HOW DO YOU say goodbye to someone you never met, yet on some level, through the power of his work, felt as though you always knew?
Morrie Turner had that power, through the heart of his art and the soul of his comic strip. When I read his work, I — like many — felt as though I was entering his world. And what a hopefully inviting realm it was.
Young Nipper, and intellectual Oliver, and level-headed Sybil. and outspoken Connie. I began following their exploits as a tween — when I was about the same age as these characters themselves — and it was crucial and welcome and unique that they somehow spoke to millions of kids like myself.
The strip was “Wee Pals,” and there was nothing like it on the page. I didn’t read it because Turner was a pioneer, that he was making history. I read it because he was, through the positive prism of a comic, reflecting the present.
It is amazing and yet not at all surprising that prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the comics page lacked diversity. Back then, you could have posed the question: What do the comics pages and Little Orphan Annie’s pupil-less eyes have in common? Answer: No color in sight. (As it were.)
Like Turner, I was born in the Bay Area, and when you looked around there (as in so many cities, especially), you of course saw an ethnic and racial diversity that wasn’t reflected on the funnypages. Except, like an oasis, within “Wee Pals.”
Turner was a protege of “Peanuts” creator Charles Schulz (another Bay Area-based cartoonist), and according to lore, Turner once urged Schulz to integrate the world of Charlie Brown, Linus and Lucy. Schulz’s advice: You should create that strip.
In 1965, Turner did just that, as the multicultural gang of “Wee Pals” was syndicated by Lew Little Enterprises. (Full disclosure: More than three decades later, Lew Little would syndicate my strip, as well.)
Turner was by no means the first African American cartoonist to achieve syndication. “Krazy Kat” found massive success during the Jazz Age (and ran till 1944), but its creator, George Herriman, hid his mixed-race ancestry; E. Simms Campbell, who found success by the ‘30s, is considered the first black cartoonist to work for national publications; Zelda “Jackie” Ormes (who was born six years before Turner) was the first black woman cartoonist to be syndicated nationally; and Oliver Harrington is widely credited with creating the first prominent cartoons to provide insight into African American life.
Yet it was Turner who was the first black cartoonist to create a fully integrated strip for a major syndicate — a feature that attained a true national profile.
And it was “Wee Pals” — which saw its client list zoom to more than 100 newspapers in the immediate wake of the Rev. Martin Luther King’s assassination — that reflected social change by promoting “Rainbow Power.”
Turner’s aim, according to the biography posted by his syndicate (Creators), was “to portray a world without prejudice, a world in which people’s differences — race, religion, gender and physical and mental ability — are cherished, not scorned.”
That world was an especially appealing place to enter as a child of natural optimism. Cartoonist/educator Lynda Barry says that during her difficult childhood, the idealized “Family Circus” provided needed comfort. For me, “Wee Pals” was a welcome balm, and so it seemed entirely natural when Turner turned up on “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
Yet for Mr. Turner, major comic-strip syndication was a bit of a dream deferred.
Turner began cartooning for Stars and Stripes in the ‘40s, as he served as a mechanic with the 477th Bombardment Group of the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II. After that, he created a strip for the Chicago Defender, and drew while a clerk at the Oakland police department.
So when he achieved a dream of major American syndication in his 40s, he made sure to make time for successive generations of aspiring cartoonists.
I wish I had known that in 1998.
That year, I was a young-turk cartoonist freshly signed to United Media, and so naturally met my new syndicate colleague, Charles “Sparky” Schulz, at the National Cartoonists Society’s (NCS) Reuben Awards. When I mentioned that another of my cartooning heroes (and influences) was Morrie Turner, someone pointed him out to me, there across the Pasadena ballroom.
I smiled. I appreciated just being in his proximity. But I couldn’t move. At that point, approaching a cartooning hero cold was just too intimidating.
Now, I won’t get that chance again. Morris Nolton Turner, the Oakland-raised son of a nurse and a Pullman porter, died in Sacramento last weekend at age 90.
He is mourned. He is missed. He is beloved.
Thank you, Mr. Turner. Rest in peace, and may you live on in your faith, in that next Soul Corner.
A large public service has been set for Feb. 9 in Berkeley, Calif. I wish I could be there. In lieu of listening to the service, I offer this heartfelt tribute to a hero, and have asked some fellow mourners — some of whom knew him well — to come forward to speak. Here is what they have to say:
Morrie was a very good friend of mine for over 30 years, not merely an NCS acquaintance. One of the kindest souls I have ever had the privilege to know. Morrie’s influence on me didn’t make me a better cartoonist. He helped make me a better person.
I’ll miss him dearly.
(MAD artist and NCS president):
In 2003, the NCS honored Morrie with the Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement Award. ...This is a big deal and honors those who have had exemplary careers in cartooning and had a profound impact on their field. Morrie certainly fit that bill. In fact, to call him a mere “pioneer” or “legend “ seems like a disservice considering what he did for minorities in cartooning, and for the world itself with his message of peace, tolerance and acceptance of all races, nationalities and religions.
It’s a sad day to lose such a pioneer in cartooning and a uniquely positive force in the world. Morrie had a genuine goodness and a generous spirit. He was a joy to talk with and was one of the nicest, most accepting people I’ve ever met.
(”Zits,” “Baby Blues”):
He was incredibly kind, genuinely interested in people, and always made time to talk with me when we would see each other. He was a positive, accepting influence on so many of us cartoonists when we were starting out in the business. Oh, and his laugh always made me laugh.
I always felt that “Wee Pals” was so successful because it was a true, organic extension of Morrie himself. The optimism and idealism were heartfelt expressions of a true gentleman; he was one of The Good Ones, and it was a real honor to share the comics page -- not to mention a syndicate! -- with him.
(”Hi and Lois” and comics historian):
Morrie Turner was the first African American to sell a comic strip with African American characters to a major syndicate when “Wee Pals” was picked up by Lew Little Enterprises in 1965. The cast of his creation was from a variety of backgrounds, providing a graphic testing ground for Turner’s belief in “Rainbow Power”: “I decided that by exposing readers to the sight of blacks and whites playing together in harmony,” Turner once claimed, “rather than pointing up aggravations, a useful, if subliminal, purpose would be served, and ultimately would have as great an effect for good as all the freedom marchers in Mississippi.
“Wee Pals” wasn’t in either of the newspapers my parents subscribed to while I was growing up, so I discovered the strip through Morrie’s reprint books. Even as a kid, I recognized that the titles of those compilations -- Funky Tales, Getting It All Together, Doing Their Thing, Kid Power -- signaled very powerfully that this strip was different. Unlike most of the other comic strips or comic books I read as a child, which had a certain timeless quality, “Wee Pals” was timely. It felt deeply authentic to me because it was contemporary; these weren’t characters who’d been around since the ‘40s and ‘50s. It felt very specific to its time, and it was a time I recognized as my own. I didn’t have to run to my parents and ask them what a particular “Wee Pals” strip meant. And the characters themselves were great. Morrie did a tremendous job, in only a few strokes, of revealing just what made each kid tick. From week to week, sometimes even day to day, I’d pick a different character as my favorite. The fact that there were so many to choose from points to the richness of the world Morrie created. He was a great cartoonist.
I hung out with Morrie a few times in Santa Rosa, back when “Sparky” Schulz used to invite cartoonists there every year at Christmastime for his ice shows. Morrie was such an approachable, friendly guy, you couldn’t help but like and admire him. He even sent a nice note and an autographed “Wee Pals” calendar to my elderly mother, which she was very proud to have. I used to read his comic strip back when I was a paper boy delivering the Oakland Tribune, so it was pretty cool to meet and become friends with him.
I’m so sorry to hear of Morrie’s passing. I got to know Morrie when I was just starting out as a syndicated cartoonist living in San Francisco. I would see him at the Bay Area National Cartoonists Society events. He was always so supportive of the younger, up-and-coming cartoonists, and was always generous with advice. Unlike a lot of cartoonists you meet in person, Morrie was actually funny, and gregarious, and a lot of fun to be around. We’ll all miss him greatly
(”Knight Life,” “The K Chronicles”):
I had the pleasure of interviewing him onstage a couple of years ago at the San Diego Comic-Con. [I was] disappointed with the attendance, but it was good, selfish fun for me. He told a very moving story about visiting injured soldiers in Vietnam.
And I was excited to see a lot of his early political-cartoon work. I came to realize that Morrie’s done everything I’ve ever wanted to do, except he did it 50 years ago, both humbly and graciously.
Easily the nicest guy in the industry.
(”For Better or for Worse”):
I’m grateful for having been a member of the NCS when he was a young and healthy man. I have had to say goodbye to some wonderful people over the last few years!
I didn’t know Morrie Turner well — I met him only once. But I never forgot that meeting. I attended my first Reubens Award ceremony in San Francisco, in 2003, where I got to see Morrie receive the Milt Caniff Lifetime Achievement Award. Until the moment he crossed that stage, I felt as if I were the only non-white person at the entire event — and one of the few under 30. I practically was. I felt out of place. Nobody knew who I was and worse, nobody I mingled with seemed to care -- except my friend and inspiration Wiley Miller, who wasn’t even in the NCS at the time. I wasn’t sure I wanted to remain part of the NCS.
After the banquet, I was standing in the hallway and I heard a man’s voice from behind me say, “I saw you young man and I just wanted to say hello.” I turned around and it was Morrie Turner. He reached out to shake my hand. As I shook his, all the “Soul Circles” I’d read over the years seemed to flash so fast through my mind that I couldn’t make out even one to tell him I’d read. So what I told him is: “When I was a kid, we took three different newspapers. I learned to read by reading the comics page. I loved to draw but I assumed it was someplace I could never be because none of the characters looked like me. I can’t tell you how important it was, for me, to see ‘Wee Pals’ in there every day, to see that it was GOOD, and to see the achievements of people of color in that Soul Circle on Sundays. Because I sure as hell never saw them in the rest of the newspaper. I used to imagine myself appearing in one of those circles someday. I don’t think you can possibly know how many little kids you inspired, sir.” I told him it was an honor to see him receive this award and that recognition of his work by the NCS was long overdue. Decades overdue.
He gave me a little hug and told me: “You’re doing something important just by being here. We need people like you to BE here.”
I’m not going anywhere, Morrie. Morrie Turner was the father of diversity on the comics page, and I doubt I’d be here if it weren’t for him.
Eleven years ago, I was considering walking out of that organization and not looking back just because I felt as if I didn’t belong. Morrie Turner stopped me. Today I’m the third vice president of the NCS. I wish I could meet him one more time to thank him again. With just a few words, and just a few lines of ink and color on the page, the man inspired me just as much when I was 28 as he did when I was 5.
(Curator, Cartoon Art Museum):
Morrie claimed he was finally going to slow down in another year or two, once he’d done 50 years’ worth of “Wee Pals” comic strips. That would have been nice, matching his old friend Charles Schulz’s tenure on “Peanuts,” but I don’t think any of us really believed Morrie would stop drawing. Or could stop drawing.
Nearly every student in the Bay Area since the 1970s, especially in Morrie’s hometown of Oakland, met him on one of his countless classroom visits, where he’d tell kids stories about his life as a professional cartoonist, and as a proud graduate of the Oakland public school system. As proud as Morrie was of his own success, he was even prouder of all of the other cartoonists he inspired. And doctors. And scientists. And teachers. Morrie never forgot where he came from, and never missed an opportunity to inspire the next generation.
Even in recent years, as his health declined, Morrie’s schedule barely slowed up. A typical week involved three trips to the hospital for dialysis, a school visit, a library appearance and maybe a comic book convention. And everywhere he went, he showed up smiling and ready to share some of his favorite stories about cartooning. Or about his friends. Or his military service. Or his school days. Or whatever popped into his head. And each and every audience had a great time.
While it’s sad that Morrie is no longer with us, the last several decades of his life were almost like an extended farewell tour. Everywhere he went, people were thrilled to see him, whether it was the first time or the fiftieth time they’d heard his stories. He received awards from the Cartoon Art Museum, the National Cartoonists Society, Pittsburgh’s ToonSeum, Children’s Fairyland, and some organizations made up awards just for the sake of getting one more visit from Morrie. It’s rare that someone can do what he did for so long and maintain an enthusiastic, appreciative audience of friends, family, and fans, but Morrie was a rare kind of person. Morrie loved what he did, and everybody loved Morrie. And Morrie loved everybody.
Morrie was one of my Dad and Mom’s best cartoonist friends, and the first time I met him, I could see why. (Dad even named a character who made occasional appearances in “The Family Circus” after Morrie.) He and Dad went to Vietnam with the USO together. Dad literally shared the clothes off his back during the trip due to Morrie’s luggage getting “lost” in transit (of course, them being about the same size was a bonus, although my Dad’s taste in clothes was probably a negative... it was the late 1960’s. That experience, I think, helped them form a bond that lasted till the day Dad died. I know my Dad was thrilled and honored to present Morrie with the Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement award from the NCS in 2003. It was a most deserved award. What Morrie did with his “Wee Pals” strip was groundbreaking, and his own humbleness and continued joy of sharing his love of all people through his cartoon was a true gift.
I know he and Dad are probably laughing together right now... and if Morrie’s luggage got misplaced on his way up there ... well, I’m sure my Dad has him covered.