Fred Harman photoAnother story about Fred Harman has to do with the syndication of his strip, Red Ryder. Through the mid-1930s, Harman had been self-syndicating a cowboy strip entitled Bronc Peeler, a lanky dude with a Native American kid as sidekick. Named Little Beaver, the Indian kid was a thoroughly stereotypical pidgin-speaking character, but in the thirties and forties, our culture was tolerant of such ethnic abuses. Self-syndication wasn’t working out all that well (to make a longer story shorter; for the longer version, visit the Usual Place for Harv’s Hindsight for August 2004, where the whole history of Harman and his cartooning is unveiled), and Harman abandoned his creation in 1938 after a five-year run.

Harman's break came that year shortly after he had illustrated a Big Little Book, Cowboy Lingo, for Whitman Publishing Company. Sam Lowe, Whitman's president, liked Harman's work and recommended an agent in New York, Stephen Slesinger. Slesinger had an assignment for Harman, illustrating a book about cowboys and Indians, and Harman promptly moved to New York and joined Slesinger's art staff, leaving Bronc Peeler turning slowly in the desert wind.

While on staff, Harman may have tried out to draw King of the Royal Mounted, a comic strip produced by Slesinger. But he soon found his metier elsewhere. That summer, as Harman tells it, "Fred Ferguson, president of Scripps Howard's NEA newspaper syndicate, came into the office inquiring about a Fred Harman he had heard about who drew a Little Beaver cartoon. When I stuck out my eager paw and said, 'Howdy — I'm Fred Harman,' he dang near lost his voice in surprise."

At Ferguson's instigation, Harman created a sample Sunday comic strip in which Bronc Peeler was transformed into Red Ryder, and Slesinger negotiated a ten-year contract with NEA. Red Ryder debuted on Sunday, November 6, 1938, its raw-boned redheaded hero in his signature red shirt, white wide-brimmed low-crown hat, and chaps; a daily strip started March 27, 1939.


But this success story has an unhappy underpinning: in arranging the deal with NEA, Slesinger negotiated a 51% ownership of the strip for himself. Harman and the syndicate would split the remaining 49% of revenue. And in that unusual circumstance, Red Ryder was doomed.

The strip was popular enough to provide Harman with a good living, but he aspired to be a painter of the West not a cartoonist. He did Red Ryder for a dozen years or so before his other aspiration got the better of him. In order to pursue his fond dream, he began hiring various artists to draw the strip. He continued to write it for a time, but when he finally wanted to abandon all involvement with the strip except for collecting his 24.5%, he was unable to find anyone who would take it over for that pittance that the Slesinger Deal left for the people who actually produced the strip. So Harman let the strip die in the midst of a still-healthy circulation. And he took up painting in earnest, becoming one of the founding members of the Cowboy Artists of America.

When Slesinger died, the cartoonist’s son told me, his father was present as Slesinger’s staff, including his wife Shirley, went through his papers. They found therein a letter signed by Slesinger, in which he gives back to Harman his, Slesinger’s, 51%.

As Harman contemplated this happy outcome, Shirley said, “Well, good. Let’s go to lunch.”

When they returned from their repast, the letter had disappeared.

Slesinger’s heirs, mostly Shirley, still owned 51% of Red Ryder.

Meanwhile, Harman was active in the Cowboy Artists of America. And he could have been the association’s first president, his son told me. He won the election, but another of the founders, his friend George Phippen, had been a candidate and came in second. Phippen had cancer and everyone knew he hadn’t long to live. Harman declined the presidency in order that Phippen could be the first prez and have that legacy when he passed on.

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