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Cartoonist applies old values to new issues

CARTOONIST Stan Lynde likes to view the world ``through a horse's ears.'' And that's a popular perspective out here where handshakes are still firm, gaudy belt buckles are the only concession to fashion, and the one-way streets of Billings, Mont., are considered an urban ill.

For 25 years, Mr. Lynde's western cartoons -- from the earlier, widely syndicated ``Rick O'Shay'' to the smaller scale ``Grass Roots,'' which now appears weekly in country newspapers -- have articulated contemporary issues through values close to the hearts of those who choose the still-rugged life of this isolated region.

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So what relevance could 19th-century cowboys, Indians, gunslingers, and tenderfoots have to the complex world of high tech, high politics and high society?

``There are no new sins and no new virtues,'' responds Lynde. ``The same problems we deal with today have been dealt with throughout history. That's why the Bible is relevant.''

He continues, ``We're still dealing with human rights; they change periodically but it's still about equality and what we do to our fellow man. It seems for all our progress all these negative things still exist.''

A typical Lynde strip doesn't elicit a yee-haw, backslapping kind of response nor does it offer smug urban cynicism.

His work is known rather for authentic inked detail -- down to the last saddle strap -- and for Lynde's artful way of translating the contemporary into the old-fashioned.

His comic strips have dealt with everything from child abuse and gun control to highway speed limits and world hunger.

The bowlegged characters of ``Grass Roots,'' Billy and Shag, were seen recently tending a flock of newborn sheep. In their cowboy drawls they observe the irony of the parallel between the predators the lambs face on the range and those that ``human young'uns'' face in instances of child abuse.

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Lynde says he's now looking for a way to satirize the Internal Revenue Service's new regulations requiring detailed mileage logs for business use of vehicles.

The truck has replaced the horse for ranching chores and keeping a mileage log for all the starts and stops in a rancher's day of tending cattle and fences, or bailing hay, is viewed as a typically ham-handed federal swipe at individual freedom out here.

Respect for Lynde in these parts is universal. Ask a rancher about ``Rick O'Shay'' and he's likely to show you a signed ink drawing by Lynde on his wall.

Editors of some small weekly papers in the region report that the new single panel cartoon ``Grass Roots'' has pulled in new subscribers for their papers.

``Stan is a natural, well-known local guy. He very much captures the flavor of Montana and the people that live here . . . the old home grown code of values of the West that we kid ourselves into believing still exist that we don't think exist in the city,'' explains Jim Moore, editor of the weekly Carbon County News in Red Lodge.

The News also carries ``Sidnetures,'' a column by Lynde's wife Sidne.

Working out of a rustic backyard studio near the jagged high country of Yellowstone Park, Lynde -- like so many others in the neighboring small towns -- has the sensibilities, and looks, of his inked characters. They're a lean bunch, mindful of traditional courtesies. A man still holds a door for a woman and is very much at home with horses, guns, and the wide-open spaces.

Lynde, who grew up on a ranch his father leased on a nearby Crow Indian reservation, worked in New York as a commodities reporter for the Wall Street Journal before achieving the success in cartooning that enabled him to return to the West.

Characters such as Rick O'Shay, Hipshot, and Gay Abandon, saloon owner and publisher of the Conniption Cloud Burst, were part of the ``Rick O'Shay'' comic strip that was nationally syndicated from 1957 until 1977.

The authenticity and detail of Lynde's ink drawings bring to readers the leathery sound of a creaking saddle and the feel of the wind blowing across the sage. But that attention to detail, which is rare in the modern comic strips, priced him out of the comic strip market, says Lynde. The detail required an extra artist to help with lettering and finishing touches on a daily strip.

When Lynde couldn't negotiate more money from his Chicago Tribune-New York Times syndicate to pay for the extra expense, he quit rather than sacrifice the artistic detail.

His next strip, ``Latigo,'' suffered a similar fate. Now Lynde has created the smaller scale ``Grass Roots'' which can be marketed at a reasonable price and which Lynde sees as an answer to a media void.

``The national media isn't expressing the views we feel out in the heartland. `Grass Roots' is designed to express a point of view I think much of the country feels, outside urban centers,'' says Lynde.

``What I hear people complaining about here is the media and the arrogance of the federal government,'' says Lynde, who is active on the local school board and in his church.

``I'm a bit leary of the new elite who more and more will be running the country. I'm concerned where their moral compassion is.''

An urban-based society, he says, doesn't reflect the sensibilities of a significant segment of American society. Pointing to the 20-year popularity of the old ``Rick O'Shay'' cartoon with urban readers, he adds that others besides just rural Americans may be identifying with these sensibilities.

``I try to keep a national view [in Grass Roots] because I don't really feel television is doing the job,'' he says.

He points out that, ``Television has not learned to exercise the discretion local papers do . . . like in the [TWA-Beirut] hostage crisis.

``They [networks] were not aware of the power those images have,'' he explains, noting that local papers have had the benefit of time to refine the art.

``The western hero is probably how America would like to see itself. Our President is expressive of the myth,'' explains Lynde. But he warns that the persona of the West that Americans pursue through actors John Wayne, or Clint Eastwood, writer Louis L'Amour, and painter Charles Russell must be properly understood.

``Much of the western myth is not accurate,'' explains Lynde, who likes to put the myth in perspective and in turn use the myth to put contemporary issues in perspective.

``Life wasn't as idyllic or simple or free as the myth would have us believe. The western hero is independent and strong and can defeat the bad guy and help the oppressed . . . but [the American romance with that] hasn't helped much . . . not with the Soviet Union. We're facing a different kind of showdown with them. We've not been able to rescue the poor homesteader and we still haven't defeated the major enemy with the black hat, the Kremlin.''

``We've been conditioned to seeing our enemies that way. But we're not able to continue this way,'' Lynde suggests.

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