Little Beaver looks after Red. Artist: Fred Harman.


Original Medium: Newspaper comics
Distributed by: Newspaper Enterprise Association
First Appeared: 1938
Creator: Fred Harman
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Red Ryder, star of radio, television and the Silver Screen, is probably the most successful western hero ever to come out of comics. But he grew out of a vanishingly obscure series, where the …

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… protagonist's name wasn't even Red Ryder. A character much like him (but younger and not as broad-shouldered), named Bronc Peeler, was the star of an unsuccessful newspaper comic from a very minor syndicate, by Fred Harman, Red's creator, as long as five years before Red's own highly successful launch.

The biggest difference between Red and Bronc (aside from a snappier name) was Stephen Slesinger, a creative promoter Harman hooked up with (also a central figure in Disney's license for Winnie the Pooh, which has been in the news quite a bit during the last few years). Other cartoon properties Slesinger managed include Ozark Ike and King of the Royal Mounted — but with Red Ryder. he was so closely involved, even working closely on the stories themselves, he's often credited as the strip's co-creator. With Slesinger to sell the series, it debuted from Newspaper Enterprise Association (syndicator of Out Our Way, Wash Tubbs, Alley Oop and other well-known features) on Sunday, November 6, 1938, with the daily version added the following March 27. In 1940, Republic Pictures made a 12-part movie serial of it, and two years after that it became a radio series.

The first comic strip story introduced Red's long-time girlfriend, Beth Wilder; his long-time enemy, Ace Hanlon; and his sidekick, Little Beaver. His horse, Thunder, was already with him when the series opened.

Little Beaver, a cute little Navaho tyke, showed up in the very first episode — earlier, in fact, if you count the Bronc Peeler incarnation, where an identical Little Beaver had been a regular. Tho not maliciously intended, the characterization of Little Beaver was a good deal more stereotyped and insensitive than would be accepted today. His catch-phrase, for example, was "You betchum, Red Ryder!" Despite any embarrassing shortcomings, tho, Little Beaver may have been comics' first kid sidekick to an adventure hero, beating out Robin by more than a year.

Red's Republic serial, released June 28, 1940, starred Don "Red" Barry (no relation) in the title role and Tommy Cook as Little Beaver. It was followed in 1944 by Tucson Raiders, also from Republic, with Wild Bill Elliott as Red and Bobby Blake (i.e., Robert Blake as a child) as Little Beaver — the first of Republic's 23 feature-length productions with Red Ryder as their central character. All of them came out between 1944 and '47. Elliott played Red in the first 16, after which Allan Lane took over the role. Blake played Little Beaver in all. A few years later, Eagle-Lion Pictures released four features with Jim Bannon as Red.

The radio show started February 23, 1942, and lasted about a decade. Reed Hadley played Red Ryder and Tommy Cook reprised his role from the serial. The character's career in Big Little Books (ten books, published by Whitman) was approximately contemporary with the radio series. There was also a TV show, starring Allan Lane and Louis Lettieri. It lasted only 39 episodes, which aired during the 1956-57 season.

Red made his comic book debut in Dell's Crackajack Funnies #9 (March, 1939), where established stars included Don Winslow, Apple Mary and Dan Dunn; but there, he was limited to reprints from the strip. Reprints continued when he got his own comic with a September, 1940 cover date, but it switched to new material in 1947. He kept that title for 17 years, a run surpassed by only two western stars in comics, Marvel's Rawhide Kid and Kid Colt, Outlaw. Even Little Beaver had a title of his own in the mid-1950s (tho that wasn't a great feat, as Dell was also publishing comics about Silver, Trigger and other cowboys' horses right about then).

Another way Red Ryder made his presence known to comic book readers was by appearing on the back covers of hundreds, perhaps thousands of separate issues, from many, many publishers, as the spokestoon for Daisy Air Rifles. This grew out of a licensing deal Harman and Slesinger signed when the strip was less than a year old, allowing Daisy to manufacture a gun with Red Ryder's name and picture on it. That model was discontinued in 1954, but the agreement was extended to many more models, manufactured over a span of many more years.

Harman (whose brother, by the way, was Hugh Harman, co-creator of Bosko) remained in charge of the newspaper strip for a couple of decades, and was also responsible for much of the work in the comic books. He did have a few assistants over the years (syndicate publicity to the contrary notwithstanding), but was active in guiding Red's destiny until 1962, when he retired. Bob McLeod, formerly an assistant to Harman, took it over, but didn't sign his name.

McLeod's tenure was brief, as the once-mighty Red Ryder franchise (at its height, it appeared in about 750 papers) had pretty much run its course by then. The strip ended in 1964.

But it hasn't been forgotten. Pagosa, Colorado, where Fred Harman spent the final years of his life, honors his memory with its annual Red Ryder Roundup.

And to this very day, as a result of what has become the longest-lasting licensing agreement in history, Daisy continues to manufacture a Red Ryder air rifle.


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Text ©2002-06 Donald D. Markstein. Art © estate of Stephen Slesinger.