Funny Fairfield

A quietly rapturous book evokes the cartoonist—and father—behind Prince Valiant. 

By Rand Richards Cooper ’80

For a kid growing up in the 1960s, comic strips were polarizing: you either loved “the funnies” or you didn’t. I didn’t. Instead of pictures, I wanted more words—not the cartoonist’s elliptical shorthand, with its random italicizations and bullying exclamation marks. Thus did I miss out on a sui-generis form of American creative genius.

Cullen Murphy ’74 was no mere fan; he was there at the creation. His father, John Cullen Murphy, produced two popular strips: Big Ben Bolt, about a highly educated boxer, and Prince Valiant, an Arthurian legend. For six decades, up to his death in 2004, the elder Murphy worked as cartoonist and illustrator. And he had plenty of company, right in his neighborhood. The book’s title refers to Fairfield County, Conn., whose proximity to Manhattan—cartoonists could hop the train to rush their strips in on deadline—attracted Al Capp (L’il Abner), Mort Walker (Beetle Bailey), Stan Drake (Blondie) and other giants of the trade. Cullen Murphy’s fond look at this community of eccentric creators and their “vaguely anarchic” lives challenges our notions of suburban conformity in the 1950s.  

Cartoon County is packed with ephemera: vintage comic strips; sketches and illustrations; handwritten letters; family photos (one shows the author as a 4-year-old, posing with Rin Tin Tin). Murphy, a magazine editor (and chair of the College’s board of trustees), charts the business side of the cartoon trade, provides a trove of beguiling technical trivia (we learn, for instance, that the wavy lines cartoonists use to suggest aroma are called “wafterons”) and intelligently dissects the creative process behind the construction of cartoon images and narratives. The book is an education.

More than that, it’s a tenderly attentive evocation of his father and his teeming, generous mind—“an overstuffed attic,” Murphy writes, “whose door was ajar.”  Murphy père loved extracting root words from familiar negatives— curiosities like “ept” or “gruntled”—and deploying them on their own. Among First Ladies he preferred Grace Coolidge to Jackie Kennedy; he scorned author Lillian Hellman (“a louse”); he discoursed happily on the obscure topic of morganatic marriages. “His reservoirs of arcane knowledge, odd prejudice and unexpected enmity,” writes Cullen Murphy, “were astonishing.”

John Cullen Murphy’s career took shape under a lucky star. He grew up in New Rochelle, N.Y., two doors down from none other than Norman Rockwell, who used him as a model for a Saturday Evening Post cover, then later trained him as an artist. He sold his first painting at 17, and during his Army stint in World War II, his sketches found their way into the hands of a general who was sufficiently impressed to requisition him as a staff painter. Thus did Murphy’s wartime bid yield portraits of no less than Gen. Douglas MacArthur and family.

Cullen Murphy, for his part, paints an affectionate picture of his father’s crowd. One story recalls how Blondie’s Stan Drake, prescribed a medication that turned his urine blue, fiddled with the dosage until he could pee green on St. Patrick’s day. They were incorrigibly productive, these experimenter-tinkerers, their skills and creativity blurring the line between commercial art and fine art. Another story recounts a year the Murphy family spent in Ireland, where a strike closed the local bank; when the family ran out of checks, the cartoonist fabricated some by hand—and they were accepted without hesitation in local businesses. “The larger lesson,” Murphy writes, “was that you could create a life out of nothing: it could pretty much be your own invention.”

That life brimmed with slapdash whimsicality. We get an amusing look at the logistics of managing eight children, including the annual day when the entire family would make a year’s worth of sandwiches, to be stored in a basement freezer. This ever-growing brood complicated John Cullen Murphy’s work routine, finally driving him to create a studio out in the yard. It was built with $7,000 he won in 1958 on a TV quiz show—and might have been bigger, had he not been stumped on a question involving a violinist (Murphy fils: “Ever afterward, the answer to any unanswerable question in our home was ‘Yehudi Menuhin’”).

Somehow the Murphys pulled it off, sustaining a family of 10 on a cartoonist’s earnings. “The faith my parents had in each other, and in the future,” Cullen Murphy writes, “transformed what should have seemed precarious into something that always felt like bedrock.”  Cartoon County reverberates with admiration and love, evoking childhood hours spent in his father’s studio, where “the plink of shavings from a pencil that was being sharpened as they dropped lightly into a pewter ashtray” hints at the creative action on the other side of the room.   

Cullen Murphy has written a funny, informative and quietly rapturous book. I loved it—pictures, words, the whole shebang.

Cooper is a contributing editor at Commonweal and a frequent contributor to Amherst magazine.

Read the New York Times review of Cartoon County.