As a child, Cullen Murphy knew that visits to his father’s art studio often meant donning a costume and modeling as a character in a comic strip. During five decades, John Cullen Murphy drew two major strips, “Big Ben Bolt’’ and “Prince Valiant,’’ and he regularly took Polaroid photos of himself, his wife, and eight children as reference material for his artwork.
Murphy, former managing editor of The Atlantic and currently editor at large for Vanity Fair, recalls the zany spirit of the family posing sessions in “Cartoon County: My Father and His Friends in the Golden Age of Make-Believe,’’ a rich, clever, and affectionate account of a tight-knit circle of cartoonists clustered in southwest Connecticut after World War II.
Fairfield County in the 1950s and ’60s was home to dozens of cartoonists, gag writers, and illustrators who produced strips as varied as “Beetle Bailey,’’ “Blondie,’’ “Nancy,’’ “Little Orphan Annie,’’ “Rip Kirby,’’ “Steve Canyon,’’ “Popeye,’’ and “Hagar the Horrible,’’ as well as cartoons for The New Yorker, Esquire, Collier’s, Playboy, and Sports Illustrated.
New York financial titans had not yet spilled over the state line in large numbers, and the county offered cheap real estate for artists starting out, many of them veterans returning from the service. In the days before faxes and e-mail, the New Haven Railroad was a conveyance to the offices of art editors and publishers in midtown Manhattan.
The cartoonists, who dubbed themselves “The Connecticut School,” socialized frequently, and young Cullen peered up at their drawing boards, soaked up their banter, and noted the oddities of the industry. Taboos of the time, for instance, prohibited depictions of male nipples or the navels of either gender. Most of all, the son relished the father’s routines.
“He never sharpened a pencil mechanically. The tip was trimmed with a single-edged razor, the wood shaved off in thin wedges as the pencil turned in his fingers after each slice. When a half-inch shaft of graphite core had been exposed he then abraded the surface on a piece of fine sandpaper taped to the desk until the tip was properly sculpted.”
It was a great time for the comics. As Murphy notes, “Readership was at its peak . . . [M]ore [Sunday newspapers] were being sold than there were households in America at the time.’’
John Cullen Murphy, an avid student of history, raconteur, and master of wordplay, broke into the business with “Big Ben Bolt,’’ a strip about an unusual former prizefighter who became a journalist and a private detective, got accepted to Harvard, and lived on Beacon Hill with money-strapped Brahmin relatives. The artwork was dramatic and convincing. It had been shaped by the mentoring of former neighbor Norman Rockwell, study at The Art Students League of New York, and years of wartime sketching and painting in the Army’s Seventh Regiment, much of that time attached to the staff of General Douglas MacArthur, a frequent portrait subject.
The art in “Cartoon County’’ is as lovingly reproduced as the anecdotes, showcasing the strips as well as the artists’ preliminary drawings, war sketches, and other pieces. The senior Murphy’s loose, expressive watercolors are particularly striking and a surprising contrast to the realistic renderings of his strips.
“Prince Valiant,’’ which still runs in papers today, is the adventure tale of a daring Viking, his trials, loves, and triumphs. It was the creation of Hal Foster, who launched the strip in 1937 and continued with it until 1970 when age and arthritis forced him to turn over the drawing to someone else. John Cullen Murphy was a natural choice. The two had known each other for years and had similar illustration styles. The senior Murphy drew the strip until a few months before his death in 2004.
Shortly after relinquishing the brush, Foster began looking for someone to replace him as the strip’s writer. Murphy, intrigued by the prospect of collaborating with his dad, applied for the position. Foster eventually gave him the job, but not before a several-year trial that included mastering a set of guidelines that could serve as a rigorous screenwriting course. Among his tutorials: “Panels are separated by a white gutter with nothing in it, and that white gutter is the most active space on the page . . . That’s where the reader’s imagination fills in the story . . . ”
Murphy acknowledges that the Connecticut School was something of a bubble — nearly all-male, all-white, and largely insulated from the anti-war and civil rights movements that were challenging the country’s status quo. But he appreciates the artists’ bonds, bonds that extended to filling in for each other when illness or accident kept one of them from the drawing board.
Most of all he relishes the father-son connection as they collaborated on “Prince Valiant.’’ Over time, their hero’s family had expanded, and as the strip’s author, Murphy pondered whether the time was right to make him a father yet again. “I can remember asking my father if he thought we were ready for another child — communication is important in any sort of marriage, and you need to be able to talk openly about these things.” The book is a testament to the strength of that partnership.
My Father and His Friends in the Golden Age of Make-Believe
By Cullen Murphy
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 260 pp., illustrated, $27
Dan Wasserman is a syndicated cartoonist whose work appears in the Globe.
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