Glen David Gold’s memoir will be published in June.
The landmark Masters of American Comics museum show of 2004-2005 attempted to establish a canon for domestic cartooning. The curators chose 15 creators whose work they felt should be considered when trying to understand the art form. Their selections reflected a curious shift in the medium — all the artists whose careers started before World War II worked on newspaper strips, and all the postwar artists, save Charles Schulz (more about him later), worked in comic books. You could argue that Winsor McCay, George Herriman, Milton Caniff, et al had done the heavy lifting of innovation, and the strip artists who followed were traveling a well-furrowed route.
Cullen Murphy’s excellent “Cartoon County” is a history of a group of those artists, the ones established in the 1950s and 1960s, whose work didn’t so much break rules as make them familiar to the tens of millions of us who started our Sundays with a look at the four-color comics. In that era of men in suits riding trains into Manhattan, the artists behind “Beetle Bailey,” “Nancy” and “The Heart of Juliet Jones” were on the same trains. They were just a little weirder. A fair number of them had landed in and around suburban Fairfield County, Conn., where they formed a loose community that socialized in between long bouts of solitude at the drawing table.
To use the word “charming” might sound condescending, but this book is seriously charming, in the sense that it made me want to travel to the enchanted time and place that Murphy presents. “Cartoon County” made me wish I lived in a world where Dad made the mailman pose as a Greek statue for a photo reference for his strip, where the evening watering hole was called The Pen & Pencil, and where having a lousy golf handicap was the worst of all realities. This was an age when artists could make a middle-class living and when the bigger Sunday newspapers arrived with a 16-page comic insert. “Editors understood what sold,” Murphy notes. “The news sections of the Sunday newspapers generally came wrapped in the comics section, not the other way round.”
Murphy’s father, John Cullen Murphy, took over “Prince Valiant” from Hal Foster, meaning the author grew up in the heart of the group. Cullen Murphy delivers deft insights into the cultural anthropology of this vanished society, from the microscopic (“every cartoonist bore a hard callus on the distal interphalangeal joint of the middle finger of his drawing hand”) to the ritualistic (Tuesdays were “look day” at the New Yorker, and the following days of the week were for the magazines that didn’t pay as well) to the global (the State Department sent story ideas to the anti-communist artist Roy Crane for his strip “Buz Sawyer”).
Murphy is a skilled observer, and his prose is supplemented by a jaw-dropping array of cartoons, sketches and photographs. I experienced many admittedly ridiculous revelations while reading “Cartoon County.” For instance, I had no idea that Lois of “Hi and Lois” was Beetle Bailey’s sister, nor that Sarge’s dog was named after Otto Soglow, creator of “The Little King.” And now I am convinced that Mort Walker’s glossary of stylized ink motifs (“plewds” are beads of sweat; “squeans” are the starbursts that convey drunkenness) deserves to be more widely known.
Murphy digs deep into the concentrated creativity of the artists. His account of Foster explaining how to tell stories is particularly valuable. His tale of his father’s journey from training with Norman Rockwell to doing wartime portraiture of Army potentates to drawing the boxing strip “Big Ben Bolt” is a loving but also grounded explication of how talented Dad was. (Fact is, pretty darned talented.) And the description of the decline of Fairfield’s creative world struck me as poignant, its doom striking in the early ’80s when a yacht was docked in Greenwich Harbor emblazoned with the name “Arbitrage.”
As an anthropological document, however, “Cartoon County” is missing something. The history is gentle, the parents kind, the alcohol mostly harmless. Largely left out are the affairs and the insurmountable family conflicts you find in Richard Yates and John Cheever. This is not a flaw but a feature, for looking away is a theme of the era. The strips themselves were conservative — in the sense of not challenging but confirming what we already knew. Murphy leads us to an eternal world where Dagwood is always late to work and the kids from “Family Circus” are always leaving footprints around the neighborhood, regardless of what churning and awkward events are pulsing outside the frame.
Which leads us to Schulz. On the surface, “Peanuts” might seem like other strips. But at the time the Fairfield County cartoonists were toiling, Schulz was on the other side of the country and creatively mining a vein of humor and pathos that lies in exposing uncomfortable truths. What if children could articulate their inner turmoil? There aren’t enough plewds in the world to illustrate the resulting angst. Hence his work is framed and put on the walls of museums.
But what of the strips bound instead for the refrigerator or the cubicle? The kinds designed for humor, entertainment and narrative pot-stirring? Their artists built a community in one tiny corner of one state, but also a national community of readers, heterogeneous in so many ways, yet with daily touchstones in common. The skills and sweat it took to make these connections hadn’t really been delved into until Murphy came along. He really makes you wish you were there. And with this book, just for a little bit, you are.
By Cullen Murphy
Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
260 pp. $27