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Memoir Recalls New England’s Cartoonist Kingdom

  • Cullen Murphy (Gaspar Tringale photograph)

  • Cullen Murphy and his father, the cartoonist and illustrator John Cullen Murphy. (Courtesy Cullen Murphy)

  • John Cullen Murphy took innumerable Polaroid photographs, of himself in this example, and of his family and friends, on which to base his cartoons. (Courtesy Cullen Murphy)

  • This pen and ink sketch by Mort Walker and Jerry Dumas shows the vast number of cartoonists in Connecticut's Fairfield County after World War II. (Courtesy Mort Walker and the family of Jerry Dumas)



Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, January 11, 2018

It took until he was maybe 7 for Cullen Murphy, son of the Norman Rockwell-trained cartoonist and illustrator John Cullen Murphy, to realize he had an unusual childhood.

It dawned on him around the time he started going over to friends’ houses after school, where he couldn’t help but notice that the other kids’ fathers weren’t holed up at home all day, answering the door in a breastplate, monk’s robe, cowboy chaps or fez, enlisting anyone who came by to take a Polaroid or five of him in a very specific pose, or asking them to pose for him, Murphy said by phone last week.

“Of course, as you get older you start seeing more. … I started seeing that most people were going into New York City during the day, working at banks or advertising agencies, or were doctors and stuff,” he said. “That’s when the unusual nature of what my father was doing became pretty clear.”

For nearly 35 years, John Cullen Murphy was the artist behind the widely syndicated cartoon strips Big Ben Bolt, about a smart-talking boxing champion, and the still-running Prince Valiant, about a dashing Nordic prince’s epic adventures in the Arthurian age. But as the younger Murphy recounts in his new memoir, Cartoon County, his father was only one part — though a central part — of a large, tight-knit network of cartoonists and illustrators who settled in southwest Connecticut, in suburban Fairfield County, after the Second World War.

The author, who now lives outside of Boston, will read from, discuss and sign copies of Cartoon County at the Norwich Bookstore on Wednesday evening at 7.

Aside from recounting in wry and careful detail the “golden age” of cartoon history in which Murphy was raised, Cartoon County also shares a collection of previously unseen, often remarkable sketches, paintings and unpublished cartoons by Murphy’s father and his contemporaries, as well as old photographs depicting them. Mostly, though, it’s a love letter to the bountiful funny pages of yesteryear, and an ode to the servicemen-turned-suburbanite oddballs — especially his father — who created a shared experience for millions of readers.

Though the glory days of Fairfield County’s artistic hub may be behind it, its legacy is “mythic,” said James Sturm, co-founder of the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, in an email this week.

“As someone who is part of a tight-knit Vermont cartooning scene, it was with great pleasure I read Cartoon County,” he wrote. Prince Valiant was certainly one of the great American comic strips and I’m not sure that today’s CGI technology is any more effective in captivating an audience than John Cullen Murphy’s inkwell.”

Previously a managing editor of The Atlantic and currently an editor-at-large at Vanity Fair, Cullen Murphy was more than an observer of the cartoon world: He also wrote the text that accompanied his father’s Prince Valiant illustrations for some 25 years, and because of this insider’s access, sees the medium in a way that most readers don’t.

Most readers, he said, could name more cartoon strips than they could cartoonists. Most readers wouldn’t be able to pick a single cartoonist out of a line-up. And most readers vastly underestimate “how complicated the process is of creating just a single strip” — and that, in Murphy’s mind, is part of the point.

“They look simple, they’re there to look simple and in a way they are simple because they have to be understandable very quickly,” he said.

But hanging out in his father’s studio as a kid, he saw firsthand how many Polaroids it took to capture just the right angle and expression that he wanted, and how much thought went into how readers would fill in the blanks between the panels, and how much research went into making the details of his Prince Valiant strips historically accurate, even as the storylines themselves veered into fantasy.

“But cartoonists want the finished work to seem easy to the reader,” he said. “They don’t necessarily mind that the amount of work they put in isn’t appreciated. It’s almost a mark of success.”

It was pretty standard, Murphy writes, for the family members of cartoonists to get sucked into the business: Other notable Fairfield County cartoonists (and there were hundreds, Murphy writes) included Mort Walker and Dik Browne, who collaborated on Beetle Bailey and its spin-off, Hi and Lois; Browne also wrote and illustrated Hägar the Horrible. The artists’ sons now carry on the comic strips.

And Murphy described his mother, Joan, as the unsung hero behind his father’s successful career.

“I think for cartoonist families in particular, women were an utterly essential part of the operation, because many cartoonists tend to be disorganized — and you can read a lot of things into ‘disorganized,’ ” he said. “My mother, by contrast, was incredibly organized and efficient. She made the trains run on time. Without her, the entire operation would have crashed to a standstill.”

Because John Cullen Murphy worked at home all day, as opposed to making the commute into New York City like so many other Fairfield fathers, Murphy thinks he and his seven siblings enjoyed a closer-than-average relationship with their father. They’d hang out in his studio, dressing up in costume and striking exaggerated, theatrical stances that would later show up in the Sunday paper, or just sit quietly while their father sketched and thought.

But even as a youngster, he writes, he knew that the glory days of his father’s cartoon world “were numbered and that before long it would disappear.” Newspapers, the primary distributor of comic strips, were becoming anemic.

“There was a time when print news was the most important medium in the world,” he said. “We rode that success, and now that’s diminished greatly. … Classic comic strips were so bound up with the history of newspapers that whatever happens to the newspaper industry, happens in turn to (the cartoon industry).”

And what’s happening to the newspaper industry is, of course, the internet.

Murphy doesn’t closely follow what he calls the “next generation” of cartoonists, aside from Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury strip for the way it responds to the political moment without “snarling,” he said. When John Cullen Murphy died in 2004, his son took a step back from the cartoon world; he couldn’t imagine participating in it without the man who had been, to him, the most important part of it all, and he hasn’t returned since.

Further, he has his doubts about whether “the future of the best work that we loosely call cartoons is really in newspapers at all anymore.”

Instead, he thinks this future lies in the graphic novel.

“I’m a big admirer, you could say,” he said. “When I go into a bookstore, I see shelves upon shelves of graphic novels. And just the sheer amount of great work that’s being done, you can’t help yourself but acknowledge that this is a phenomenon that is very significant, and is attracting very talented writers and artists.

“And the irony is, it’s in print.”

Cullen Murphy will read from, discuss and sign copies of his memoir, Cartoon County, at the Norwich Bookstore on Wednesday at 7 p.m. Admission is free, but seating is limited. To save a seat, call 802-649-1114 or email info@norwichbookstore.com.

EmmaJean Holley can be reached at ejholley@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.