Most were World War II veterans, and several had formal art training before the war, leading to some interesting postings. Bil Keane of “The Family Circus” drew a feature for Pacific Stars and Stripes. “Gordo’s” Gus Arriola made animated training films. Jack Murphy’s talent had landed him in the Pacific headquarters of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, where he found himself assigned to do oil and watercolor portraits of the senior staff. Judging from his diaries and letters, he did little else but attend church services and work, completing no fewer than six portraits of MacArthur himself, as well as three of the general’s wife and one of his son. As Cullen puts it, “Mass. Paint. Mass. Paint. Mass. Paint. Substitute the pope for the Old Man, and the schedule might have been Michelangelo’s.”
Whatever their wartime contributions, the returning cartoonists couldn’t wait to shrug off the regimentation of military life and return to their “vaguely anarchic” chosen field. The 1950s and early ’60s were the Golden Age of American comics, or at least its glorious tail end. Newspapers were fat and happy, and the hugely popular Sunday comics supplement — comprising about 35 square feet of strips! — arrived on doorsteps wrapped around the news sections, not tucked inside. Cullen recalls an experiment conducted by the supplement’s parent company, Hearst: Various sections of the paper were omitted to see who would notice and care. When a news section was missing, only a small fraction of people called in. When the comics were left out, almost 90 percent of readers complained.
Jack’s original creation was a prizefighter strip called “Big Ben Bolt,” but he dedicated much of his career to “Prince Valiant,” which, by the time he took it over, was already in a class by itself, a stately tent pole of the Sunday comics. With its exquisitely detailed scenes and lack of dialogue balloons, it bore little resemblance to its comics-page peers, evoking instead the elegant illustrations of Gilded Age storybooks. Its level of craftsmanship made “Prince Valiant” a classy anomaly, which is perhaps why it was often placed on the final page of the section, away from the big-foot riffraff. Reading it was a bit of a commitment, as its pacing compelled the reader to slow down, to linger over the intricate images. In designing the page, father and son worked in masterly counterpoint, the text sections and images sliding gracefully past one another in time, interrupted only by the “gutters,” those white spaces between panels where the reader’s imagination took over, advancing the story.
It was an erudite enterprise, meticulously researched and plotted out months in advance. Preparation included consulting voluminous files of images that Jack collected over the years, carefully cataloged under headings like “Ne’er-do-wells, General,” “Arthurian” or “Unrequited.” When just the right image could not be located, one of the children was summoned to take Polaroids of their father festooned in medieval costume or wielding armaments that he stored in the back of the studio. If a child’s pose was needed, Cullen or a sibling was drafted as the model; a queen required the participation of their mother, Joan. Even a visiting neighbor or milkman might be enlisted, only to see himself pop up in the comics six weeks later dressed as a barbarian or wizard. On one occasion, when Cullen pointed out to his father that every face in a band of Goths resembled Jack’s own, he brushed it off, replying that they all would have been related anyway.
These entertaining casting calls aside, Jack mostly worked alone, either in silence or with “Million Dollar Movie” on in the background. When his son joined the family business — “the guild,” Cullen calls it — his occasional presence must have been welcome, but collaboration was mostly conducted from a distance. Still working in isolation, Jack would have had no need to alter the cartoonist’s dress code, one of rumpled indifference. One evening he was discovered with a rope holding up his pants. Every day being sub-“Casual Friday” was one of the few perks of the business. All that mattered to his employers was his packet of sublime medieval illuminations, delivered on time.
Cullen Murphy has had other notable successes as an editor, essayist and author, all presumably head-clearing pursuits that give him a valuable perspective lacking in those of us who rarely come up for air. I was especially moved by his modest appraisal of the ultimate significance of our profession: “Was it anything more noteworthy than bringing laughter (and adventure) to other human beings, while keeping the show on the road? What any civilization mostly needs is not the world-altering legacy of a few but the numberless people of talent who play a role … sustaining their contemporaries in the brief moment we have together.”
In Murphy’s reckoning, cartoonists are no more or less indispensable to society than the dentists and adjusters they evidently resemble. They simply play their part. Still, Murphy obviously knows how lucky he’s been: There are worse places to work than Camelot.