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Book Review: Cartoon County

By (November 10, 2017) No Comment

Cartoon County:

My Father and His Friends in the Golden Age of Make-Believe

by Cullen Murphy

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017

When quitting time arrived at Manhattan’s rows and rows of publishers and newspapers in the 1950s, dozens of the artists who daily gave face and shape to the golden age of cartooning would pack up their tools, put on their hats, and head home. On the same Metro North train.

The destination was Fairfield County, Connecticut, the main location of Cullen Murphy’s fantastic new book Cartoon County: My Father and His Friends in the Golden Age of Make-Believe. Cullen is the son of John Cullen Murphy, artist of the popular but now-forgotten strip Big Ben Bolt and, later in his career, the stratospherically popular and immortal Prince Valiant, which he worked on for years with his son as collaborator. In the pages of this book, and in its generous bounty of illustrations, the world of cartooning in the 1950s and ’60s is brought energetically to life, and its men and women laugh and sweat and hustle and goof off. The women included such powerful figures as Saturday Evening Post editor Marione Nickles, whose nod to one artist out of a pool of hopefuls meant a paycheck. And the men included Hagar the Horrible creator Dik Browne, Blondie artist Stan Drake, Beetle Bailey creator Mort Walker, Popeye artist Bud Sagendorf, half a dozen New Yorker artists, and of course John Cullen Murphy, drawn here with a charming combination of a son’s unstinting love and a fellow professional’s clear-eyed admiration.

Both those perspectives are adeptly blended throughout Cartoon County. Readers get charged, richly dramatized pictures of this strangely concentrated community (one dictated as much by cheap real estate prices as easy commute-schedules):

The artists and cartoonists needed to be close to New York City. That’s where the magazines and book publishers and comic strip syndicates were mainly based, and in an age before scanners or fax machines, physical proximity was essential. The gag cartoonists had to make weekly rounds in midtown Manhattan, going door-to-door to sell their work – this at a time when dozens of national magazines still ran cartoons. As for the comic strip artists, they were always running behind and often needed to deliver finished work in person. A cartoonist boarding the train in Westport during the late-morning, off-peak lull, a thin rectangular parcel wrapped in brown paper under his arm, would not have been surprised to meet someone he knew carrying a similar parcel boarding the train a few stops later, in Riverside or Greenwich. To anyone watching, the encounter might have seemed like a scene from John le Carré.

And readers also get one delightful scene after another in which Murphy reconstitutes his father’s career – and affectionately recalls growing up at the family’s home in Cos Cob, Connecticut:

If the house itself was loud and boisterous, the studio was a sanctuary. It was where many of the more serious family conversations took place – about squabbles, school, sickness, ambitions, love. When we were young, it was also the disciplinary destination of last resort. For most infractions, my mother served as police, forensic squad, prosecutor, defense attorney, and judge, and there was never any backlog in her court. The studio was reserved for capital crimes: “Go tell your father what you’ve done!” Never mind that, in reality, my father was the furthest thing from an Old Testament judge you could imagine; a look of disappointment was the mandatory maximum and was indeed punishment enough.

Cartoon County is in its own way every bit as gripping an adventure as any of the cartoon adventures created by its many subjects. It recounts in lively detail the great heyday of the American cartooning industry and peoples that heyday with rogues, villains, time-servers, worrywarts, pranksters – and, perched at a tilted drawing board and armed with ink-dipped brushes, a hero at heart of the story.

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