I REMEMBER it vividly, the first time I heard Bil Keane, the creator of “Family Circus,” that epitome of the midcentury suburban gag comic, crack an insult joke that snapped with honest bite. The event was a National Cartoonists Society awards dinner, and the stately Keane’s relatively acidic wit while emcee made me reevaluate what fizzing truth might lie buried deep in his seemingly staid “Family Circus.”
What listening to Keane that evening did, really, was humanize the men — yes, to echo Golden Globes presenter Natalie Portman, it was nearly “all male” — behind the newspaper comic strips that predate the first moon landing. They may have been buttoned down in black tie on that awards night, but these aging gentlemen ruthlessly traded ironic observations and no-holds-barred art deconstructions that were more subversive than anything the funny pages would have allowed.
That sensation — the fleshing out of these comical men who survived the ’50s “gray flannel suit” era with humor intact — ripples through most every page of “Cartoon County,” author and Vanity Fair editor at large Cullen Murphy’s rich remembrances of his brush-wielding father and, as the subtitle says, “his friends in the golden age of make-believe.”
On one level, Murphy has crafted a tender memoir to his late father, John Cullen Murphy, the virtuosic artist who drew the comic strips “Prince Valiant” (created by the legendary Hal Foster) and “Big Ben Bolt.” But more broadly, the author’s beautifully filigreed work is a love letter to both a place — the then-affordable Connecticut suburbs where scores of cartoonists and commercial artists all lived, door to door and nib to nib — as well as to a time, the “high summer” of the American midcentury, when syndicated comics held a central place in pop culture.
These 100 or so men who lived in or near Fairfield County, who self-deprecatingly called themselves the Connecticut School, created or contributed to such popular comics as “Popeye” and “Blondie” and “Little Orphan Annie,” “Beetle Bailey” and the spinoff “Hi and Lois,” “Nancy” and “Barnaby” and “B.C.” and “Steve Canyon,” when not contributing to MAD and Sports Illustrated or the New Yorker. It was a tribe of talents who had largely served in World War II (John Cullen Murphy was on Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s staff) and who rode the postwar boom of the illustration industry to rewarding lives at home, drawing in rustic surroundings yet staying close enough to the action in Manhattan.
The effect this had on a generation of children like Cullen Murphy was the rise of a world where dads, instead of hitting the train platforms in tie and wingtips, appeared to “lounge around” the house while they brainstormed, or riffled through expansive stacks of art reference materials, or dragooned family members into becoming studio models for the afternoon after donning period costume.
Cullen Murphy’s father, in fact, was to this artistic manner born, serving as a teen model to next-door Connecticut neighbor Norman Rockwell and posing for Saturday Evening Post covers. That fortuitous geography led to Rockwell’s guiding John Cullen Murphy’s own classically trained art career.
By tracing Dad’s path through his decades as an illustrator and painter, the author — who would eventually team with his father and write “Prince Valiant” himself — creates a narrative terrain that allows him to evocatively meander through lore and anecdote and sense memories. He animates the artists who thrived in this rare era, and illuminates for us the machine of international syndication that made a few wealthy and made many, in this Connecticut alone, more than comfortable.
At the heart of it all are men who, not unlike the depiction of “Peter Pan” author J.M. Barrie in the 2004 film “Finding Neverland,” exist in some magical place between adult responsibility and — aided and abetted largely by their responsible wives — a mental and physical space of imagination and play.
Although the newspaper comics are still with us, very few creators still make a handsome living from the syndication enterprise — even as strips like “Blondie” and “Beetle Bailey” and “Dick Tracy” live on. And so what Murphy paints — through keenly observed detail and crisp picture-prose — is a world that is already as weathered and yellowed as a Sunday page from the era of Hearst and Pulitzer.
Yet among these men who spun wonders from make-believe, the age seems never yellowed. Only golden.