‘Earl’ cartoonist Wally Badgett honored for Western Art | TSLN.com
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‘Earl’ cartoonist Wally Badgett honored for Western Art

It was a back injury that laid Wally Badgett up and gave him time to hone his cartooning skills. After decades of riding bulls and saddle broncs, ranching and enforcing the law in eastern Montana, a back injury isn’t surprising, but the way it happened could have come straight out of one of Badgett’s iconic Earl cartoons.

“I was walking down the road and stepped on a rock,” said Badgett.

“It was probably accumulated over numerous wrecks in my lifetime, but that was the straw that, broke the, well, you know…” said Wally.



After his back surgery, with a month to recover, Wally took up an old hobby.

“I started drawing cartoons to entertain myself. I’d always fooled around drawing my whole life, but never gave it a serious thought, like I could make any money off it,” he said.



Wally discovered a talent and eventually put it to good use. “It got to the point, I had to make a decision, ‘am I going to draw cartoons for the rest of my life, or finish up the career in law enforcement? Drawing cartoons seemed a lot safer,’” he joked.

Wally says he has no shortage of inspiration for his much-loved Earl cartoons that depict a hard-luck rancher whose cows tend to be thin and whose wife outwits him quite often.

Earl is relatable to many a rancher who has creatively explained to the banker the need for a bigger note for less cattle, or has questioned his sanity after being bucked off the same horse yet again.

Wally, whose grandfather was an early pioneer rancher in southeastern Montana, grew up on a ranch with his family, on Otter Creek, in southeastern Powder River County, Montana, and later took over the same place, working together with his brother.

The family ranch, however, had in the meantime been sold to a coal company, from which he and his brother leased it back.

“My dad was a really good operator,” he said. “And my mother, Lora (Daly), was a school teacher. But when I was about four, she had a terrible stroke, and lived as an invalid for about 25 years after that,” he said.

His mother’s difficult health situation was financially costly for the family – not only did they lose her income but because she was physically and mentally unable to function as before, outside help became necessary. This financial strain eventually forced Wally’s father Kirk to sell the ranch when coal was discovered on the place.

Later the Badgett sons leased the ranch back, but Wally didn’t want to witness the ranch being mined for coal, so he eventually took a job as a deputy sheriff in Rosebud County.

“I told my wife Pam, we don’t want to be here when they come and start drilling this place up,” he said. In a strange twist, the coal company never did drill, and eventually sold the ranch back to neighboring landowners.

“If I’d have known that’s what would happen, I’d probably have never left,” he said.

Before he and his brother leased the family ranch, Wally spent time riding roughstock – winning the college national championship in bullriding in 1971, and ending up eighth in the world in bullriding in 1974. Had he ridden the 10th bull, he’d have won the average that year.

Wally said he got started rodeoing simply riding calves in the pens at brandings and riding horses bareback. “I also rode saddle broncs. That might have been my best event,” he said.

Wally and a friend, Bill Pauley, often practiced together on semi-loads of horses that Eddie Vaughn would put together for the Miles City Bucking Horse sale. “We’d try them out to see if they were possibly bucking horses to sell. I don’t know how many of those horses we tried out,” he said. “For two years we had a steady diet of bucking horses,” he said. Denny Looman coached the boys through the rides.

“The bull riding deal just kind of came along from riding calves, and I think most of my bull riding skills came from riding horses bareback on the ranch. It’s good for balance and body control. But the reason I did it as a kid is it was fun. And think it made the learning process for bull riding easy.”

Wally said that like most ranch boys, he didn’t’ like school. “I hated every bit of school, it was like a prison sentence for me,” he said. And the 120-mile daily round trip to Broadus saw him “catching the bus to catch the bus,” he said.

“Although I didn’t like school, I’m pretty well educated. I think I have a doctorate in mistakes, and I’m still adding to it,” he jokes.

Wally had no formal art training, and didn’t learn to draw from teachers, yet he credits one educator in particular for being a big reason for his eventual drawing career.

His first grade teacher taught him to read, and he could read almost anything by the end of the year, he said.

“That was a lifesaver. I read Will James books and other westerns. I found a dog-eared copy of a Will James book in our country school library and I was mesmerized by it. I looked at all of his art. I looked at it and looked at it. I don’t compare myself to Will James but I learned to draw horses from studying his drawings,” he said.

Wally would practice his own art while eyeing Will James’ cowboy drawings. “I’ve drawn from the time I was a little kid,” he said.

“But nothing really gelled until I was well over 40 years old. I’ve always said, I’ve never done anything in my life until I was too late.”

Once Wally decided to make a go at cartooning, he started off with “inside cowboy humor,” he said. “If you weren’t in this style of life, you didn’t get it. But then I realized, if I’m going to get this out on beyond, without changing what I’m doing, I have to make it understandable to the butcher, the baker the candlestick maker,” he said.

His motivation for each “Earl” cartoon comes from everyday life. “I get inspiration everywhere. I think of things myself – in our lifestyle out here, you know – sometimes you’ll be talking to someone and they say something that’s not intended to be funny at all, but it’s hilarious. I’m always listening for that kind of stuff. I usually have a pad in my pocket to write it down so I don’t forget,” he said.


Wally tries to keep the cartoons timeless so they can be used more than once and still make sense.

The cartoons might make fun of politics, but not a party or any particular official. “I do banking cartoons, but I don’t make fun of the bank, I make fun of Earl. I do cartoons where Earl goes to church. I don’t make fun of the church, but somehow Earl always gets the wrong message.”

Wally doesn’t know of ever having made someone angry by recreating their situation into a cartoon -in fact if one of his cartoons is inspired by a friend, he usually gives that friend the original drawing.

Wally has put on short drawing seminars at local schools in the past but he isn’t doing much of that in recent years. He enjoyed it but it’s draining.

Lately, he has put on humorous appearances for small groups of people where he takes a selection of cartoons and talks about the story behind them. “It’s easy to do and fun to do. People seem to like it,” he said.

Dreaming up Earl’s situations and then putting them on paper sometimes provides Wally with a window to the “good old days.”

“Earl drives a 1950 dodge pickup most of the time, and much of his work is done with a team. Some of that is nostalgia. I never hayed with horses but I fed the cattle with a team,” said Wally. “I’ve always had a fascination with that. I can’t imagine what it was like back in the day when they had to put all of their hay up that way.”

Earl cartoons can be found in a smattering of publications from Texas to British Columbia, from Montana to Alabama and Mississippi, he said.

His wife Pam is the technology guru, e-mailing and in a few cases snail-mailing his cartoons to the proper recipients.

Wally provides cartoons for three daily papers.

And of course Tri-State Livestock News readers check the Remuda Roundup section every week for the latest Earl funny.

Wintertime is his productive time. “It’s pretty easy to sit by the wood stove and draw,” he said.

Cartooning has taken Wally places he’d never have expected. He became good friends with Baxter Black, hosting the late cowboy humorist in his home at one time. Wally also spent time in Arizona with Black.

“I got acquainted with several people in that field, who I’d never have known if I hadn’t been doing this,” he said.

Although he’s a homebody who has never looked at his own website (his son designed it), it’s the people in the livestock industry who make it all worthwhile for Wally.

“I respect ranchers and I love the ranching way of life,” he said. “A lot of times the way grandpa did things is still the most efficent way.

“It had to be a quieter time back when they were doing things the way Earl does it. I’d almost say I’m lonesome for those days.”

Badgett was inducted into the Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame in April of this year. As the third Saddle of Honor recipient, Wally will joined 2018 Saddle of Honor recipient Charles M. Russell and 2019 Jay Joseph Contway. He received a bronze sculpture of Charlie Russell’s saddle this past August; the last new bronze created by Jay Contway. The replica of Russell’s historic saddle serves as a symbol for the extraordinary contributions Russell made in preserving the “Art and Soul of the American West.”

Wally Badgett was honored with the Saddle of Honor award from the Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame. Wally Badgett
Courtesy photo
Wally Badgett and his wife Pam raised a daughter Whitney and son Brett. Courtesy photo

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