Friday, February 12, 2016

The Red Ryder Book You Will Probably Never Read

I finished reading a book this week that you will probably never read. It concerns "America's famous fighting cowboy," the red-haired, red-shirted hero first seen in a series of short stories by writer-cartoonist Fred Harman. The comic strip was adapted into a cliffhanger serial, a series of movies, unsold television pilots, comic books, and a weekly radio program. Red Ryder was a two-fisted tornado who lived with his aunt, his sidekick Buckskin, and his ward, Little Beaver, in the western settlement of Painted Valley. In 2013, Bear Manor Media, publishers located in Albany, Georgia, published a 200 page book titled Red Ryder & Little Beaver: Painted Valley Troubleshooters

The book documents Fred Harman's newspaper comic strip heroes extensively. Having been a fan of Bernard Drew since he wrote two books about Hopalong Cassidy, you can imagine how pleased I was to discover he wrote a book documenting the history of Red Ryder. My curiosity motivated seeking out a copy to buy... and there lies the rub, as Hamlet put it. The book is already out of print and now established with an asking price at least three times the initial cover price. Initially I assumed the adage, "You snooze, you lose" applied here, but there turned out to be a back story behind all this. 

A short time after the book became available, the owners of the trademarked property contacted the publishing company issuing a formal "cease and desist" letter. Legally, anyone can write a book when the facts are presented encyclopedic in nature. And that is exactly what Bernard Drew did. But there is a difference between copyrights and trademarks and King Features Syndicate, Inc., for reasons unknown, decided the book was not in their best interests. Naturally, the publishing company offered a royalty for book sales, but the company refused them flat. A debate could have been exchanged between both parties -- possibly costing each side unnecessary expense in legal fees. The publishing company weighed the options and decided to pull the book from distribution. The adventures of Red Ryder pre-dates a baby boomer generation and combatting an aging fan base, book sales would not have justified legal expenses. Financially, this would have been a wash at best.

Intelligent reasoning could form the backbone of a debate coming from both sides, but the more important problem is evident: how necessary is it for accurate and thorough documentation for preservation sake? This book accomplished that very purpose. From a biography of Fred Harman, the origin of the comic strip, original stories in Red Ryder comic books, documentation about the radio program (more extensive than any write-up found in encyclopedias), how the character changed during World War II, public appearances in rodeo tours and parades, the reason why the television pilots failed to sell, Republic Pictures and the motion-pictures they produced, Little Beaver Town in Albuquerque, the Fred Harman Art Museum... it's all here.

Red Ryder Paint Book (circa 1952)
Which leads me to wonder why King Features Syndicate, Inc. would not want their property documented extensively? A number of literary pop culture heroes from the past have practically faded away with little -- if any -- interest. Who today can name the actor who played the title role of radio's The Adventures of Jimmie Allen? Who remembers the musical theme of Silver Eagle? Decades have passed with incorrect information about Straight Arrow, claiming he was an Indian masquerading as a white man, now relegated to semi-annual magazine articles to remind people that Straight Arrow was a Comanche Indian who dressed as rancher Steve Adams by day, and served justice against cattle rustlers as Straight Arrow... not the other way around as so many encyclopedias incorrectly state.

Sure, you can browse the internet and find historians offering bits of information ranging from details about the comic strips, including publishing dates, scans of the covers of comic books and movie posters. King Features is not making any profit from those websites. Bernard Drew's book could put a little money into the pockets of King Features. After all, isn't that the reason why they retained the trademarks? 

In another 20 years, The Adventures of Red Ryder will probably fade away and without a comprehensive treatment available at our fingertips, a future generation may know nothing about Fred Harman's much-loved character except what they read in minor write-ups in encyclopedias such as Wikipedia and John Dunning's On The Air (1998). A museum may even consider a display promoting the art and stories of Red Ryder, but exactly what will they have to pull from their reference library for consultation? 

Extremely few copies were printed and sold before the book was pulled from distribution, so if you are reading this take note: buy your copy today at the lowest price you can find. Five years from now you can brag that what you have on your bookshelf is extremely rare and value. It will certainly continue going up in price over the years. Someone is already offering one for $1,000; thankfully I paid a lot less than that! As for the author, his efforts were not in vain. Authors find amusement witnessing hefty price tags of their own books, after they go out of print. For Bernard Drew, this just happened a lot sooner than expected.

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