Tumbleweeds Cartoonist Tom K Ryan Has Died


Tom K Ryan, who drew the longrunning comic strip Tumbleweeds, died a couple weeks ago. He was 92 years old, and the death was peaceful, the funeral home reports.

I admit I don’t have strong memories of the comic. I remember encountering it in the 90s. It was one of the many comics printed in Strips, a weekly newspaper featuring just what you’d think. The newspaper was great, in those days, for finding comic strips that just weren’t in any local newspaper, like Bill Holbrook’s On The Fastrack and Safe Havens, or Bobby London’s Popeye, or even the Pogo revival. And Ryan’s Tumbleweeds was there. It stood out mostly for typography: it had computer-lettered word balloons. It would stand out today still, when many comic strips use computer lettering. Instead of a typeface that looked like hand-lettering, Ryan used … well, I thought it was Monaco, but looking at examples on the official Tumbleweeds web site indicate he used different typefaces at different times. And, early on, hand-lettered things. I don’t know when the shift, or why, although the advantages of typing your word balloons are obvious.

But I don’t have strong memories of the characters or the jokes or such. It was one of your situation strips, of a kind with B.C., The Wizard of Id, and Hagar the Horrible. Here the setting was the Old West, with the characters the hapless Army post, the hapless Poohawk tribe, the hapless cowboys, the hapless townsfolk. There weren’t running storylines, as far as I could tell, just jokes between the spoof-of-Western-tropes characters. The strip began in 1965, and ran until the end of 2007. According to Wikipedia, Filmation tried to animate it for their Fabulous Funnies series, and after the first episode aired learned they didn’t have the rights to the comic. It got adapted into a Las Vegas stage show at some point, apparently, and also made into a musical comedy for high school drama programs in need of such, by the same company that made the Luann musical. And, famously, Jim Davis worked as an assistant for several years, before realizing his own comic strip might get picked up if he dropped the gnat and worked with a cat character instead.

In honesty, I get the comic strip mixed up in my head with Gordon Bess’s Redeye, another spoof-Western comic strip that itself started in 1967 and ran until the middle of 2008. Comics Kingdom is rerunning that, under their Vintage strips feature. If asked to choose I’d prefer Redeye. But it’s not a fair comparison. Nearly all the Tumbleweeds strips I’ve seen are from the last decade of its run. A gag-a-day strip like that tends to wear out its best material a few years after its last successful new character joins the cast. The Redeye that I’ve seen is a new comic strip in its exploratory phase.

So, allowing that I would call Tumbleweeds a comic strip that, at most, exists, why mention Ryan’s passing at all? In part, I guess, because it’s amazing anyone ever gets a comic strip made, much less one that runs four decades. And I have a friend who absolutely loves the comic strip, and takes offense when I admit I mix it up with the inferior(?) Redeye. The friend asked me, before the news of Ryan’s death came out, if I knew why the comics on the charmingly 1998-styled official web site weren’t being updated. So, well, it’s not my thing, but I’m glad there are people who had this thing, while it lasted.

R C Harvey, at The Comics Journal, has a good obituary. Harvey has warmer feelings about the comic than I have.

Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there. He/him.

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