Tom K. Ryan, Creator of Tumbleweeds

19 October 2001

    Movies and novels of the Old West were all the rage in the 1950s and ‘60s. They showed the bad guys challenging the good guys, the heros galloping up on beautiful steeds to rescue the tragic widow or the gorgeous young land-owner from the grip of danger. Tom K. Ryan, creator of Tumbleweeds, was a great fan of the western genre and found the perfect plot for a hilarious comic strip: Poke fun at those cowpokes! Make fun of the heros and the bad guys! Turn those sneaky fellows in the feathers into good guys!

   Using an artistic style similar to Johnny Hart's "B.C.", Tom Ryan created a large cast of characters for his comic spoof of the Old West. He began with the central character, a cowpoke he named Tumbleweeds, who has big dreams but no urge to act on them. His droopy eyes and face and oversized cowboy hat immediately provoke a smile from the reader.

   Ryan created the town of Grimy Gulch and filled it with Cowboys and Indians of all sorts, including Little Pigeon, the beautiful daughter of the Chief of the Poohawks. Horatio Curmudgeon Frump is the crooked judge, Deputy Knuckles is the goofy deputy. (He is reminiscent of Don Knotts, the deputy on The Andy Griffith Show).

   Any good Western must have bad guys. Snake-Eye and Snooky McFoul play their parts, even if their success is limited. There is an Undertaker, a barkeeper and miners. The cast is rounded out with Hildegard Hamhocker, the desperate husband-hunter who is always on the make for Tumbleweeds but never quite catches him.


    Ryan's drawing skills are not limited to people and pioneer buildings. There are several quirky animals in the Tumbleweeds strip. Blossom is Tumbleweed's fine horse and Pyjamas is a rather lethargic dog who provides much straight-man humour, just to name a couple.

    Tom K. Ryan was born in Anderson, Indiana on June 6, 1926. He began cartooning as a nine-year-old youngster and what he calls "an illness" has stayed with him throughout his life. Ryan received basketball scholarships, but instead attended Notre Dame University and the University of Cincinnati.

   Ryan dropped out of university after three years and began working. His first jobs were unsatisfying but necessary to take care of his new wife and growing family. He was also drawing editorial and sports cartoon work for local newspapers. He found a position in commercial art and learned on-the-job skills from the bottom up.

    A correspondence course in commercial art helped Tom Ryan fine-tune his artistic and cartooning talents. The new skills enabled him to branch out as a freelance commercial artist. Around the same time, Tom was a fan of Zane Grey, the novelist famous for tales of the Old West. The era held a fascination for Tom and the seeds were planted.


    Tumbleweeds galloped from the pen of Tom Ryan and into syndication in 1965. Originally with the Lew Little Syndicate, the strip is now distributed through King Features Syndicate to several hundred newspapers. The artist earned several nominations for his work from the National Cartoonists Society and has received praise from American Indian groups for his grasp on the humour of natives.

    The strip was published in dozens of paperback books, but they have become hard to find in the large bookstores. Tumbleweeds was made into a musical comedy and performed in Las Vegas in 1983 and also was an attraction at the MGM Grand Family Theme Park in Las Vegas.  The cartoon appeared in animation on Saturday morning television in the 1970's.

    In the early years of Tumbleweeds, Tom K. Ryan was mentor to another emerging cartoonist. From 1968 to 1978, Jim Davis apprenticed as Ryan's assistant. Davis introduced his own creation, Garfield, on June 19, 1978 when he was 33 years old.

    With his wife Anne, the Ryans are the parents of four children and the grandparents of six. Tom continues to produce the unique and enduring Tumbleweeds from their home in Florida.

    Wagons ho! Wait... did I just see a feather moving behind that rock?


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© Susanna McLeod 2001-2016  
(Originally published in The Cartoonists on