One of the great things about working in comics these days is that you can work from pretty much anywhere. Whether the artist is in New York or The Phillipines hardly matters these days, thanks to the miracle of the Internet. Of course, that wasn’t always the case. Back before overnight delivery became ubiquitous and FTP meant a transfer protocol rather than a motor oil, artists had to live close to their publishing houses and newspaper syndicates so they could drop their work off in person at their publishers.
Amazingly enough, in the 1950s and ’60s many of those cartoonists settled in the same community: Fairfield County, Connecticut. The towns in that county were home for some of the most influential and popular cartoonists of their time. Those artists, whose work ran in daily newspapers and weekly magazines, made good money and were highly respected by the conservative American society of the era. The roster of Fairfield families included men like Dik Browne (creator of Beetle Bailey), Stan Drake (The Heart of Juliet Jones and Blondie), Charles Saxon (The New Yorker) and many more. Among those creators were John Cullen Murphy, the artist and writer on the hugely influential Prince Valiant and the father of the current writer/artist on the strip, Cullen Murphy. All things must pass, of course, and as those creators began to die off, and as proximity to the big city became less important, Fairfield County became home to business executives and hedge fund managers. But back in the day, Fairfield County was a fecund creative environment.
Cullen Murphy takes readers back to that halcyon era with his breezy and delightful memoir Cartoon County. Generously illustrated with strip samples, sketches and vintage photos, Murphy conjures up the Mad Man era, a time of hardworking, hard-drinking artists who would gather their families together for parties, ball games and the occasional collaboration.
Murphy tells dozens of stories in this book. Rarely less than complimentary to their subjects, these stories are nevertheless a delight to read. He depicts Little King artist Otto Soglow as a little king himself, a five-foot-tall, impeccably mannered gentleman. He shares stories about Johnny Hart of BC fame and how Hart had his unique theory of daydreaming and how he often tried to slip religious themes into his strips. He shares tales about how the great advertising agency Johnstone and Cushing provided a living wage for many a struggling cartoonist, and how artists would help each other when one of them became sick or injured.
At the center of this book, of course, is John Cullen Murphy, the latter Murphy’s father and obviously a huge influence on the son’s life. The younger Murphy shares much about his dad, including some fascinating literary sketches of important World War II Generals (Douglas MacArthur comes across as a humorless bully) as well as many sketches his father drew of Filipino natives during the war, letters he sent home, and observations he shared. The younger Murphy also shares intimate details of his family life: how visits to dad’s studio felt incredibly important, how his father instilled a strong work ethic in Cullen, how his father taught Cullen to lay out a comic story.
If this all seems a bit nostalgic and sepia-toned (and in fact the publisher issued this book on sepia-toned pages), it’s such a charming carefree read, I barely noticed its laudatory tone. This isn’t an essential work of objective comics history, but it accomplishes what I think Cullen Murphy intended. He delivers a sweet portrait of days gone by and people whose names are drifting away from society’s memory. I really enjoyed visiting Cartoon County.