'Cartoon County' Looks Back At The Golden Age Of Sunday Comics

Dec 5, 2017
Originally published on December 6, 2017 12:07 pm
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. In an era when kids looked forward to the Sunday newspaper comics, my guest Cullen Murphy lived in the world where those comics were created. His father, John Cullen Murphy, drew a comic about a prizefighter called "Big Ben Bolt." In 1970, he started drawing the popular comic strip "Prince Valiant" about a Norse prince in the King Arthur era. "Prince Valiant" was created in 1937 by Hal Foster, who asked Colin's father to do the illustrations after Foster's arthritis got bad. In 1980, Foster handed over the writing to Cullen. Cullen wrote "Prince Valiant" while his father continued to draw it for the next 24 years until his father's death.

Cullen Murphy's new memoir "Cartoon County" is about his father and the surprising number of other cartoonists who lived near or in Fairfield County, Conn., where Cullen grew up in the 1950s and '60s. They included the artists and-or writers behind "Popeye," "Little Orphan Annie," "Blondie," "Hagar The Horrible" and "Nancy." In addition to writing "Prince Valiant," Cullen Murphy was the managing editor of The Atlantic magazine for 20 years and has been an editor at large at Vanity Fair since 2006.

Cullen Murphy, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It must have been so interesting to grow up with all these adults who are cartoonists and, you know, comic writers. And they're having such interesting conversations. Unlike the kinds of conversations the adults in my neighborhood had, the adults in your community were talking about comics a lot of the time. And I want you to read an excerpt of a conversation that you reprint from memory in your book. And this is between two comic book artists. Would you describe who's talking and then read us the conversation? I love this.

CULLEN MURPHY: Sure, Terry. And it's great to be back with you again. So this is a conversation between Curt Swan, who drew the "Superman" comic, and Jerry Dumas, who with Mort Walker produced "Sam's Strip" and "Sam And Silo." And the conversation opens with with Jerry Dumas. They're at a diner. And Jerry says, why does Superman have a cape? And Curt says, I don't know, Jerry. Dumas goes on, why does Superman's cape swirl around him even when he's standing in an office? I really don't know, Jerry. When Superman undresses in a phone booth, how does he know his clothes will still be there when he gets back? I haven't the faintest idea, Jerry. Can Superman fly when he's wearing his business suit on the outside with the costume underneath? Pauline (ph), could you put a little brandy in this coffee?

GROSS: (Laughter) I love it. And what I love about this too is these are questions that like everybody has about "Superman." And as it turns out, the person drawing "Superman" in this period had no idea what the answers were.

MURPHY: You know, it's funny. When you when you hung around cartoonists, even as a kid, you had the sense that the unreality that was their life and their work had become a kind of reality.

GROSS: Describe what the Sunday comics were like when you were growing up surrounded by the guys who did the comics.

MURPHY: Well, there were glorious. So imagine a Sunday morning when 16 full pages of comics arrives with the newspaper. And the comics are so important that they wrap the newspaper. It's not like the front page of the Daily News or, you know, the Journal-American with all the important headlines are wrapping the comics. It's the other way around. And these pages are the size of a newspaper broadsheet. And the color is beautiful. And this has been going on for decades, really since the turn of the century. And the pages were so big that for a kid you could not realistically sit in a chair and read the comics. You had to spread them out across the floor - just like almost your comic strip image of a kid reading the comics. But it's hard to recapture what a big deal newspaper comics were for a long part of our history, in particularly at the very heart of the American century.

GROSS: So I'm going to ask you to describe "Prince Valiant," the comic strip that your father drew for decades and that you wrote for 24 years, until your father died in 2004. Describe what this strip was about.

MURPHY: Prince Valiant was the son of a royal family of Thule in what is now Scandinavia. And when the strip began...

GROSS: Is Thule made up, or is that a real place?

MURPHY: Well, it's a real place in the context of the comics, which for me is real enough.

GROSS: OK (laughter).

MURPHY: But I think it's - I think it's made up. There is a place called Thule. But Hal Foster's Thule was a made-up place.

GROSS: OK.

MURPHY: And Prince Valient's royal family was a made-up royal family. But I guess aren't they all?

GROSS: (Laughter)

MURPHY: And so Val, when the strip opens, is a young kid. He's escaped from political trauma in his homeland. And he arrives in King Arthur's Britain. And through a series of adventures, he's eventually knighted. He becomes a knight of the Round Table. He marries Aleta, Queen of the Misty Isles. They have twins and a couple of sons. And the adventures take him all over the world. They take Aleta all over the world, and they take the children all over the world. I think by the time I stopped doing the strip, members of the family had been to every continent except Antarctica.

GROSS: Wow, OK. And it's written in this kind of like old medieval or Dark Ages kind of language - I mean, not the language that they really would have spoken but our idea of what it might have sounded like. Can you read one of the captions for us to give us a taste of the language? And maybe you could read one that you wrote.

MURPHY: Sure, I'll give you one here in a second. But your description is is right. It's kind of a modern person's idea of what older English was like, filtered through Walter Scott and then refiltered through me and my dad and Hal Foster. And here's the opening sequence of a particular episode. The picture in the background shows King Arthur's palace in ruins after a horrific battle. (Reading) Camelot. The refugees who stream from Britain tell tales of horror and woe. The city of marvel, once a golden jewel amid emerald fields, stands bent and tarnished, a forbidding fortress. The meadowlands are sear with drought. Where joust took place, gallows sprout. It has been a year since Mordred seized the throne. And the common folk of Britain have learned how long a year can be.

GROSS: It's kind of Shakespearean to end the first part with a rhyme, no?

(LAUGHTER)

MURPHY: I was thinking Jesse Jackson, but I'll take Shakespeare.

GROSS: So one of the things your father used to do was pose for himself - taking Polaroid pictures of himself, so he could use himself as a model. And you often were the person snapping the photos. Would you describe some of the ways that he posed and some of the things he wore while he posed?

MURPHY: I have thousands of these pictures. My father really never threw anything away. And something like the pictures that he took of himself, he always, I'm sure in the back of his mind, thought, oh, I can use one of these pictures again. But he never did. He just kept taking more pictures. Bear in mind that in a typical "Prince Valiant" strip, there might be, you know, 20 human figures on a given Sunday. And they're all doing different things. And like other cartoonists, he knew enough anatomy. He had classical training. He could draw these from scratch. But it was a lot easier, and it would help with things like shadows and drama if he could have something to work with.

So he would dress himself up in different costumes and take pictures of himself and adjust the lighting. And it would be things like - oh, he would dress himself as a monk. He would dress himself as a as a knight. He would dress himself as a woman and put a wig on and a dress. He would lie on his back with his feet and his arms in the air as if he'd just been run through with a sword or fallen off a horse during a joust. He would have these expressions of, you know, horrific anger or, you know, ridiculous, preposterous laughter. And I have a collection of these that runs really from 1950, when he was doing a different strip, all the way up until shortly before his death. And it's the most remarkable and bizarre collection of family portraits that you can imagine having - and wonderful to look at.

GROSS: You sometimes posed for your father. What was it like to see his rendering of you as a character in "Prince Valiant"?

MURPHY: Well, the first thing to say is that posing for my father was not fun. Watching him pose was fun because he was a natural actor, and the camera loved him, and someone like myself is a bit of a stiffer personality when it comes to posing. Also, some of the things that he would be asking me to do were things that I wasn't really hot on doing.

I remember one sequence. It was for a strip that he did called "Big Ben Bolt", which is the strip that he did for two decades before he took over "Prince Valiant," and I had to be a little kid from India. And this meant, you know, taking off my shirt, putting on a pair of short pants and having the diapers from one of my siblings - I have seven siblings, and there was always someone in diapers - and having one of their diapers wrapped around my head as a turban. You know, this was not an ideal afternoon.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Cullen Murphy. And his memoir about his father who drew the "Prince Valiant" comic strip is called "Cartoon County." We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MISHA MENGELBERG TRIO'S "ROLLO III")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Cullen Murphy. He's an editor at large at Vanity Fair and author of the new memoir "Cartoon County," which is about his father who drew the "Prince Valiant" comic strip - a Sunday comic strip. And Cullen, for 24 years, wrote that comic strip as his father drew it.

So when your father was drawing - or especially - this is probably especially true earlier in his career. When he was drawing Sunday comics, there were a lot of things that you weren't allowed to show anatomically. What were some of those things?

MURPHY: Well, Ernie Bushmiller, who did "Nancy," at one point in his life was working in what was called the bullpen at one of the syndicates. The bullpen were the people who received the strips - the original strips when they were sent in by cartoonists and then prepared them for publication, and they were the line of first resort when it came to - I guess we'd have to call it censorship. And he had a list of what he called 35 noes - the things you couldn't show. And, you know, some of them would be obvious, and some of them were not obvious. Like, you weren't allowed to show a pair of dirty socks lying on a chair.

GROSS: What? (Laughter).

MURPHY: I have no idea why that was a rule. You just - it was a rule, and you had to live by it. But one of the things that was, you know, a source of bedevilment - not just for my father, but for others - was navels. You couldn't show navels on people, and you couldn't show nipples on men.

GROSS: Well, let me stop you there. You have a drawing that your father did from when he was drawing a comic strip about a prizefighter called "Big Ben Bolt." And so of course, he's bare-chested. He's in the ring, and he has no nipples (laughter).

MURPHY: That's right. You know, if you can't use nipples on men, you're going to have something lacking when you depict prizefighters, or in strips like "Alley Oop" or in "B.C." - any place where you have bare-chested men. And navels is a problem, too. Now, Mort Walker tried to fight back against the navel ban, and there was a character, Miss Buxley, who was often shown wearing a bikini. And Mort would just routinely draw a navel on Miss Buxley.

And the boys in the bullpen would get the strip. They'd see it was from Mort. They would see that Miss Buxley was in it, and they would take an X-Acto knife and take the navel out. And then after a while, they began sending navels back to Mort - the ones that they had taken off - just as their way of fighting. And then Mort, when he would do his strip, would start putting in more navels than you can imagine. He would put in a crate of navel oranges.

GROSS: (Laughter)

MURPHY: ...Just so he could put navels in. And they would send them all back. And he had something - at least, he claimed he had something called "Beetle Bailey's" bellybutton box.

GROSS: We - you know, the curious thing is that, you know, men were already on beaches with bathing trunks and no top. It's not like this was something that children hadn't seen. Like, you can't let a child see a man with nipples.

MURPHY: (Laughter)

GROSS: ...Or you can't let a child see a belly. Like, children were always so curious about what they're - you have an innie or an outie? And so why were these prohibitions existing? What were they about?

MURPHY: Well, I think you have to go back and look at the structure of the industry just more broadly. This is a mass medium in publications with largely conservative owners, and things that are being printed have to conform to - you know, standards is probably the wrong word, but the - you know, the wishes of, you know, a certain large proportion of the readership. It's an issue that affects any kind of mass medium.

And so, you know, comic strips were subject to that, and as a result, you know, lots of things would creep in that otherwise would be accepted by almost everybody as normal - for instance, smoking a pipe. Because tobacco was frowned on in some areas, you know, smoking a pipe in some places could be, really, a problem, and pipes would be whited-out of the strip. So you'd have some guy with his hand up to his mouth as if he's holding something, but there's nothing there.

GROSS: That's very strange (laughter). So let me get back to "Prince Valiant." Your father took it over when the creator of "Prince Valiant" was getting too old to do it himself, and then you ended up writing it as your father drew it. Why did you want to write the strip?

MURPHY: Mainly because it was a chance to work with my father. I'd been a reader of the strip for years, and I thought it was terrific when my father succeeded Hal Foster as the artist. It gave him real scope to do the kind of illustration that he had done many times before and was just extremely good at. But in certain ways, I had been working with my father for a long period of time. I'd taken all of those photographs, to begin with. I had a real sense of the working pattern of his life. I would sit out in the studio for hours and hours in the afternoons doing my own drawing or doing my homework. I loved the ambience out there, the smells, the sights, the sounds. And of course, I loved my father. And I loved the way his mind worked. And I loved his personality. So the chance to work with my father on a continuing basis was tremendously appealing. You know, not that this would be the entirety of my life's work, but it would be an attachment that I would have with him that would be ongoing.

So I began sending to Hal Foster, who continued to write the script for a while - I began sending him narrative ideas for stories, and he began using them. You know, he would take the narrative, he would break it down into different Sundays and break the Sundays down into their constituent panels. And he would do the work himself.

But from those narrative stories I then, you know, graduated to trying to write them the way he wrote them with mixed success at the outset. He was a stern yet shrewd and kind taskmaster. And, you know, eventually I got to the point where I knew how to do it. And when he decided that he wanted to give up the writing of the script as well as the drawing I was selected as the person who would take it over, which was just great.

GROSS: You were very close with your father. And for 24 years, you wrote "Prince Valiant" as your father drew it. And his signature was John Cullen Murphy. You're Cullen Murphy, so you shared a name. I'm wondering if you ever experienced a need to pull away. And I ask this because you were born in 1952, so you came of age in the late '60s and early '70s at a time of basically generational warfare, you know, when kids were really - a lot of kids were really rebelling against their parents and disagreeing about the war, disagreeing often about civil rights and about gay rights and women's rights and clothing and haircuts and what a good life meant, what to eat, I mean, basically everything (laughter). So did you ever experience any of that?

MURPHY: You know, I think everyone in the family went through something along those lines. But it never became too serious a problem in our family for a very specific reason, I think. One of the characteristics of cartooning families was that the cartoonist had somehow figured out how to live his life on his own terms. It wasn't following a path that somebody had laid out, you know, whether it's, you know, going to graduate school or, you know, following the footsteps into the contracting business or whatever. These people had some sort of a vision of what they wanted to do. It took a lot of ingenuity and creativity to cobble the right ingredients together. And they had all somehow managed to do it.

And this sense of your life and your lifestyle being something that you can create for yourself and that you have a right to create for yourself was a value that I saw in other families. And that certainly was a core value in my own family so that when those of us in the family wanted to pursue this, that or the other thing, the important question from my parents was, what is it that drives you? Pay attention to that. And I think that that attitude has a way of minimizing certain kinds of frictions that might otherwise be there.

GROSS: That makes a lot of sense. My guest is Cullen Murphy. His new memoir is called "Cartoon County." We'll talk more after a break. And we'll hear from Guillermo Del Toro, who directed the new movie "The Shape Of Water." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIE KNODEL'S "JET POLKA")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Cullen Murphy, an editor-at-large at Vanity Fair and former managing editor of The Atlantic. He's written a new memoir about his father, who started drawing the comic strip "Big Ben Bolt" in 1950 and in 1970 took over drawing the popular strip "Prince Valiant." In 1980, Cullen took over writing "Prince Valiant" and worked with his father until his death in 2004. The memoir "Cartoon County" is about his father and the many other comic strip and comic book artists who lived in or near Fairfield County, Conn., where Cullen grew up in the era of the golden age of the Sunday newspaper comics.

So in the final days when you were writing "Prince Valiant" and your father was drawing it, that whole world was dying. You know, the Sunday comics no longer meant what they used to, and "Prince Valiant," which is still being published today - but it didn't have - I don't think it had the kind of audience by then. But you have a quote in here about that world dying that I'd like you to read for us.

MURPHY: It's from a conversation with Dik Browne, who drew "Hi And Lois" and created "Hagar The Horrible." And I'd gone to visit him and his wife at their home. We were just talking about the world of cartoonists in Fairfield County that we had all known. You could feel that it was beginning to dissipate. People were moving. Older cartoonists were dying. This very special place in two decades was not going to be what it was like.

And I asked him about that, and he said, I feel right now the way I used to feel as a kid when the movie was over. The credits would start to roll. The lights would start to come up, and I would walk slowly backwards up the slanting aisle, watching the screen just trying to make it last as long as I could.

GROSS: It's really a beautiful (laughter) quote about how wonderful movies and parts of life are (laughter). You said that your father was a pack rat. You know, he had all these, like, costumes. And I don't know what else he collected, but it sounds like he collected a lot of stuff. And when...

MURPHY: I can give you his spelling bees from Chicago Public Schools in 1925 if that helps.

GROSS: Yeah, so you still have that.

MURPHY: (Laughter) Well, you're in this funny situation - things you never would have saved but can't bear to throw away. You know, after he died, when we started going through the studio looking for things, my Lord, the stuff that was there - you know, some of it really wonderful - you know, original cartoon strips by, you know, George McManus and other folks - also all his sketchbooks from when he was doing life drawing classes at the Art Students League in the 1930s.

And I have to say; going through it is a great experience, as was going through the letters and the diaries of his. You know, you begin to see a person just come alive in front of you, and you come to appreciate that this person, even before you existed, existed just as you do now. It's kind of a hypnotic experience.

GROSS: You know, I'm always interested when somebody is parent dies what they do with the things, the possessions, the collections that their parent left behind and deciding whether to throw it out or give it away or keep it. And if you're going to keep it, where exactly are you going to keep it? And so since your father had so much and it has value for you still, where are you keeping it? What are you doing with it, and what do you think its future will be? I mean, he died in 2004, so that's a while ago.

MURPHY: We've done several things. The good news is that all of this material will be preserved. All of us in the family, you know, took portions of it. The rule of thumb when we were going through the studio and just trying to see what was there was that anything from his hand was going to be kept. Anything that he wrote, anything that he drew and really anything about him that was very personal would be kept, and that includes of course all those Polaroids.

And beyond that, there was a lot of work that was, you know - it was beyond the capacity of any one person to keep properly and preserve. So a great deal of material has been given to institutions. There are two in particular. One of them is the Billy Ireland collection at Ohio State University, which is the world's greatest compendium of original comic art.

The other place is Brown University. When my father was in the Pacific during the war, he was on General MacArthur's staff and did hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of drawings and paintings during that time. Most of this material is now at Brown University, which has a big military collection.

GROSS: So I have another "Prince Valiant" question for you. I don't know if you watch "Game Of Thrones."

MURPHY: I've actually read "Game Of Thrones."

GROSS: Oh, OK. Do you think that "Game Of Thrones" is in any way kind of satisfying some of the same needs as "Prince Valiant" used to but in a much more sexually - and in a much more explicit way in terms of sex and violence?

MURPHY: Well it absolutely is. I remember when I first picked up the George Martin books, it was not my idea to do it. It was - my children were saying, you've got to read these. So for Christmas, I think I got the first three of them. And I started and couldn't put them down. I thought they were extremely well done. And I was captivated. I actually had to just stop because otherwise the rest of my life would have been taken over by just reading "Game Of Thrones."

But I think that "Game Of Thrones" has many of the same elements that appealed to people about "Prince Valiant," although in a much more aggressive and, you know, sometimes prurient way. The one thing that "Prince Valiant" didn't do that "Game Of Thrones" does all the time is kill off its leading characters.

GROSS: (Laughter) Cullen Murphy, thank you so much for talking with us.

MURPHY: Terry, thank you. It's been great.

GROSS: Cullen Murphy's new memoir is called "Cartoon County." After we take a short break, our guest will be Guillermo del Toro, director of the new movie "The Shape Of Water." This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.