A Friday Flea Market Mystery

You know, you read about this sort of thing -- stumbling across rare art treasures at garage sales and so on -- but you never expect it to really happen to you.

Except it did, day before yesterday.

Well, technically, it happened to Julie. My wife is the real thrift-store maven. Sometimes I follow along and browse the books, but I'm usually done in twenty minutes. When Julie wants to do real hardcore shopping, she leaves me at home, because I'm too impatient. She prefers to take her time and prowl every single aisle inch by inch, sometimes more than once, hunting for bargains.

I can't really make fun of my wife's determined shopping relentlessness any more, because on her latest solo expedition to the local Goodwill, she found an actual treasure.

"I got you a surprise, honey," was how she announced it.

Now, usually that means she's bowled some copies of Justice League Europe out of a quarter bin or something. But this was a real find, I had to agree.

A page of original comic art in a custom frame. It's the real thing -- I can see blue pencil underdrawing in places, a couple of whited-out corrections, spot-blacks where the ink was clearly laid on with a brush, painstaking hand-lettering... it's exquisite work.

"I knew you would want it," Julie said triumphantly. "I got it just as this other guy was going for it, but I was there first. He wanted it though. He just shook his head and said, 'That's a beautiful piece,' and I said, 'I know, my husband will love it.' For $3.99! Can you believe it?"

I admitted to being startled and delighted. And I do indeed love it. Apart from the work itself, it presented a tantalizing mystery, and I knew I'd have lots of entertainment trying to puzzle it out.

The mystery being -- what's it from, and who drew it?

Julie said she knew I'd like it because it was a Western, and though technically I suppose it falls in that genre, it actually stars a Mountie. That narrows it down a great deal. There aren't that many comics starring Mounties.

There are a couple of other clues, as well. It's a little too tidy and well-drawn to be Golden Age material, but the lettering style and rigid layout mark it as being just a little early for the Silver Age. So it's probably from the 1950's. Which lets out Northwest Mounties, that was a late-forties entry. And I didn't think it was from DC; I knew they didn't have any regular Mountie strips, and it didn't look like one of those "Policemen Around The World" jobs you used to see in Detective as a backup feature. Those were more educational and usually narrated in the first person.

Just eyeballing it, it looks like something from Dell. They were all about this kind of strip, and it feels like a Dell page. Searching the internet I found that Dell did indeed publish a couple of Mountie projects.

King of the Royal Mounted traded on Zane Grey's name, but he really didn't have a lot to do with the project. It was a newspaper strip syndicated through King Features, written largely by Grey's son Romer and drawn by various hands; Jim Gary is the artist that hung in there the longest. The strip was enough of a success that it grew into a movie, and a couple of Republic serials as well as other licensed projects. King eventually moved from newspaper strips and Big Little Books to actual comic books, appearing as a backup strip in Red Ryder for a while before finally getting headline status.

But I don't think this page is a King page. For one thing, the art style's all wrong. At Dell the artist on King of the Royal Mounted was mostly Bob Fujitani, the guy who went on to do the original Dr. Solar. And his art style doesn't look anything like what my Mountie page artist was doing.

Good stuff, but that's not the guy that did my mystery page.

What's more, in King of the Royal Mounted, the "King" of the title refers to the Mountie hero himself, Dave King. But on my page, the Mountie clearly calls his DOG "King."

See? So it can't be David King.

No, in the 1950's, if it was a Mountie hero with a dog named "King," it had to be... Sergeant Preston of the Yukon.

The trouble is, he's not really a comic-book character. Sergeant Preston got his start on radio, from the same outfit that was producing The Lone Ranger and The Green Hornet, on a show called Challenge of the Yukon. Then, with the advent of television, Preston followed the Ranger and Joe Friday and Matt Dillon over to TV as well.

But I didn't remember Preston ever having a comic. So I checked the Grand Comics Database and by golly, there WAS a Sergeant Preston comic, from Dell, in the mid-to-late 50's.


It didn't run that long -- a quarterly that lasted 29 issues in all, from 1952 to '58 or thereabouts. And a little more checking revealed this sample page, from that same series. (Got this off the RCMP home page, believe it or not.)

THAT page, I am certain, is by the same creative team as the one who did our thrift-shop treasure.

But who was it?

No one seems to know. The GCD only has placeholder files on the book and some cover scans. The only artist ever given any credit anywhere for working on the Sgt. Preston comic book is a fellow named Till Goodan. Wikipedia mentions Goodan as being the guy, but, well, it's Wikipedia. I wanted something a little firmer than that.

Checking further I found that Goodan was known primarily as a Western fine art painter. He produced a line of commemorative china that is a highly sought-after collector's item today. A cowboy himself, Goodan died in the saddle -- collapsed with a heart attack while riding parade in a rodeo in 1958. A great story to tell, but nothing to link him conclusively to Dell, let alone name him as the artist of this page.

Doing some serious digging by this point, the most I could turn up was that Goodan is credited by several sources as having worked on the Gene Autry licensed comic book. So, okay, he was at Dell doing licensed books in the 1950's. It COULD have been him.

But here I ran out of luck. There's no signature, no evidence of any kind on the page itself. The best I could turn up was this 1945 Gene Autry page from Four-Color #83 that I know was done by Till Goodan, so there is at least a chance to compare art styles.

Is that by the same guy that did the Sergeant Preston page I have here? Allowing for the passage of time and so on, of course. Again, I can't be sure. You figure the two pages are ten or twelve years apart, and styles change -- look what a difference ten years made in the work of Bill Sienkewicz, or Keith Giffen, or any of a dozen other examples. I've stared at the two pages for quite a while now and the best I can manage is a firm, "Could be. But maybe not."

Even if it was Till Goodan... I have a million other questions and no way to answer them. How in the world did a Sergeant Preston page from a 1950's Dell comic book end up framed under glass in Seattle, Washington? Who would want such a thing? A friend of Goodan's? A Sergeant Preston memorabilia collector? A Western-artist aficionado?

How'd it get from Dell to the hands of whoever put it in a custom frame? Was it a gift, or was it stolen? Dell didn't return original art back then, as far as I know. Somebody working at the office or the printshop lift it quietly from the files when Goodan started to get a name in the Western-art world?

And, the most puzzling thing of all... who would be so blind to the value of such a piece that they'd donate it to a Goodwill? One would think that anyone who knew anything about comics in this day and age would recognize the idea that original comic-strip art is valuable, even if they couldn't come up with a dollar amount. For that matter, I wonder why Goodwill let it go out the door at $3.99 -- the FRAME is worth more than that.

I don't know. We'll probably never know.

Julie said, "You should do a column about it and see if the readers out there have any ideas."

So here's that column.

See you next week.

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