IF YOU WERE a sports cartoonist, as I was in the ‘90s, “Tank McNamara” was required reading. For 38 years, the award-winning strip helped define what sports satire was in the daily newspaper.
On Friday, the writer of that Universal Uclick comic, Jeff Millar, died at age 70, after a four-year fight with biliary cancer, according to his longtime employer, the Houston Chronicle.
In 1974, Millar — then the Chronicle’s main film reviewer — teamed with Houston-area artist Bill Hinds to launch “Tank McNamara,” named for the strip’s lantern-jawed athlete-turned-sportscaster (a TV trend becoming increasingly common at the time). The comic found a national following, received NCS honors and grew a client list of more than 300 newspapers.
(Among the strip’s recurring features was its “Sports Jerk of the Year” reader contest. Last year, Millar told Comic Riffs of Redskins owner Dan Snyder’s candidacy for the title: “I have mixed feelings about Dan Snyder. I’m very grateful for anyone who gives me some good material. But I know the people of Washington don’t have much of a choice.”)
“Tank” ran in The Post’s Style section till this fall.
Update: Universal Uclick tells Comic Riffs that Hinds — who collaborated with Millar on the writing as Millar’s health deteriorated — will “continue ‘Tank’ as both the writer and artist.”
From 1996 to 2000, Millar also created the strip “Second Chances.” The year that comic ended, he also left the Chronicle after a 35-year career there.
To memorialize Millar, Comic Riffs asked Hinds over the weekend to share his thoughts about his co-creator and longtime friend. Here’s what he says:
“I have many memories of Jeff. We took quite a few trips together.
“A week in my family’s vacation cabin in Northern Minnesota. He read; I scared fish.
“A day trip to Chicago to see a game at Wrigley Field.
“We once ended up in a small recreational tank — get it? — in a cartoon parade at the Dik and Joan Browne Cartoon Classic in Sarasota. It was actually an ATV with a mini-tank outer shell. If the Shriners ever went to war, this would be their clown tank. We were at a turn in the parade when the driver, from within the shell, called up to us to ‘hang on.’ Jeff and I were perched in raised seats in the back. The tank suddenly raised up in the front and started spinning around and firing popcorn into the crowd. The ‘Beetle Bailey’ crew must have been sooo jealous.
“ ‘Bewildered’ is a good way to describe the source of Jeff’s humor. He was bewildered by life, which he translated into columns, and bewildered by sports, which became ‘Tank’ gags.
“Frankly, he was also bewildered by many of the movies he reviewed. It is also how I would describe my favorite image of Jeff: a bewildered look that appeared often in our laugh-filled discussions of things in the popular culture. I can see it now.
“Another memory: We were invited to ride with the Dallas Cowboys to a Giants game on their charter jet in the 1970s. Very nice.
“On the way back after the game, Roger Staubach was sitting in the back of the plane with his battered legs propped across the aisle. Jeff had gone back there to get a drink of water. Suddenly, slight turbulence caused him to stumble, almost landing him on the unprotected, prone legs of the star QB. Jeff wasn’t a 300-pound lineman, but his weight would have done some damage. Through the willpower of a geeky guy about to face the wrath of a plane full of angry football players, he managed to pirouette and fall in a different direction.
“We were not invited on another trip with the Pokes.
“I think he got a column out of that.
“After I moved to the north side of town to raise my family, we saw less of each other and mainly communicated by e-mail. For a while, the only time we saw each other was at the [National Cartoonists Society] Reubens weekend.
“I wish I had been able to spend more time with him. His bewilderment was comforting in a crazy world.”