Walk into the Montana Historical Society this week and step into a life-sized Stan Lynde comic strip Western town.
The historical society is celebrating the famous Montana cartoonist with a new exhibit, “From the Heart: Stan Lynde’s Comic Creations,” opening Thursday, Jan. 21, from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Here you’ll meet some of Lynde’s most legendary characters -- Rick O’Shay and Hipshot.
His two most famous comic strips, “Rick O’Shay” and “Latigo,” reached 15 million readers from 1958 to 1983.
Lynde’s Montana-based comic strip, “Rick O’Shay, began in 1958 and ran until 1977 in up to 100 newspapers across the country -- including the country’s biggest newspapers, The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, L.A. Times, Philadelphia Inquirer and many Montana newspapers, including the Independent Record.
It also had an international following, appearing in Australia, Canada, the Philippines, as well as French, Italian and Spanish newspapers. He created “Latigo” in 1978, and it ran until 1983.
The exhibit will recreate his studio with drafting table, office chair and art supplies, similar to the one he had in his Helena home. Lynde lived here for his final 15 years in Montana, before moving to Ecuador in 2013.
The exhibit also features artifacts, like Lynde’s trademark Stetson with a beaded and quilled band, one of Hipshot’s guns, an array of early and later comic strips, including ones that were singed but rescued from a 1990 house fire that destroyed much of his art and many mementos from fans.
You can see photos of him on horseback, and also the chaps, saddle and spurs he wore for the Great Montana Cattle Drive of 1989 that he co-founded and organized.
You’ll also get to read Hipshot’s famous pardon letter, penned and signed by Montana Governor Tim Babcock in 1966, forgiving Hipshot “for all misdeeds committed in Montana.”
The pardon was apparently instrumental in Hipshot recovering from nearly fatal injuries and continuing to have a starring role in the comic strip with Rick O’Shay.
Thursday’s event includes talks by Lynde's widow, Lynda Lynde, his son, T.J. Lynde, and also Denney Neville, who was Lynde’s inker and letterer for the comic strip from 1971 to 1977.
Lynde would do the comic strip drawings in pencil and write out a script for the characters and Neville would ink in the drawings and do the lettering, said MHS curator Amanda Streeter Trum.
Visitors will see the various stages of how Lynde developed his comic strips, said Trum, from notes and rough sketches to the inked and colored panels to the printed comic.
Also on display are some of his earliest drawings and comics, which have never been printed or exhibited. Viewers can also reflect on how his artwork evolved and grew more sophisticated over the decades.
There will even be a “selfie spot,” where you can step into a blank comic strip panel and join Rick O’Shay and Hipshot.
“I’m really excited to share Stan’s passion for the West and to showcase his many talents,” said Trum. “We want visitors to feel immersed in Stan’s comic world and my hope is that people walk away with a sense of how much Stan loved Western life and how skilled he was at presenting it to others.”
There will also be stations where kids can try some hands-on comic strip work. Trum hopes it will inspire kids to dream big.
“We already knew that Stan was an inspiration for Montanans when he created his comic strips, and I hope that this exhibit will inspire a new generation,” Trum said.
Born on Sept. 23, 1931, in Billings and growing up on a ranch near Lodge Grass on the Crow Indian Reservation, Lynde was surrounded by cowboys. “Cowboys were my heroes,” he said in a 2012 interview with the Independent Record, when he donated some of his original art and possessions to MHS.
He and his wife Lynda were moving to Ecuador at that time.
Lynde said the cowboys were his only playmates during parts of his childhood. They and the people of Lodge Grass became the models for his characters -- Rick O’Shay, Hipshot, Gaye Abandon and other folks in his imaginary town of Conniption.
“Most were composites,” he said, “of the old time cowboys and the people I knew growing up.”
His mother started him drawing when they lived in isolated sheep camps to keep him from roaming in rattlesnake country.
He recalled that every Sunday the Billings Gazette and Denver Post arrived at the family ranch and his parents would read the comic strips out loud to him.
“It was an epiphany,” he said. “I wanted to be a cartoonist all my life from age 5 or 6 that’s what I wanted to do.”
It’s a dream that took him through some very lean years in New York City, where he arrived with just $30 in his pocket. He recalled making soup from hot water and ketchup and living on automat food, popcorn and the generosity of a friend’s big, boisterous Irish family who would invite him to dinner.
He would find success in his 20s, which news articles of the time noted was highly unusual, since most syndicated cartoonists weren’t picked up until their 40s.
Lynde returned to live in Montana in 1962.
In addition to his famous comic strips, he also wrote eight Merlin Fanshaw western novels, whose characters were also inspired by people from his youth.
In Lynde’s memoir, he recounts being asked, “Where are Rick, Hipshot and all the other characters from the strip now? He replied, “I suppose they’re where they’ve always been, living in and around Conniption in that special time and place that is theirs alone.”
No doubt joining them is Lynde, who died of cancer in August 2013.
Longtime friend Tom Cook, MHS public information officer said, “He told the Montana story to the whole nation and really the world. ...He had the West in his blood.”