About the author:
Dave Karlen practices law, but still finds time to write about his favorite art subjects in various publications. His collecting habits run toward the slick, illustrative style in all genres of original art. Primarily, his focus of late has been news-paper adventure strips, paperback covers and interior illustrations. Dave can be contacted at:
or through his website:
In 1948, after a successful seventeen year run on the Connie comic strip, Frank Godwin decided to propose a new idea to King Features Syndicate about a little boy and a cow on a farm. King Features expressed interest in a comic strip about a horse instead and so, Rusty Riley was born.
The first Rusty Riley daily was introduced on January 26, 1948 by writer Rod Reed and artist Frank Godwin. A Sunday page was added on June 27 of the same year and was written by Godwin's brother, Harold. Godwin used the Blue Grass section of Kentucky as the setting for his new creation depicting the adventures of a young boy who, after running away from an orphanage with his fox terrier, Flip, ended up in thoroughbred horse country. In search of adventure, the boy comes upon a wealthy racehorse owner, Mr. Miles of Milestone Farm. He soon hires Rusty to be his stable boy and he eventually realizes his dream of becoming a jockey and winning the Kentucky Derby on his horse, Bright Blaze. The story lines continue with Rusty involved in horse breeding, amateur crime detection, foreign adventures, and even romance with his employer's daughter, Patty Miles.
Godwin made two trips to Lexington in the late-Forties shortly after he began drawing the strip. The first trip was to get some background information for the strip. Godwin had always loved horses, but never made a detailed study of them. He quickly made the mistake of picturing Blue Grass farms and horses before he had seen any of them first hand. A few weeks after starting Rusty Riley, Godwin received some complaints from the locals that the barns, gates, and fences he drew didn't look like Kentucky barns, gates, and fences. Furthermore, some of his horses didn't look like thoroughbreds, which they were supposed to be. Instead of ignoring the complaints, as some cartoonists might have done, Godwin made another trip to Lexington. For more than a week, he toured the Central Kentucky horse farms, took pictures and made sketches of horses, fences, gates, barns, farm homes, horse cemeteries, country lanes, trees, and other items. He talked with thoroughbred horsemen, standard-bred horsemen, saddle horsemen, racetrack officials and newspapermen. He took several pictures in and around the Keeneland and Lexington, Kentucky Trotting Tracks, which were a couple of the sites he later used frequently in his comic strip.
Ed Ashford was the local reporter assigned to escort Godwin to the various places he wanted to visit on his stay in Lexington. He stated that Frank was so sincere in his desire to make the Rusty Riley strip authentic in every way, that he bombarded him with questions by the score. A lot of them were about little things that would appear to be of no consequence. But to Godwin, they were important. "It's those little things you get wrong that people notice," he said.
The following year, Godwin made a return trip to Lexington and attended the 1949 Plug Horse Derby. He enjoyed the event so much that he featured it several times in his Rusty Riley strip. Over these many trips, Godwin made a number of friends in Lexington and would never fail to remember them all. Every Christmas, from New Hope, Pennsylvania, cleverly drawn personalized greeting cards from Frank and Georgiana Godwin, Rusty Riley, and the gang went out to all his friends there. He would draw local figures in the strip like reporter Ashford, for a one-day stand and a few days later Ashford received letters from several of his old army buddies who had seen him "in the funny papers."
One of the last great penman, Godwin had forty years experience as an illustrator, painter, and cartoonist when he started his last great story. Being influenced by both James Montgomery Flagg and Charles Dana Gibson, he developed his own unique style in his ability to create tones and especially facial characteristics with his pen and brush. His skill at portraying recognizable and realistic characters, animals, and lush outdoor scenes made Rusty Riley one of the most beautiful comic strips ever produced. Using every panel to its fullest, Godwin's richly textured compositions, meticulous cross-hatching, and attention to detail made this purely an artist's strip.
After an eleven-year run and appearing in more than one hundred-fifty newspapers, the strip ended in 1959, just a few weeks before Godwin's death.
I remember the first Rusty Riley piece I ever saw was around nine years ago from fellow CFA-APA member Don Mangus. He had purchased a few Sundays and I was amazed by the fantastic line work and realistic look of the strips. I especially liked his attention to detail on he backgrounds and animals. These few Sundays quickly helped me change my focus from collecting comic book art to comic strip art.
I was mainly interested in the dailies over the Sundays because of what I believed to be more fine line work and detail on these daily features. However, it does depend on the year, with his earlier Sundays being more complex, but overall Godwin did some fantastic work on his daily strips.
I always enjoyed how a comic strip was also was like a piece of film with set boundaries that an artist has to fill rather than a comic page with its many different ways to layout or format a page. I found this restriction on the size and shape of the frame made the artist work harder to produce a higher quality of work to make it interesting on an everyday basis.
My first Rusty Riley daily was obtained at a Seattle comic show in which I traded a group of DC comics for an attractive horse example. It is still one of my favorite pieces out of my collection, which I had framed and hangs on a wall of my office.
I quickly started to pick up some nice pieces over the years until last July when I was bidding on a Rusty Sunday on eBay and was contacted by a member of Godwin's family. They wanted to know if I would be interested in purchasing any more "cels" as they called them. I said I would be interested and when they replied they had hundreds, I proposed they sell them to the public through the Internet. A family member related how they recently found a large collection of this art in the attic of the old Godwin estate when they were cleaning it in preparation to sell the house. They were giving the originals away at church raffles and carnivals and trying to sell them at garage sales. The family, though, was pleased that there was interest in a comic strip that ended more than forty-two years ago and expressed their desire to get the art on the market for Godwin's many fans. Unfortunately, in their search of the house, no Connie strips were found and very few paintings or illustrations seem to have survived. I have seen some great examples of his other works, but considering the number of Rusty strips that were recently discovered, you would hope that some of the other material could also be found.
After viewing numerous strips over the past few months, I am still amazed by the richness of Godwin's layouts, his minute detail and his interesting and colorful characters. Surely, Godwin should be remembered as one of the premier penman of his day, a man who could perform miracles with a brush and ink. Anyone with a Godwin piece would have to agree he was one of the finest illustrators of our time and a rare talent to have worked in the comics' field.