Growing Up in Cartoon County

In a new book, Cullen Murphy describes the cadre of artists—including his father—who drew comic strips from the suburbs of Connecticut during a golden age for the funny pages.

Watercolor sketch for an unpublished 'Prince Valiant' story, 1991
Watercolor sketch for an unpublished Prince Valiant story, 1991 (Courtesy of Cullen Murphy)

Cullen Murphy grew up in the funny pages. Almost literally: His father, John Cullen Murphy, was an artist who drew numerous comic strips, the best-known and longest-running of which was Prince Valiant. He somehow managed to support a family of eight children. This improbable feat was made possible partly by the times—the postwar prosperity and optimism that saw hundreds of thousands of returning servicemen, like his father, moving to the suburbs and starting large families, if not quite as large. And Connecticut, where his father and a cadre of cartoonists (Murphy numbers them in the hundreds) eventually settled, had no state income tax. Still, ten people on one cartoonist’s salary is impressive in any era. Soon after the grown Murphy joined the staff of The Atlantic as managing editor, we published an excerpt from a 1988 biography of Pablo Picasso by Arianna Huffington called Picasso: Creator and Destroyer. Murphy, who had already made his father a familiar figure around the office through frequent and offhand references, reported that after seeing the galleys his father asked that any biography of himself be subtitled “Creator and Provider.”

Their unlikely profession kept the cartoonists in an unusually companionable group, united by the oddity of working at home and by the common task of making the fantastic and whimsical the stuff of daily life. As Murphy recounts in his new Cartoon County: My Father and His Friends in the Golden Age of Make-Believe, comic strips, so much a part of the fabric of the American scene in the last century, were in Fairfield County a family enterprise. Even today, when the number and ubiquity of strips is far lower than when Murphy was growing up, the children of family friends—including Mort Walker, the industrious and businesslike creator of Beetle Bailey and Hi and Lois, and Dik Browne, the endearingly scraggly creator of gar the Horrible—carry on the family tradition by drawing and writing the strips their fathers created. If one cartoonist happened to be sidetracked by an accident or, in the case of Murphy’s father, pneumonia, another would take over the drawing of his strip—the “syndicate” that distributed the strips never the wiser. As Murphy points out, this is unimaginable in the case of, say, op-ed writers, though it is fun to imagine Thomas Friedman pinch-hitting for Maureen Dowd. (Even more fun, he adds, to imagine it the other way around.)

By the time Murphy joined the Atlantic staff, he was writing the story sequences for Prince Valiant, working with his father mostly by correspondence to suggest how he might illustrate the story lines. The real reason he wrote the strip—a continuous epic of love, war, and of course valor that spans the Roman empire to the late middle ages—for 25 years was not to use his Amherst degree in medieval history. It was to work with his father. Cartoon County is full of hilarious Polaroids of his father, mother, and himself and siblings in theatrical poses and outlandish garb, all for visual aids in drawing panels; photographs of the raffish world of New York cartoonists at the same newspapers that gave louche life to “The Front Page”; lovely passages from his father’s and his friends’ sketch books; and generous samples of the strips themselves, with notes on how they varied in style and tone. It is a loving, precise, and delightful portrait of a world Murphy was “powerfully drawn to” as a child, though he knew “even then that its days were numbered and that before long it would disappear.”

A Murphy page in its original black-and-white state and then with the application of color, 1987 (Prince Valiant, © King Features Syndicate, Inc., world rights reserved / Paul Spella / The Atlantic)

But most of all it is a loving portrait of his father. In the last chapter, “Indian Summer,” Murphy describes the kind of silent communion that makes for the sweetest, most longed-for sort of recollection:

My father had a knack for being companionably present in an undemanding way. … In the studio, you could sit for a long period in silence, reading or working, the faint sound of his scratching pen like that of a mouse behind a wall. From time to time a neuron would fire and he would speak. “People forget that Bobby Kennedy used to work for Joe McCarthy,” he might point out. Or, “Always remember, yellow objects cast purple shadows.” … Comments like these couldn’t help but encourage a bit of talk. Then it would be back to work.

I spoke recently with my longtime colleague and friend Murphy, now editor at large of Vanity Fair, in our shared home base of Boston. Here is a condensed part of our conversation.

Corby Kummer: Your father drew cartoons and stayed home all day. Were you objects of envy?

Cullen Murphy: I don’t think so. For one thing, there were eight kids in our household. Our life was indistinguishable, really, from the lives of other people that we knew—children of policeman, children of teachers, children of electricians—it all seemed pretty comparable.

The thing about this career was that it set you apart in terms of your way of life, but it didn’t set you apart in any way in terms of income. Except that your parents were hanging around with very different kinds of people than most people’s parents.

Murphy’s father and his fellow cartoonists at Mort Walker’s 40th birthday party, 1963 (courtesy of Mort Walker)

Kummer: You make the cartoonists of Fairfield County—Cartoon County—sound like an enclave, almost a cult.

Murphy: It definitely was not a cult; it was nothing like that. But there were lots and lots of cartoonists around. And my parents would entertain a lot, and they would go out a lot. And the people that they would entertain would largely be other cartoonists, and their spouses. It was very much a subculture that was aware of itself at the time. You know, there were probably a hundred people who were cartoonists that we knew one way or another in that group. And they were all essentially within 30 miles of each other. People like Mort Walker, who did Beetle Bailey, and Dik Browne, who did Hägar the Horrible, and Stan Drake, who did The Heart of Juliet Jones, and Jerry Dumas, who did Sam and Silo, and Tony DiPreta, who did Joe Palooka, and Ted Shearer, who did Quincy, and Crockett Johnson, who did Barnaby and also the children’s classic Harold and the Purple Crayon. Not to mention Chuck Saxon, the great New Yorker cartoonist.

Kummer: That letter of Dik Browne is the most loving, wonderful document.

Murphy: You mean his letter to Tim Dumas, the son of Jerry Dumas, in which he talks about Lord Chesterfield’s letters to his son. Who would have thunk that the guy who did Hi and Lois and Hägar had at some point in his life stopped to read Lord Chesterfield’s letters? Much less salvage this from his memory, put something about it in a letter, add some beautiful drawings, and write to Tim as if he’s a long-lost friend. All of us had things from Dik Browne like this. He was very drawn to children, and children were very drawn to him—because he was a big guy and he was unkempt. It’s like what a child hopes adulthood will be like. And isn't! Except, as Dik showed, it could be. It’s definitely a possible lifestyle option.

Polaroid photograph of Murphy’s father posing for a scene (Courtesy of Cullen Murphy)

Kummer: You mentioned the pitching in to draw, the remarkable chameleon-like quality, that they could work in each other’s styles, and they often covered their walls with drawings by their fellow cartoonists, which I find very collegial and touching. What about plot lines? Did they get together to talk about them?

Murphy: I don’t believe they really did, overtly. In our own family, when I was writing Prince Valiant, a number of my brothers and sisters would come up with ideas for the strip. It’s the kind of thing we would talk about at dinnertime on occasion. “Such-and-such a character hasn’t been in the strip for a while—maybe we should do something about her or him. And what might that be?”

Kummer: Your father was a very educated and erudite man, but he didn’t go to college, and it sounded like that was the norm in this circle: wartime service, career.

Murphy: Going to college was not a ticket to entry to the world of comic strips and cartooning and illustration, and not going to college was not a bar to entry. It was one of those professions where you learned to do it by doing it. And if you couldn’t do it, you discovered that fact fairly quickly. So you had people who were kind of adventurers who would go into it. To have lived a wide life before you settled down into this trade could be helpful to you. Because of what it tells you about human nature, and what it tells you about an audience—people in general. That’s probably another thing that the army did for all of these cartoonists—it give them a sense of just ordinary folks.

Kummer: The comics were cultural touchstones, as you made clear. Fifty million, did you say, could easily see Prince Valiant on a Sunday?

Murphy: Absolutely.

Kummer: And now, what are the numbers?

Murphy: I don’t know what the numbers are, but we are in the midst of a shift. We all know what has happened with newspapers. The number of people who read a newspaper declines by maybe 3 million people a year in this country. That’s a lot. And nothing is going to reverse that. Those beautiful, full-page, 16-sheet color supplements that King Features used to put out—those were an event every Sunday. The newspaper would come and the kids would take the comics section and go off with it. There’s nothing really comparable to that nowadays, and it’s hard to see what would bring comic strips in that form back. Although there are still many successful comic strips.

The transition is really toward graphic novels. I think one of the reasons comics succeeded in the first place was simply because the marriage of image and text is such a natural form for human beings. The one-two punch of a picture and words is very economical. With that combination, you can have a story moving along at a very fast clip. Faster than you can with just text. There’s something about it that appeals to people. They don’t need instruction. Their minds apprehend it very clearly and they get with the flow. Graphic novels have picked up the momentum. We’re sitting right across the street from Newbury Comics, and if you go over there, you will see whole walls full of graphic novels. They’re beautiful. And very sophisticated. Many of them aspire to and achieve real literary quality. Not to mention artistic quality.

Murphy with his father (Courtesy of Cullen Murphy)

Kummer: Do you miss writing Prince Valiant? And do you miss, essentially, writing historical fiction?

Murphy: I don’t miss writing historical fiction, although I’ve been tempted to return to it at some point. But I do miss working with my father. And in many ways, that’s what the whole thing was all about. Very few people these days get to work with a parent for a long period of time. It used to be normal. Now the people who work with parents or a parent are restricted to a very small number of occupations. Royal families, crime syndicates, other family businesses. When my father died, I didn’t think twice about whether I wanted to continue doing it, because I knew that I did not. The strip has been capably taken over by others, but I’m immensely grateful for those three decades of working on the strip with him.

Kummer: So. How did all of you eight children fit into a single station wagon?

Murphy: Probably the same way eight tomatoes fit into a plastic bag. It helps not to have seat belts.