Cartoon County: My Father and His Friends in the Golden Age of Make-Believe

Cartoon County: My Father and His Friends in the Golden Age of Make-Believe

by Cullen Murphy


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A poignant history of the cartoonists and illustrators from the Connecticut School

For a period of about fifty years, right in the middle of the American Century, many of the the nation’s top comic-strip cartoonists, gag cartoonists, and magazine illustrators lived within a stone’s throw of one another in the southwestern corner of Connecticut—a bit of bohemia in the middle of those men in their gray flannel suits.

Cullen Murphy’s father, John Cullen Murphy, drew the wildly popular comic strips Prince Valiant and Big Ben Bolt, and was at the heart of this artistic milieu. Comic strips and gag cartoons read by hundreds of millions were created in this tight-knit group—Superman, Beetle Bailey, Snuffy Smith, Rip Kirby, Hagar the Horrible, Hi and Lois, Nancy, Sam & Silo, Amy, The Wizard of Id, The Heart of Juliet Jones, Family Circus, Joe Palooka, and The Lockhorns, among others. Cartoonists and their art were a pop-cultural force in a way that few today remember. Anarchic and deeply creative, the cartoonists were independent spirits whose artistic talents had mainly been forged during service in World War II.

Illustrated with never-before-seen photographs, cartoons, and drawings, Cartoon County brings the postwar American era alive, told through the relationship of a son to his father, an extraordinarily talented and generous man who had been trained by Norman Rockwell. Cartoon County gives us a glimpse into a very special community—and of an America that used to be.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374298555
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 11/21/2017
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 8.40(w) x 9.30(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Cullen Murphy is the editor at large at Vanity Fair and the former managing editor of The Atlantic Monthly. He is the author of The Word According to Eve, Just Curious, and God’s Jury. He lives in Massachusetts with his family.

Read an Excerpt



My father's drawing board, tilted to its customary steep diagonal, stands across the room from where I write. Above it hang some of his paintings, sketches, and comic strips, along with work by other cartoonists and illustrators who were among his friends. The surface of the drawing board is five feet long and four feet high, and a polished declivity on the cross brace marks where my father rested his right foot as he sat and drew. Every square inch of the oaken face is covered with flicks and curls of paint or ink, creating an inadvertent pattern as intricate as a Pollock. That surface was the accumulated product of almost sixty years, from the late 1940s until my father's death, in 2004.

If you had a sort of cinematic omniscience, you could connect each daub of ink and stroke of color to a moment of life in another world. I grew up in an unusual environment — not only as the child of a cartoonist and illustrator, but connected to a network of families where everyone's father was a cartoonist or illustrator. In time, some among the younger generation would be drawn into the business themselves, as I was, collaborating with my father on Prince Valiant for many years. The place was Fairfield County, Connecticut. In the high summer of the American Century, during the 1950s and '60s, it was where a populous concentration of the country's comic strip artists, gag cartoonists, and magazine illustrators chose to make their home. The group must have numbered a hundred or more, and it constituted a tightly knit subculture. Its members sometimes referred to themselves as the Connecticut School, with the good-natured self-mockery that betrays an element of seriousness. In the conventional telling, the milieu of Wilton and Westport, Greenwich and Darien, was the natural habitat of the suburban salarymen who made the trip every day to jobs on Wall Street or Madison Avenue. Westport was the setting of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. I was well aware of the men (and it was almost all men) lining the platform every morning at the century-old train station in my hometown of Cos Cob. But for me, those executives with their briefcases — a majority of the county's white- collar workforce — seemed like outlandish outliers. They weren't living the way normal people lived.

To my seven siblings and me, and others we knew, "normal" was something else entirely. Normal was coming home from school and finding a father who had done nothing but draw pictures all day while watching Million Dollar Movie on TV. He might not have changed his rumpled clothes since throwing something on after rolling out of bed — and, yes, that could be a piece of rope holding up his trousers. He may have played a round of golf or enjoyed a long lunch with some of his other artist friends, so when you visited his studio after school you would perhaps have to rouse him from a nap. Or, in the absence of children to do the job for him, he might be posing in front of the Polaroid, pneumatic plunger in hand, to snap a picture of himself from a distance.

Normal meant appreciating the difference between "plate" and "vellum" finishes on three-ply bristol board — the one smooth as glass, ideal for pen and ink; the other slightly textured, better suited for charcoal or crayon. Normal meant understanding that a Hunt No. 102 pen nib was good for ordinary lines but that a Gillott No. 170 was best for lettering. It meant thinking of "bigfoot" as primarily an aesthetic category — designating humorous cartoons rather than adventure strips — and not a biological one. It meant being familiar with the terminology invented by Mort Walker, creator of Beetle Bailey and Hi and Lois — knowing, for instance, that the cartoon starbursts that convey intoxication are called "squeans" and the wavy lines that convey aroma are called "wafterons."

Normal was listening to conversations like this one at a local restaurant, between Curt Swan, who drew the Superman comic book, and Jerry Dumas, who with Mort Walker produced Sam's Strip and Sam and Silo:

Dumas: Why does Superman have a cape?

Swan: I don't know, Jerry.

Dumas: Why does Superman's cape swirl around him even when he's standing in an office?

Swan: I really don't know, Jerry.

Dumas: When Superman undresses in a phone booth, how does he know his clothes will still be there when he gets back?

Swan: I haven't the faintest idea, Jerry.

Dumas: Can Superman fly when he's wearing his business suit on the outside, with the costume underneath?

Swan: Pauline! Could you put a little brandy in this coffee?

At some point in the mid-1970s, Mort Walker and Jerry Dumas drew an aerial map of Fairfield County and wrote in the names of some of the cartoonists who lived there, quickly running out of room. Westport had a large cluster: Bud Sagendorf (Popeye), Leonard Starr (On Stage and Little Orphan Annie), Dick Wingert (Hubert), Stan Drake (The Heart of Juliet Jones and Blondie), Jack Tippit (Amy), John Prentice (Rip Kirby), and Mel Casson (Mixed Singles and Boomer). The great illustrator Bernie Fuchs was in Westport, too; imagine, my father would say, if Degas had worked for McCann Erickson and Sports Illustrated. Fuchs's career was all the more remarkable because an accident at an early age had cost him three fingers on his drawing hand. Dick Hodgins Jr. (Henry), Dik Browne (Hi and Lois and Hägar the Horrible), and Whitney Darrow Jr. (a New Yorker maintstay) lived in Wilton. Stamford was home to Ernie Bushmiller, the son of a vaudevillian, who drew Nancy, a strip so spare and elemental ("Dumb it down," Bushmiller would advise) that academic theorists can't let it alone. Online you can find a cache of correspondence between Bushmiller and Samuel Beckett — it's a parody, but so true to life that it has entered reality through the back door. Noel Sickles (Scorchy Smith, but also drawings and paintings that seemed to turn up everywhere) lived in New Canaan. So did Chuck Saxon, the John Cheever of gag cartoonists. Over a lifetime, Saxon's evocations of self-satisfied but oblivious suburban grandees yielded 92 covers and 725 cartoons for The New Yorker. Up in the Ridgefield area were the gag cartoonists Orlando Busino, Joe Farris, and Jerry Marcus. Frank Johnson (Boner's Ark and Bringing Up Father) was in Fairfield. Jim Flora, another illustrator, lived in an enclave tethered to coastal Rowayton. His edgy, angular confections — think of the album covers for any jazz artist in the 1950s and early '60s — epitomized the era's graphic sensibility of high-end hip. Also in Rowayton was Crockett Johnson (the comic strip Barnaby and the classic children's book Harold and the Purple Crayon). Greenwich was home to Mort Walker and Jerry Dumas, and also to Tony DiPreta (Joe Palooka), the political cartoonists Ranan Lurie and John Fischetti, and my father (Big Ben Bolt and Prince Valiant). An adjoining parcel of New York served as an exurban annex, with Johnny Hart (B.C.), Jack Davis (Mad magazine), Dave Breger (Mister Breger), Ted Shearer (Quincy), and Milton Caniff (Steve Canyon and Terry and the Pirates). This is just a sampling, and leaves out scores.

The surge into Fairfield County was mainly a product of the postwar years, and it had been driven by the age-old forces of money and geography. First, the artists and cartoonists needed to be close to New York City. That's where the magazines and book publishers and comic strip syndicates were mainly based, and in an age before scanners or fax machines, physical proximity was essential. The gag cartoonists had to make weekly rounds in midtown Manhattan, going door-to-door to sell their work — this at a time when dozens of national magazines still ran cartoons. As for the comic strip artists, they were always running behind and often needed to deliver finished work in person. A cartoonist boarding the train in Westport during the late-morning, off-peak lull, a thin rectangular parcel wrapped in brown paper under his arm, would not have been surprised to meet someone he knew carrying a similar parcel boarding the train a few stops later, in Riverside or Greenwich. To anyone watching, the encounter might have seemed like a scene from John le Carré.

There are many ways of being close to Manhattan. You can actually live there, as some cartoonists continued to do, or you can live in the suburbs of New York, New Jersey, or Connecticut. This is where money came into play. Alone among the three states, Connecticut at the time had no income tax. Get yourself east of the state line and you would enjoy a tax holiday, with New York City only forty-five minutes away. Greenwich was the closest town in Connecticut to Manhattan; then came Stamford, Darien, and New Canaan. All were in the rectangular panhandle that Connecticut had somehow managed to keep away from grasping New York during the ferocious colonial disputes of the late seventeenth century — to the ultimate advantage of cartoonists and illustrators.

There was a third factor: Even before World War II, a few pioneers had begun to form a nucleus. In the first decades of the twentieth century, as comic strips and magazine illustration became big business, artists began migrating out of Manhattan to the comparatively rustic precincts of Westchester County, just north of the city. Hard as it is to believe for anyone who has seen its struggling downtown today, in the 1920s and '30s the town of New Rochelle was what Greenwich would become. The cartoonist Fontaine Fox, who drew Toonerville Trolley, lived in New Rochelle, as did Frederick Burr Opper, who drew Happy Hooligan, and Paul Terry, who established his Terrytoons animation studio there. Also living in New Rochelle were J. C. Leyendecker, best known for the painterly Arrow Collar Man, and Norman Rockwell, a household name even then. My father had the luck to grow up two doors down from Rockwell, model for him as a boy, and train with him as a journeyman illustrator. I have a pencil drawing that Rockwell once made to suggest the composition for a painting my father had in mind. When Leyendecker died, his longtime romantic partner, Charles Beach, and his sister, Mary Augusta, auctioned off the contents of his studio from the front lawn of the Leyendecker home. For a few dollars apiece my father picked up sheaves of oil sketches — small oddments of canvas on which Leyendecker had experimented with color and form before making a finished painting. A few pink noses and ears. A muddy work boot. A shirt cuff. A choirboy. A propaganda poster. Disembodied hands making stylized gestures — devoid of context, but so expressive in themselves that they seemed to say "Shall we dance?" or "After you!"

That was in 1951, and the drift of illustrators and cartoonists away from Manhattan and Westchester toward the promised land of Connecticut was already under way. The Famous Artists School, which offered correspondence courses for aspiring illustrators and cartoonists, had been spun off from the Society of Illustrators and had established itself in Westport, under Albert Dorne. A dozen well-known commercial artists were on its faculty. Families were growing, and property in Connecticut was cheap. The contemporary image of Fairfield County and nearby areas is hard to escape, but the region was a very different place before the era of arbitrage and hedge funds. To be sure, there were old estates along the waterfront and in the backcountry — onetime summer homes for wealthy New Yorkers — and artists and writers had been putting down roots in this hinterland for decades, drawn by the wooded hills and shaded dells that could make a nearby neighbor seem far away. In the late nineteenth century, impressionists like John Henry Twachtman and J. Alden Weir established what Childe Hassam called the Cos Cob School of painting. By the middle of the twentieth century, Arthur Miller was living in Roxbury. Shirley Jackson was in Westport, Maurice Sendak in Ridgefield, James Thurber in West Cornwall. But there were still working farms all over southwestern Connecticut, and towns like Greenwich and Stamford, Norwalk and Darien, had a big middle class of plumbers and teachers who could afford to buy houses near where they worked and had a firm hold on the levers of local power. Greenwich Avenue, now lined with Ralph Lauren and Gucci, back then more closely resembled a prosperous main street in Ohio or Michigan. Cartoonists and illustrators didn't earn fortunes, and didn't need to. For our Addams Family–style house in Cos Cob, purchased in 1953, my parents paid $22,500. It came with a cavernous barn that still smelled of horses. My father's weekly checks from King Features Syndicate would be left on the dining room table for my mother to deposit, so I know that his comic strip income in 1960 was about $25,000. This was for the boxing strip Big Ben Bolt, which appeared in three hundred newspapers — about average at the time — and was written by Elliot Caplin (who also wrote The Heart of Juliet Jones), the brother of the irascible Al Capp (who wrote and drew Li'l Abner). Only a very few strips, such as Blondie, Beetle Bailey, and Peanuts, ever hit the thousand-newspaper mark.

By the time I was old enough for childhood memories, Fairfield County was fully stocked with cartoonists and illustrators. What I know about the origins of the Connecticut School would come gradually in the form of backfill. Most of the cartoonists were military veterans, and many, like Dick Wingert, Bill Mauldin, Gill Fox, and Bil Keane, had worked during the war for the military newspapers Yank and The Stars and Stripes. Mort Walker had gone to college after World War II, then came east from Missouri and somehow landed a job at Dell as the editor of 1000 Jokes magazine, which paid the bills while he tried to sell gag cartoons to the weeklies and monthlies. His boss at Dell was Chuck Saxon, who was doing the exact same thing. Dik Browne, after a year studying art at Cooper Union, had gone to work for the New York Journal-American as a copyboy. He remembered walking into the newsroom for the first time, looking for a job. Bleary reporters pecked at ancient Underwoods. Editors hurled obscenities. Smoke rose in wafterons. The city editor took a cigar from his mouth and appraised the gawky kid in front of him. "What do you want?" he asked. Browne, taking in the surroundings, said, "I want it all." When Browne's talents as an artist became apparent, the Journal-American sent him to do courtroom sketches. He covered the Lucky Luciano trial, among others. After serving in the war as a cartoonist and mapmaker, Browne wound up at Johnstone and Cushing, an advertising agency that specialized in cartoon-style ad campaigns — the kind now enjoying a retro second life — and became a hothouse for aspiring gag and comic strip cartoonists. Milton Caniff worked there early in his career. So did Leonard Starr, Stan Drake, and the comic book master Neal Adams. Another type of hothouse was the production departments — the "bullpens" — at the big newspapers like the New York Journal-American and the Chicago Tribune, and at the newspaper syndicates, such as King Features and the Newspaper Enterprise Association.


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Copyright © 2017 Cullen Murphy.
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Table of Contents

Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Illustration Credits,
Also by Cullen Murphy,
About the Author,

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