The strength of good memoir often rests in its willingness to open up the perspective, embrace secondary characters, and put even the smallest bit players into chronological and cultural context. In Cullen Murphy’s warm and generous Cartoon County: My Father and his Friends in the Golden Age of Make-Believe, the reader feels both comfortable and privileged after visiting this world in the southwest corner of Connecticut. It’s the ’50s and the United States is standing firm in the wake of World War II and “saving the world”. The towns of Westport, Stamford, Greenwich, and New Canaan are hosting some of the greatest cartoonists and illustrators in the history of the medium. They regularly take the train into New York City to sell their gags, pitch their newspaper comic strip ideas, and make names for themselves in the worlds of fantasy, historical dramas, romance, and domestic comedy. It’s the start of the Connecticut School, comprised of creative men who lived hard, smoked, drank, wore grey flannel suits, raised families, and built worlds that remain vital to this day if only in the hearts of those longing for more seemingly innocent times.
Cartoon County is a warm, sweet book that manages to perfectly capture its time and players without drowning in nostalgia. Author Cullen Murphy opens with an account of how he used to spend his spare time, after his after-school job. He’d take pictures of his father John Cullen Murphy in various emotive poses. The camera was a Polaroid, purchased soon after its 1949 arrival on the market. His father was launching his first comic strip, Big Ben Bolt, and there was a need to isolate poses, to capture various facial emotional gestures. Murphy would gain greater fame as illustrator of the historical comic serial Prince Valiant, and both strips shared similar characteristics. Bolt was a square-jawed he-man boxer with a piercing stare and determined vision about his future, and Prince Valiant (perhaps best known for a hairstyle later adopted by British boy bands of the ’60s) was a man’s man who served God, the Empire, and fate:
“For some reason, my father saved all the Polaroid pictures of himself… They filled cardboard boxes that were stored carefully in cupboards and closets, as if one day it might actually make sense to go through them in search of [various examples of standard emotions.]”
This is a recurring theme in Cartoon County that could leave a modern reader’s mind reeling. Imagine the effort that had to be expended in this profession. There were no smartphones or computers. Every image created was the result of careful and meticulous collecting, collating, and preserving. Early in the book, Murphy offers the impression that this Connecticut School (not an academic institution so much as a visual artistic movement operated within the same physical proximity) was “…driven by the age-old forces of money and geography.” They needed to be close to New York City, the center for magazines, book publishers, and comic strip syndicates. Connecticut had no income tax at the time, which was obviously another attraction.
Among the fellow members of this Connecticut School — Ernie Bushmiller (Nancy), Mort Walker (Beetle Bailey), Dik Browne (Hagar the Horrible) — lived the legendary Norman Rockwell. John Cullen Murphy grew up two doors down from Rockwell, modeled for the illustrator in his youth, and served as an apprentice under him. Whether these artists were Saturday Morning Post illustrators like Rockwell, cementing the impression of a quaint and purely middle-America sensibility (from an east coast perspective), or Chuck Saxon’s clueless upper middle class suburbanites in the New Yorker, these artists were creating a narrative for post-WWII America.
There were “legitimate” institutions that offered possibilities. Albert Dorne developed The Famous Artists School, which provided correspondence courses for hopeful cartoonists and illustrators. It was spun off from the Society of Illustrators. There was the Cos Cob School of painting. Writer/illustrators Maurice Sendak and James Thurber lived in Connecticut, as did playwright Arthur Miller. In 1960, according to Cullen Murphy, the income for a comic strip was $25k. It appeared in 300 newspapers, and as Murphy indicates, the goal was to align yourself with the Syndicate. That was the only way to sustain your lifestyle as a writer of a daily strip.
Along with the meticulous physical collection of material needed in order to draw inspiration, a bond shared by these unofficial classmates of the subjective Connecticut School was military service. Most of them were WWII or Korean War veterans. Murphy writes fondly of how his father viewed this shared experience. All these men seemed to have had enough of the bureaucratic regimentation of the military and jumped into the risky gamble that was life as a freelance artist. At a lunch with his father and friends at some point in the ’70s, the young Murphy remembers his father’s skepticism after having heard a TV commentator refer to the ’50s as “a decade of conformity”.
“There was a collective snort… Miles Davis! Nichols and May! The civil rights movement!… Abstract expressionism!… As cartoonists saw it, conformity was not a major feature of the landscape they inhabited, no matter what the train platform… might look like… The people they knew were all living by their wits.”
In addition to Mort Walker there was Charles Schulz (Peanuts), Hank Ketchum (Dennis The Menace), and Bil Keane (Family Circus.) Murphy understands that the world developed by these artists was not necessarily a reaction to the horrors they’d seen in WWII. In fact, none of them incorporated “real” war experiences in their strips because that wasn’t the time or place for them. Instead, Cartoon County is a good reminder that beneath what may have been seen as a decade of complacency and prosperity, the strips created by these artists were clear reflections of a society in transition. The turmoil and chaos would come later, in the ’60s, and be reflected in such strips as Doonesbury. “Real World” concerns did not invade the strips of John Cullen Murphy, but that didn’t make them any less relevant.
There’s certainly a lot of charm and nostalgia in Cartoon County as Murphy recounts the lives and times of his father and friends, but the strongest parts of his narrative come when he recalls the craftsmanship involved with what his father did for a living:
“My father’s fluidity with a pencil is one of my earliest memories of him… He never sharpened a pencil mechanically. The tip was trimmed with a single-edged razor, the wood shaved off in thin wedges as the pencil turned in his fingers after each slice.”
Later, Murphy recalls that his father often started a drawing “…in an unexpected place — a nostril, a doorway, as if to put a stake in the ground.” It’s in this sense that the illustrator was an illusionist, creating a comfortable sense of reality with a few strokes here, a few strokes there. The necessary precision John Cullen Murphy and his contemporaries applied to their craft is truly admirable, and Cullen Murphy reflects his respect of it without having to compare that artistry to the relative assembly line flatness of comics today.
Cartoon County is lavish, resplendent, and generous with its reproductions of full color strips, personal paintings, sketches, and samples. Murphy and his friends might have been meticulous in creating and accumulating a huge literal paper trail from which to submit their finished products, but they were apparently not the best business men. Their lives seemed to be regulated by pitches, proposals, constantly thinking about different ways to isolate emotions on faces. Even those of us born in the mid-’60s, who grew up in an era when strips like Funky Winkerbean or For Better or For Worse spoke more to what we wanted from a daily dose of laughter, had to admire the work ethic and aesthetic beauty of strips like John Cullen Murphy’s. The fact that the stunningly colorful Sunday strips wrapped our big newspapers every week seemed to offer young people a seat at the table of intellectual and creative discussions.
The history of any artistic movement of post-WWII era America seems to all be tied together. Those journeymen comic artists and illustrators probably shared the trains with Gregory Peck in The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit as he made his way to conquer the Big Apple. Mad Men‘s fictional Don Draper is there as well, eventually to be joined by Rob Petrie of The Dick Van Dyke Show, coming in sleepy-eyed from New Rochelle to a high-rise Manhattan office building to throw jokes around with Buddy and Sally. Indeed, Cartoon County nicely captures the craft and its time, but this book is also about family life. Cullen Murphy was one of eight children from a traditional Catholic family, and he made his own name as an editor at large at Vanity Fair and as a former managing editor of The Atlantic. For a quarter-century he collaborated with his father on Prince Valiant. These are cerebral bona-fides, but at Cartoon County‘s core is the connection between boisterous family and the loneliness of being a craftsman:
“If the house itself was loud and boisterous, the studio was a sanctuary… It took seventy-five of my father’s steps, each lighter than the previous, to cover the distance from the kitchen door to the studio… the number of steps I needed… gradually began to converge with the number that had come to symbolize maturity…”
Murphy ends this scene as he should, with his father sitting at his desk facing an empty page. The reader leaves Cartoon County with admiration for the work ethic and an appreciation for this son’s clear-eyed and loving recollections of a time long gone that still resonates in the cultural landscape through visions of advertising, film, and television. It may have stopped, but it will never die.