The Visual Language of Roy Rogers
As mentioned in my earlier post, Roy Rogers published his stories in story- and comic-book form. Whitman Publishing, the same publisher responsible for the Tell-A-Tale books, published these books as well as a great many other westerns and boyish adventure stories. The two earliest books in my collection, Roy Rogers and The Gopher Creek Gunman (1945) and Roy Rogers and The Rimrod Renegades (1952) are hard-cover, with wrap-around paper covers. This cover fell apart right after I photographed it, and now I’m not sure how to repair it properly:
The 1945 Edition of The Gopher Creek Gunman is black and white throughout the interior pages of the book, with excellent illustrations by Erwin L. Hess. The author, Don Middleton, only receives credit on the inside title page, and not on the cover. As with all the Roy Rogers books in my possession, the authors of Roy Rogers’ stories play second fiddle to Roy Rogers himself.
Many of the Roy Rogers books’ illustrators were also comic book artists, including Erwin Hess. His illustrations above really demonstrate an ability to create a cinematic visual narrative that correspond with the black and white films of Roy Rogers at the time.
Author Snowden Miller and illustrator John Ushler were responsible for Roy Rogers and The Rimrod Renegades, 1952. Again, like Gopher Creek, the contents of the book are black and white throughout. Ushler is also great at creating visual narrative, but doesn’t use light and shadow as dramatically as Erwin Hess. You can definitely see the connection to comic book illustration in these examples.
The other books in my collection, from 1954 onwards, have laminated hard covers. By the mid-50s, the books were two-colours throughout — some layouts used a dominant black with a spot green, others with a dominant black and a spot orange/brown.
Roy Rogers and the Enchanted Canyon 1954.
Jim Rivers, author; Roy Schroeder, illustrator
Besides the dynamic use of illustration in all these books, there are other consistent uses of visual language that contribute to the overall visual vocabulary of the 1940s-50s cowboy genre. The typography uses typefaces that were well known wood type specimens in the late 1800s, but the type was used in a new context. The 1950s placed these old typefaces into a new format (books, comicbooks, television program titles, movie titles and movies posters), creating a nostalgia for the days of the adventurous cowboy without replicating any of the real grit, dirt, hard labour and violence that may actually have occurred.
The interesting thing to note (which I hope to find time to expand on in the near future) is that historical cowboy culture in the American Old West was indeed different than the historical cowboy culture in Canada in the late 1800s, particularly when it came to law and order. However, like so many movies, books, and television programs regaling the American folkstories, Canadians tend to absorb these stories into our cultural milieu. Roy Rogers was an American personality acting out American myths, yet his legacy is firmly embedded in Canadian popular culture.