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 was a 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 (Li’l 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.
This community of eccentric creators challenges our notions of 1950s conformity.
Cartoon County is packed with ephemera: vintage comic strips; sketches; family photos (one shows the author at age 4, posing with Rin Tin Tin). Murphy, a magazine editor (and the College’s outgoing board chair), 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 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 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 Gen. Douglas MacArthur and family.