Wednesday, September 10, 2008
Obscurity of the Day: Bronc Peeler
For my money one of the most beautifully drawn comic strips ever to grace the funny pages, Bronc Peeler was created and self-syndicated by Fred Harman. Depending on who you believe Bronc Peeler first saw the light of day late in 1933 (Goulart) or in 1934 (Horn). My earliest examples are from mid-1934.
Harman brought to his new western strip a deep understanding of the subject having spent his own youth on a Colorado ranch. His client list consisted mainly of small western U.S. newspapers, although he did manage to snag a few big clients (like the San Francisco Chronicle and the Philadelphia Record). Bronc Peeler was that most unusual breed of self-syndicated strip in that Harman offered a Sunday page, a full-page extravaganza that featured the half-page topper On The Range, a series of breathtakingly lovely ink 'paintings' of western scenes. The Sunday page was added on October 7 1934.
The genius of this strip was usually well-hidden. Most of the papers that ran the strip being small outfits, the reproduction was typically awful. If you see the strip in these papers it looks for all the world like Harman was a complete washout as a cartoonist -- his delicate impressionistic linework was quite effectively turned into a sea of mud and dropouts. To be fair, Harman's art sometimes was rushed and the art on some strips is not up to par, but when he was on his game, look out-- his chiaroscuro technique was every bit as vibrant and predates the celebrated innovations of Noel Sickles and Milton Caniff.
Bronc Peeler was an adventure strip with a strong dose of comedy. The daily continuities dealing with gunslingers, cattle rustlers and such were leavened by Bronc's pal Coyote Pete, and then later by a Lilliputian indian brave named Little Beaver. The comedy tended to undercut the adventuring, but ended up working out well for Harman. In 1935 Western Newspaper Union approached him (or he approached them -- the specifics are lost to history) to redistribute the dailies as part of their comic strip package for small weekly papers. Not being able to sustain a narrative on a once a week basis, Harman's comedy dailies were used by the service to their substantial client list. Once again the reproduction quality was horrifically bad, but it did get his strip into a vastly larger client list of papers. WNU used Bronc Peeler from 1935-37.
Harman continued the daily to his regular client list, occasionally signing up a new paper here and there, and in 1937 finally signed on with a syndicate. Starting with the daily of April 26 Harman was now syndicated by the John F. Dille Company (the syndicate responsible for Buck Rogers among others). Unfortunately the syndicate seemed to have no better luck selling the strip than Harman had himself, and by 1938 Harman was ready to throw in the towel. The Sunday was dropped on April 10 while the daily moseyed on until July 2 (both these dates are, of course, quite tentative given the rarity of the strip).
It is not definitely known if Harman met entrepreneur Stephen Slesinger before or after he gave up on Bronc Peeler, but the smart money says that Slesinger probably convinced Harman to drop Bronc Peeler so that Slesinger could act as his agent in reselling it to a major syndicate. Slesinger is justly famed for his wheeling and dealing ways (quite possibly the most charitable way his modus operandi has ever been described) and he acted as Harman's intermediary when the reworked strip, now titled Red Ryder, was sold to NEA. Slesinger wrote up a contract in which Harman was little better than a hireling, and the vast success of Red Ryder did much to line the pockets of the impresario but little to benefit Harman other than giving him steady work.