even strange. Like all Westerns these strips served as eulogies and modernist fantasies of some lost age of individualism, self-reliance and manhood. But they are also good examples of a unique capability of the newspaper comic strip to render a highly personal and singular view of the world. Ironically, the newspaper strip was among the most heavily controlled and deliberately uncontroversial mass media. Publishers relied on the comics page to be broadly appealing, inoffensive, “family-oriented” in order to maximize circulation. Al Capp complained that newspaper and syndicate editors kept too tight and censorious a rein on artists, discouraging any strips that that seemed edgy or controversial. There are famous incidents when Gray’s Orphan Annie, Kelly’s Pogo and Trudeau’s Doonesbury had story lines pulled by local editors because of explicitly political content. Capp himself was threatened by Margaret Mitchell’s lawyers over his Gone With the Wind parody and had to apologize. And to be sure, the economics and ideology of corporatist newspaper publishing ensured that the the comic strip medium worked within a narrow, policed lane of creative possibilities that most often led to bland and unimaginative product.

Those constraints notwithstanding, the comics medium through much of the 20th century was genuinely auteurist. It reflected a personal imagination and vision, in story, characterization and graphic style. And this stood against most of the other mass produced media forms of the century, which were even more standardized and collaborative. That simple truth about the newspaper strip I think goes a long way in explaining readers’ special devotion to specific artists and characters. The comic strip communicated on a special level of intimacy and connection between artist and viewer/reader. Every comic strip artist had to build a world visually from the bottom up, with its own sense of atmosphere, aesthetic, level of realism or abstraction, physics and even gravity. And they were quite different. Any comics page from most eras reflect a cacophony of such “visual voices.” Whatever its overarching industrial constrains, even a cursory glance at comics page that includes the graphic rendering of the world by Capp, Young, Raymond, Kelly, Bushmiller, Caniff, Schulz, Goldberg, Ketchum, etc. dramatize a kind of democratic energy. It is fascinating to me that this explosion of visual voices, all contained by rigorous panels, came to occupy the last page of most newspapers, even if for many it was the first thing they read. The comics came after a progression that usually opened with the political (institutional) then moved to local (civics and community), business (local, commercial), sports and entertainment (tribal/taste groups). Most of the newspaper was about public, political, commercial and social community, all appealing to our connections to the larger outer world. Perhaps, the comics was a kind of counterpoint on multiple levels. The subject matter turned inward, focusing on personal interactions among characters and familiar domestic relations. But its mode of address was decidedly more intimate and individual than all that came before it each day, a gentle insistence on shared humanity.

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