Morris Nolten Turner died in Sacramento, California on January 25, 2014, and if he’d lived another 21 days, he would have been able to celebrate the 49th anniversary of the start of his comic strip Wee Pals during Black History Month. He was hoping to make it to that. And that would have been poetry of a celestial sort because Morrie Turner made Black history—and American history and comics history—with his strip. He broke the color barrier twice, said Paul Vitello in the New York Times —“as the first African American comic strip cartoonist whose work was widely syndicated in mainstream newspapers and as the creator of the first syndicated strip with a racially and ethnically mixed cast of characters.”
At the Sacramento Bee, Robert D. Davila wrote: “A cartoonist by profession, Turner influenced American culture as a civil-rights activist, historian, social commentator and teacher.”
He liked to be called Morrie—and that’s how he signed his strip—so that’s what I’ll do here.
Born December 11, 1923 in Oakland, California, Morrie was in the newspaper business from birth. His father was a Pullman porter, and in those days, the black newspapers of Chicago and Pittsburgh and New York and other major cities achieved national circulation by train: Pullman porters carried bundles of the papers across the country, dropping them off into friendly hands at cities they passed through. Morrie’s brothers sold the major black newspapers, so Morrie saw them as soon as he could see.
Morrie drew pictures from an early age; by the fifth grade in school, he was drawing cartoons. His father was away from home at work much of Morrie’s childhood, and his mother, a nurse, raised him, said Vitello—encouraging “his artistic talent and instilling in him a reverence for a pantheon of black historical figures.”
When he was in his teens, he was clipping out of Harlem’s Black newspaper, the Amsterdam News, the cartoons of Ollie Harrington and trying to copy him. “Oh, man,” Morrie said, “until then, I had never seen anybody who could drew characters that reflect people”—black people.
Morrie admired and wrote to Milton Caniff, who was doing Terry and the Pirates at the time. Caniff responded with a typed six-page letter of pointers on drawing and storytelling. “It changed my whole life,” Morrie told me. “The fact that he took the time to share all with a kid, a stranger. Didn’t impress me all that much at the time, but it impresses the hell out of me now.” Perhaps as a consequence, Morrie was generous in sharing time with young aspiring cartoonists, particularly African American aspirants.
One of them was Robb Armstrong, who now does Jump Start, a strip about a black cop and his nurse wife, their kids and extended family. “Morrie was part of my DNA,” Armstrong told the Los Angeles Times. “I used to carry a Wee Pals lunchpail.” Morrie steered him into syndication. He’d been given Armstrong’s phone number by an editor at a Philadelphia newspaper, and he phoned the young man. Armstrong said he felt like some young Hollywood actor getting a call from George Clooney.
Morrie started high school at McClymonds High School in Oakland, but when his family moved to Berkeley, he finished at Berkeley High School.
During World War II, Morrie was in the Army Air Corps and was stationed at Tuskegee Army Air Field. The famed all-black 332nd Fighter Group, known as the Tuskegee Airmen, trained there, as did the black 477th Bombardment Group, which, despite being trained and ready, never saw action in combat. Attached to the 477th, Morrie was a staff clerk and also worked on the base newspaper as a reporter and illustrator. He did a strip called Rail Head about a feckless recruit’s bumbling misadventures, and he did gag cartoons—crude artwork, he remembered, but getting printed was an education.
“It seemed easy then,” Morrie once recalled. “Sometimes it was humor by committee, and a lot of it was so ‘in’ that nobody outside the base could understand it. But I began seeing the power in it. We could dig at some lieutenant, and nobody could do a thing about it.”
Returning to civilian life after the War, Morrie married his childhood sweetheart, Letha Harvey (no relation) on April 6, 1946. Then Morrie chased after a number of careers. He was a radio program host, a comedian, and briefly ran a greeting card business and did artwork for various charitable causes. Then just about the time of the celebrated Brown v. Topeka Education Board decision in 1954, he hired on as a clerk at the Oakland police department. He worked there for the next ten years, and during off hours, he freelanced cartoons and illustrations to industrial publications and trade journals and national magazines, including the Saturday Evening Post and other mainstream periodicals but also Ebony and Negro Digest (which became Black World) and the Chicago Defender.
Morrie met Charles Schulz at a gathering of California cartoonists, and they became friends. The civil rights movement was gathering momentum with sit-ins and marches in the South, and once while they were having lunch, Morrie asked Schulz why he didn’t have any black kids in Peanuts, and Schulz told Morrie he should create his own.
“I couldn’t participate in the marches in the South, and I felt I should,” Morrie later told the San Francisco Chronicle. “I was working and had a wife and kid. So I decided I would have my say with my pen.”
Right about then, Dick Gregory, comedian cum civil rights activist, came along and gave Morrie another nudge.
In 1962, Gregory had published a memoir, From the Back of the Bus, about his crusading adventures. (“Segregation is not all bad. Ever hear of a collision where the people in the back of the bus got hurt?”) The comedian was working on a continuation of this literary venture, a more overt autobiography, which in 1964 he would entitle Nigger (so that every time his mother hears the word, Gregory explained, she’d know her son’s book was being discussed and promoted). And a friend brought Gregory around to Morrie’s place to meet the cartoonist. The two spent the day “rapping” (as Morrie put it), and Gregory suggested that Morrie illustrate his book with cartoons and comic strips.
“It wasn’t the kind of cartoon that I was drawing then,” Morrie remembered when I talked at length with him last spring. “At the time,” he said, “I was doing all right with industrial cartoons. They weren’t making a lot of money, but I was having a lot of fun. Gregory wanted me to do some cartoons that related to black people, and I liked the idea because it was me. All the drawings and cartoons I’d done up to that point were not really me. They were something foreign to me. I would create cartoons about golf, but I knew nothing about golf. Never played the game at all. And medical cartoons, doctors, dentists—not me.”
The cartoons Morrie did for black magazines and newspapers like the Chicago Defender were more to his liking. “Some were very close to being editorial cartoons—very close,” Morrie said, “—but they were not. They were humorous, funny, and then I realized they were funny because they were editorial cartoons.”
But they still weren’t Morrie. Gregory’s proposal, which eventually came to nothing, started Morrie thinking. And just about then, Charlie Brown appeared in a Civil War cap. Morrie pondered: what if Charlie Brown were Black? And what if the cap were a Confederate cap? “Now that,” wrote Tom Carter in the Cartoon Club Newsletter, “was indeed a laugh—a child so naive he could sweep away generations of ill will with one innocent, ironic gesture.”
“That set everything in motion,” Morrie said.
He began thinking about a black Peanuts. He created Nipper, the black kid with the Confederate cap. “Nipper was named after the comedian Nipsey Russell,” Morrie said, “—but Nipper was me.”
Morrie surrounded Nipper with black moppets, called the strip Dinky Fellas, and sold it to his hometown’s weekly black paper, the Berkeley Post, and to the Chicago Defender. Dinky Fellas began July 25, 1964. And Morrie quit the Police department job to devote himself full-time to cartooning.
The editor at the Chicago Defender urged Morrie to sell the strip to a mainstream metropolitan newspaper, and Morrie approached the Berkeley Gazette, the city’s daily, but the editor wasn’t interested. Enter Lew Little.
Since 1962, Little had been a salesman for the newspaper feature syndicate run by the San Francisco Chronicle, and in 1964, he was feeling his way towards starting his own syndicate. On a visit to a newspaper in Washington, D.C., he’d talked with an editor who delivered his considered opinion about the state of comic strips in the United States: what this country needs, he said, is a comic strip about black people. Serendipitously, a few weeks later, Little was in the editor’s office at the Berkeley Gazette, and when he told that editor what the editor in Washington, D.C. had said, the Gazette editor said, “I just saw one. I don’t know the cartoonist’s name, but the strip appears in the Berkeley Post.”
Little went to the Post office and got Morrie’s name and phone number. He called Morrie:
“Hello, I’m Lew Little and I’m calling from the Post office,” he said, and Morrie thought he was calling from the local station of the U.S. Postal Service.
“I thought, what kind of a syndicate would be calling from the post office? And I told him I couldn’t see him for a couple hours.”
But Little was not to be denied. He waited. And when Morrie finally met him, Little offered him a contract. Morrie says he tried to discourage him, but Little was persistent, and Morrie signed.
“A week later,” Morrie remembered when we talked, “he phoned and asked me if I was standing up or sitting down. I said, ‘Standing up.’ He said, ‘You better sit down.’ And he told me Dinky Fellas would start on Monday, February 15, 1965, in three newspapers, the Los Angeles Times and two others, one in Philadelphia.”
That was the beginning of Lew Little’s syndicate. And Wee Pals wasn’t too far off. The third paper may have been the Oakland Tribune. It was the Tribune’s editor who changed the name of the strip from Dinky Fellas to Wee Pals. The old title retired on December 18, 1965. And it may have been Lew Little who instigated the infiltration of the strip by kids of other races and ethnicities. Morrie said that the strip got its its soul when he developed a diverse cast that, he said, reflected his Oakland experience.
In interviews, he said that his own ethnically diverse neighborhood inspired his characters. “White, Filipino, Japanese, Chinese, Black — it was a rainbow,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle. “I didn’t know that wasn’t the way it was other places. Oakland was that way before the War. We were all equal. Nobody had any money.”
With an expanding and increasingly multicultural cast, Morrie found his metier and a cause. He often said that the intent of the strip was to promote tolerance and understanding. He wanted “to portray a world without prejudice, a world in which people’s differences — race, religion, gender and physical and mental ability — are cherished, not scorned.”
The diminutive buddies started with Nipper, whose Confederate Army cap always masks the top half of his face, and Nipper’s dog named General Lee, a soul brother named Randy, the chubby white bespectacled intellectual Oliver; Peter, a Mexican American; Rocky, a Native American; a Latino named Pablo; Diz, a beret-wearing hip African American proudly wearing a dashiki and sunglasses; George, an Asian American; Connie, a spirited feminist; the freckle-faced Jewish Jerry; and Sibyl Wrights, a black girl who was modeled on Morrie’s wife and Shirley Chisholm, the late New York congresswoman and civil rights leader.
Since the early 1960s, the expression “Black Power” had been widely deployed to emphasize racial pride and the creation of black political and cultural institutions that would nuture and promote black interests and advance black values. Morrie’s kids climbed on that band wagon but immediately broadened its scope.
In choosing a name for their club, the little pals were at first divided: the black kids advocated Black Power; the Asian kids, Yellow Power; the Latino kids, Brown Power. But they finally settled on the unifying Rainbow Power, where the colors work in harmony.
Said Morrie: “That’s the power of all colors working together. And that’s truly the thing with the strip, and I keep trying to come up with a gag once in a while to remind everybody what it’s all about.”
He admitted, with a wry smile, to being a little miffed when Jesse Jackson came on the scene with his Rainbow Coalition. Jackson may not have appropriated the term and the idea from the strip, but to Wee Pals readers, it couldn’t help but look like theft. Whatever the case, it was a good move: it perpetuated the concept of racial harmony.
The riots in Watts and other big cities in the summer of 1965 stalled sales of the strip at five subscribers: newspaper editors were leery of publishing anything that might stir up trouble. It was a time of panicky absurdities.
“One of the editors at the Los Angeles Times accused me of orchestrating the Watts Riot,” Morrie told me. “How’m I going to orchestrate a riot? The strips are done six weeks in advance.”
Morrie kept on, and then in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luthur King, Jr. in April 1968, editors suddenly wanted ways to give race relations a human face. Turner’s daily lesson in tolerance was just what was needed, and sales soared.
“The nation felt guilty and, zoom, my numbers went up,” Morrie said. “I went to 30 newspapers in about a week. Suddenly, everybody was interested in me. You can imagine how I felt—I mean, I’m benefitting from the assassination of Dr. King, one of my heroes. It was kind of a bittersweet experience.”
At its peak, Wee Pals was running in 100 newspapers.
Soon after Wee Pals achieved wider national circulation, Vitello reported, Morrie got an angry letter from a reader about Nipper and his Confederate hat: “No self-respecting black person would wear such a hat,” the writer said, suggesting that Morrie “get to know some black people.”
Said Morrie: “I wrote back and told the person that I happen to know two black people—my mother and my father.”
So what about the Confederate hat, an interviewer wanted to know.
Morrie paused, considering the question, and then replied: “Forgiveness.”
“He was always looking for a teaching moment,” said Andrew Farago, curator of the Comic Art Museum in San Francisco.
Turner appealed to mainstream audiences with moderate and pragmatic messages about inclusiveness and equality. While he explored thornier racial issues for publications such as Black World and Ebony, even those messages were tempered. One cartoon shows an African American father figure speaking to a dashiki-wearing youth with an Afro hairstyle; the caption: “It’s time to talk about Job Power.”
The tone of the strip is resolutely positive. When Nipper proved a flop at baseball and said that he would never be another Hank Aaron, he dusted himself off and decided to follow the path of black intellectuals such as Frederick Douglass and George Washington Carver.
Over its 48-plus years, Wee Pals was distributed by eight syndicates. Lew Little Enterprises distributed the strip from its start until April 22, 1967; then Register and Tribune out of Des Moines, April 24, 1967 – May 7, 1972; then King Features, May 8, 1972 – July 1, 19977; United Feature, July 2, 1977 – September 28, 1980; Field Enterprises, September 29, 1980 – April 22, 1984; News America, April 23, 1984 – March 15, 1987; North America, March 16, 1987 – 1990. Creators Syndicate was distributing the strip when Morrie died.
This roll call might suggest some dissatisfaction on one side or the other, Morrie’s or a syndicate’s. Not so. The syndicate history of Wee Pals is the employment record of Lew Little. He went from syndicate job to syndicate job, always advancing, and wherever he went, he took with him the strips he’d discovered. Tom K. Ryan’s Tumbleweeds, another Lew Little discovery, has a syndicate history that parallels Wee Pals exactly.
In going with Creators in 1990, Morrie finally divorced himself from Little.
Year after year, Morrie continued adding characters to diversify his cast—the deaf and mute Sally, the Vietnamese Trinh, the bespectacled Charlotte, who is in a wheelchair—thereby increasing the all-inclusive nature of the strip and its relevance to everyone. But there was yet another reason for the expanding roster:
“When I ran out of ideas,” Morrie said, “I’d bring another character in.”
Once when he had run out of ideas, he phoned Schulz.
“What do you do when you run out of ideas?” Morrie asked.
Schulz’s suggestion: “Think funny.”
I told Morrie that Schulz once said to me that he got ideas by doodling his characters ona pad of paper.
“Yeah, yeah,” said Morrie, “—that’s how you think funny.”
In 1972, Morrie had added to the cast the bullying, somewhat dim white boy named Ralph, who parrots the racist beliefs he hears at home.
“He was prejudiced but he didn’t know he was prejudiced,” Morrie said. “Readers didn’t like him and wanted him out of there. But he was valuable because I could do gags with him that I couldn’t do with anybody else. I could make him say things that were funny and that showed how ridiculous prejudice was.”
Nipper and his friends invariably expose Ralph’s racist notions as foolish, and he usually accepts their reproofs more-or-less good-naturedly. It was a lesson for us all—and impossible of achieving without Ralph.
Soon after King was killed on April 4, 1968, Schulz complied with Morrie’s suggestion. Doubtless sensing the same societal need newspaper editors were feeling about improving race relations, on July 31, he added to Peanuts a black character named Franklin.
“He asked me about it,” Morrie said. “I said, just stick him in there the same way you did all the other characters. Don’t pay any big attention to him.”
Franklin arrived, but he didn’t go very far. Upset, perhaps, by the criticism that Franklin looked like Pigpen, Schulz didn’t explore the possibilities much. Interviewed in 1977, Schulz said: “I think it would be wrong for me to attempt to do racial humor because what do I know about what it is like to be Black?”
Morrie, on the other hand, knew. And Schulz had a high regard for Wee Pals and what Morrie was doing.
“The best thing I can say about the cartoons of Morrie Turner is that he really knows what he is drawing about,” Schulz wrote as an Introduction to the first (1969) paperback reprinting the early strip. “I have always been somewhat of a fanatic about cartooning and comic strips in particular. It is my firm belief that a comic strip needs a point of view. This is a unique profession and one which requires total involvement on the part of the creator, for everything that he has ever experienced must eventually, in one way or another, find its way into the strip.
“When Morrie draws about children trying to find their way in an integrated community, the results show that Morrie has been more than a mere observer. Of course, the best part of it all is that Wee Pals is a lot of fun. These are good little characters and the sort of kids that you would have enjoyed having in your own neighborhood when you were growing up.
“Morrie is a credit to his profession,” Schulz finished, “—and I am proud to have him as a friend.”
Schulz wasn’t the only syndicated comic strip cartoonist to try to foster better understanding among the races in his strip. A couple of years after Franklin debuted, on October 5, 1970, Mort Walker introduced into his Beetle Bailey the Afro-sporting Lt. Flap. And he arrived noisier and lasted longer.
Although Morrie understood the reasons for the strip’s sudden spurt of client papers in 1968, he nonetheless was surprised at the continuing success of Wee Pals: “I didn’t think the metropolitan daily newspapers would be interested in anything Black,” he once said.
They were, but he had to adjust to the restrictions often imposed by national syndication. “There were very heavy restrictions on me,” he said. “I got behind because they rejected so many strips.” But all those strips later made it into print: “I just whited out the dates and changed them like it was new stuff, and they used them,” he said with a grin.
Soon after being rejected, the discarded strips were revived when Morrie went to Vietnam in the late 1960s to entertain the troops there with five other members of the National Cartoonists Society (NCS). He spent 27 days drawing more than 3,000 illustrations of service people on the front lines and in field hospitals. And he did a lot of it in a borrowed wardrobe.
His luggage got lost en route, and Family Circus’s Bil Keane came to his rescue. “Bil was the closest one to my size,” Morrie said. “Everybody else was so big. So Bil loaned me some clothes. I lived out of his suitcase for a long time, and as a result, we became very close friends.”
That will happen if you’re wearing the same clothes. Later, Keane added a Morrie-inspired black kid to the cast of Family Circus.
What with all the extracurricular sketching he was doing, Morrie fell behind with Wee Pals, and by the time he was back home, he was in danger of missing deadlines.
“I decided to take all those strips that they had rejected and re-date them and sent them back,” Morrie explained. “Well, they had no choice. And so they went with those strips—and the roof didn’t fall in.”
By the late 1960s, Morrie was doing his strip mostly in the evenings and into the wee hours. His daytime hours were often devoted to giving chalk talks to his favorite audiences, children in schools in the Bay Area. He delighted youngsters with drawings and inspired them with comic strips and stories about people of color who made important contributions to America. In interviews with the Sacramento Bee, he often spoke about his commitment to young people.
“I like writing about children and for children,” he once said. “They are so honest and forward, and they will tell you the truth.”
And when he visited other cities, he usually arranged his schedule to allow for appearances in local schools.
In 1969, he had another idea. Said he: “One year ago, prior to what has come to be known as ‘Negro History Week,’ I decided to herald the accomplishments and contributions of black Americans to U.S. history via the strip.” He quickly discovered his own knowledge of African American heritage was “sorrowfully lacking.” So he turned to his wife, “whose knowledge of the black man in America was not much better than my own.” But Letha undertook extensive research and reported her findings to Morrie.
“In the process,” he said in an article in Cartoonist PROfiles (No.6, May 1970), “we slowly became educated and learned a new pride.”
And they decided to share their knowledge —“not exclusively with the black child for the pride and dignity it could give him, but mainly with the deprived suburban white child, who, we felt, needed to be made aware of the contributions of his black brothers. We felt it necessary that in the process of learning, the child should be entertained or he would not digest the lesson, therefore we decided that the Wee Pals characters were perfect for the task.” Scraps of African American history began appearing as a final panel in Wee Pals strips.
And from there, the project expanded into a coloring book, Black and White Coloring Book. Published by Troubadour Press, the book includes short biographies of 15 significant black Americans and insightful moments of African American history—like the founding of Chicago by a black man, Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable.
Morrie was gratified and pleased with the sales of the book, and the success inspired him to produce other booklets along the same lines as well as calendars and other educational materials, including an animated cartoon biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. The most notable of these efforts, however, was the introduction in Wee Pals Sunday strips of Soul Corner.
Written by Letha, it was a single panel history lesson, appended to the strip as a stand-alone feature, presenting short biographies of notable black Americans. The panel also satisfied the peculiar mechanical demands of syndicated Sunday comic strips. All Sunday strips have a “drop-out” panel, a panel that can be discarded in order to reconfigure a strip for publication in the smaller formats of tabloid newspapers. For Wee Pals on Sundays, Soul Corner was the drop-out as well as the drop-in. (A dubious accomplishment: alas, the latter could not be achieved if the former was.)
Morrie was “a tireless advocate for young people and a mentor to younger artists,” Peter Hartlaub wrote at sfgate.com, “— his influence was felt beyond the panels of his daily comic strip.”
His lectures to school children about his Rainbow Power message earned him the Brotherhood Award of the National Council of Christians and Jews in 1968 and the B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation League Humanitarian Award in 1969. In 1970, he served as vice chairman of the White House Conference on Children. Morrie said at the time: “I thought that just by exposing readers to the sight of Negroes and Whites playing together in harmony, rather than pointing up aggravations, a useful, if subliminal, purpose would be served, and ultimately would have as great effect for good as all the freedom marchers in Mississippi.”
Comic book writer/artist Jimmie Robinson wrote about Morrie’s influence on him (in italics): He was a pioneer in many ways, but most of all I will remember him because he came to my elementary school and inspired me to be an artist. Let me clear this up a bit. I was in a school for the arts. It was a magnet education/arts program in Oakland, California called Mosswood Arts. So it wasn’t uncommon for the school to have various artists come in and speak to the students. However, when Morrie Turner came to visit there was something different. And for me it was that Mr. Turner was Black. In fact, in my three years at that art school he was the only black adult artist I ever met.
When he came to our class he spoke about his craft and showed us how he worked and what his job demanded. He spoke about his newspaper comic strip and how he had to write it every day. He spoke about the diverse cast of characters in his strip, but he never once spoke about the issue of his race.
But for me he didn’t have to. The fact that he, a black artist, even existed, spoke volumes. I was living in the notorious West Oakland Acorn projects. It was full of all the negative things you can dream of in an economically depressed inner-city. I had to take two buses to get to the arts school — which took me to a magical world away from the dark crime of my neighborhood. At the time I saw my school as the end of the road for someone like me. But when Mr. Turner arrived—just by his presence and career alone—he showed me that the world beyond my quirky school was open to anyone — no matter the race of gender.
Morrie can be credited with helping break ground for other black cartoonists such as Brumsic Brandon Jr. (Luther), Ray Billingsley (Curtis), Darrin Bell (Candorville), Steve Bentley (Herb and Jamaal), and Aaron McGruder (The Boondocks). About the latter strip, Steve Chawkins at the L.A. Times quoted Morrie saying: “Boondocks is hip-hop; Wee Pals is cool jazz.”
In 1972, the Wee Pals characters and their Rainbow Power message reached new audiences when they debuted on television in a Saturday-morning animated cartoon series called “Kid Power” (September 16, 1972 – September 1, 1974). During the 1972-73 season, another version of Wee Pals appeared on San Francisco’s KGO-TV, “Wee Pals on the Go,” a Sunday morning show that featured child actors playing the parts of characters in the strip.
And on May 14, 1973, Morrie was on tv himself in “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
In December 1987, Morrie, who probably spent more time with kids in schools than at the drawing board, was inducted into the California Public Education Hall of Fame, which spotlights the essential role of public education by honoring California public school graduates who have made significant contributions to society and the advancement of humanity. Two booklets that Morrie did for the NAACP’s Back to School/Stay in School program were specifically recognized. Done in collaboration with the program’s director, Aileen O. James, one of the booklets illustrates the “Power to the Pupil” who gets an education, and the other gives pointers to parents about how to be supportive in their children’s education.
NAACP’s objectives were to undermine negative attitudes about school, replacing them with the positive philosophy that education is the main road to success, and to seek out “at risk” students and offer them remediation, recreation, guidance and parental involvement in after-school sessions.
When Morrie was approached by James, he said, “I could hardly contain my enthusiasm—or perhaps my ability to will a situation. I had already read about the project and realized its importance, and I’d begun formulating in my mind how I might contribute. When Dr. James called, she simply saved my calling her to beg to participate. I have long understood the importance of education in the fulfillment of a productive and satisfying life. I suppose that is part of the reason I have spent so much of my time in schools encouraging, and hopefully inspiring, kids to succeed as human beings through their pursuit of education” (Cartoonist PROfiles, No.76, December 1987).
For his work in cartooning and education, he received many awards and honors, among them: the Sparky Award (named for Charles Schulz) from San Francisco’s Cartoon Art Museum; the Boys and Girls Club Image Award; Alameda County Education Association Layman’s Award; California Black Chamber of Commerce Lifetime Achievement Award and the Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement Award (from the National Cartoonists Society); San Diego Comic-Con Inkpot Award; City of Oakland Unity Award; and the California Educators Award. At the International Comic-Con at San Diego in 2012, he received the Bob Clampett Humanitarian Award. He’s in the halls of fame of Berkeley High School and the World Institute of Black Communications. And he is a founder of the Northern California African American History Museum and Library in Oakland.
Mell Lazarus, the novelist and cartoonist who created the Miss Peach comic strip (1957-2002) and still does Momma (which he started in 1970), called Morrie’s work charming, accessible and imbued sensitively with a message about racial equality. “It was a wonderful way to do it,” said Lazarus, a former president of the National Cartoonists Society.
“Morrie was a pioneer with his Rainbow Power many decades before it became a household name,” said Rick Newcombe, who founded Creators Syndicate in 1987. “I started working with Morrie in 1984 [while Newcome was still working for News America], and we clicked right from the beginning. He was warm, funny, gentle and loving—one of the kindest people I have ever known.”
Simone Slykhous, the Creators editor who handles Wee Pals, agreed: “Working with Morrie Turner has been a great honor. Despite being an institution in the comics world, he was always incredibly thoughtful and generous with his time. He even sent me personalized thank-you notes featuring his iconic characters saying, ‘5Q + 5Q = 10Q.’ I want to say a final ’10Q’ to Morrie for all the laughs.”
Soon after 8 p.m. on November 4, 2008, just after the polls closed at the senior center around the corner, Morrie’s phone started to ring. All the network prognosticators were certain now: Barack Obama had been elected the 44th President of the United States, the first of his race to hold the office. And Morrie’s friends called to rejoice with him.
Obama’s candidacy had produced mixed feelings in the cartoonist. He was delighted that the black Chicagoan was running, but he was terrified that he would be assassinated before Election Day. And even that night, Morrie was sure a black man had no chance of winning. But win he did, and Morrie’s phone rang all night.
In The Believer magazine (No.67, November/December 2009), Jeff Chang reported that one of those who called was Bil Keane, who wanted to share the happy moment with his old friend. Wee Pals, Keane told Morrie, had helped pave the way to this historic moment for America. “Morrie tried to find the words to reply; finally, he said that it was only the second time in his life he had ever felt like an American. Keane was about to tell Morrie that he didn’t understand what he meant. But he stopped. He heard Morrie sobbing.”
Morrie’s wife Letha died in 1994, and several years ago, Morrie moved to West Sacramento to live with Karol Trachtenburg, who, with her daughter Jeannette Eagan, looked after the elderly cartoonist.
He continued to produce Wee Pals, meeting his deadlines with clock-like dedication even as his kidneys were failing. His drawings were not as strong as they once were, but the message (and the comedy) persisted.He saw his work as an ongoing struggle against intolerance.
“That’s what I’m supposed to do,” he told the San Jose Mercury News. “I think, what am I supposed to be doing that I’m not doing? My mother used to say, ‘Cast your bread upon the water.’ By saying that to me, it meant that I should give a little.”
I visited Morrie last spring with Tom Tanquary, a 40-year veteran of television news (the last 20 years with NBC News and “Dateline”) whose passion for newspaper comics has persuaded him to undertake a documentary about them, their role in American life, the relationship they have with readers. Wee Pals is a stunning example of the kind of comics history we want to tell. Morrie was in a wheelchair, as he has been for the last year or so. He had a welcoming manner about him, a kind of gift: from his very first utterance, you felt that he had known you all your life, that you were an old friend not a virtual stranger.
He’d been on dialysis for the last three years. He invited fans to visit him during these treatments, saying, “No need to call first—just sign in, don a paper gown and visit.”
He wrote on his Facebook page Thursday, January 23: “Have been having some medical issues that require surgery, and I’ll be recuperating for a bit.”
He worked on the strip and other projects (he always had other projects) until the next day, when he went to the hospital. And the day after that, he died of complications from his kidney ailment.
He is survived by his companion Karol Trachtenburg, his son Morris A. “Morrie” Turner of Hercules, California, four grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.
And by thousands of fans and colleagues. Some of the latter were rounded up by Michael Cavna on his ComicRiffs blog at the Washington Post. I’m posting most of them here—:
Wiley Miller (Non Sequitur): Morrie was a very good friend of mine for over 30 years, not merely an NCS acquaintance. One of the kindest souls I have ever had the privilege to know. Morrie’s influence on me didn’t make me a better cartoonist. He helped make me a better person.
I’ll miss him dearly.
Tom Richmond (Mad artist and current president of the National Cartoonists Society):
In 2003, the NCS honored Morrie with the Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement Award. This is a big deal and honors those who have had exemplary careers in cartooning and had a profound impact on their field. Morrie certainly fit that bill. In fact, to call him a mere “pioneer” or “legend” seems like a disservice considering what he did for minorities in cartooning, and for the world itself with his message of peace, tolerance and acceptance of all races, nationalities and religions.
Jerry Scott (Zits and Baby Blues): He was incredibly kind, genuinely interested in people, and always made time to talk with me when we would see each other. He was a positive, accepting influence on so many of us cartoonists when we were starting out in the business. Oh, and his laugh always made me laugh.
Dave Coverly (Speed Bump): I always felt that Wee Pals was so successful because it was a true, organic extension of Morrie himself. The optimism and idealism were heartfelt expressions of a true gentleman; he was one of The Good Ones, and it was a real honor to share the comics page with him.
Brian Walker (Hi and Lois and comics historian): Morrie Turner was the first African American to sell a comic strip with African American characters to a major syndicate. … The cast of his creation was from a variety of backgrounds, providing a graphic testing ground for Turner’s belief in Rainbow Power: “I decided that by exposing readers to the sight of Blacks and Whites playing together in harmony,” Turner once claimed, “rather than pointing up aggravations, a useful, if subliminal, purpose would be served, and ultimately would have as great an effect for good as all the freedom marchers in Mississippi.
Lincoln Peirce (Big Nate): Wee Pals wasn’t in either of the newspapers my parents subscribed to while I was growing up, so I discovered the strip through Morrie’s reprint books. Even as a kid, I recognized that the titles of those compilations—Funky Tales, Getting It All Together, Doing Their Thing, Kid Power —signaled very powerfully that this strip was different. Unlike most of the other comic strips or comic books I read as a child, which had a certain timeless quality, Wee Pals was timely. It felt deeply authentic to me because it was contemporary; these weren’t characters who’d been around since the ’40s and ’50s. It felt very specific to its time, and it was a time I recognized as my own. I didn’t have to run to my parents and ask them what a particular Wee Pals strip meant. And the characters themselves were great. Morrie did a tremendous job, in only a few strokes, of revealing just what made each kid tick. From week to week, sometimes even day to day, I’d pick a different character as my favorite. The fact that there were so many to choose from points to the richness of the world Morrie created. He was a great cartoonist.
Jim Toomey (Sherman’s Lagoon): I’m so sorry to hear of Morrie’s passing. I got to know Morrie when I was just starting out as a syndicated cartoonist living in San Francisco. I would see him at the Bay Area National Cartoonists Society events. He was always so supportive of the younger, up-and-coming cartoonists, and was always generous with advice. Unlike a lot of cartoonists you meet in person, Morrie was actually funny, and gregarious, and a lot of fun to be around. We’ll all miss him greatly
Keith Knight (The Knight Life, The K Chronicles, th(ink): He was a gracious, nice and giving person. And he had this youthfulness. He was able to retain that exuberance of being a kid, and keep that in his work. I had the pleasure of interviewing him onstage a couple of years ago at the San Diego Comic-Con. [I was] disappointed with the attendance, but it was good, selfish fun for me. He told a very moving story about visiting injured soldiers in Vietnam. And I was excited to see a lot of his early political-cartoon work. I came to realize that Morrie’s done everything I’ve ever wanted to do, except he did it 50 years ago, both humbly and graciously. Easily the nicest guy in the industry.
Darrin Bell (Candorville): I didn’t know Morrie Turner well — I met him only once. But I never forgot that meeting. I attended my first NCS Reubens Award ceremony in San Francisco, in 2003, where I got to see Morrie receive the Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement Award. Until the moment he crossed that stage, I felt as if I were the only non-white person at the entire event — and one of the few under 30. I practically was. I felt out of place. Nobody knew who I was and worse, nobody I mingled with seemed to care—except my friend and inspiration Wiley Miller, who wasn’t even in the NCS at the time. I wasn’t sure I wanted to remain part of the NCS.
After the awards banquet, I was standing in the hallway and I heard a man’s voice from behind me say, “I saw you, young man, and I just wanted to say hello.” I turned around and it was Morrie Turner. He reached out to shake my hand. As I shook his, all the “Soul Corners” I’d read over the years seemed to flash so fast through my mind that I couldn’t make out even one to tell him I’d read. So what I told him was:
“When I was a kid, we took three different newspapers. I learned to read by reading the comics page. I loved to draw, but I assumed it was someplace I could never be because none of the characters looked like me. I can’t tell you how important it was, for me, to see Wee Pals in there every day, to see that it was GOOD, and to see the achievements of people of color in that ‘Soul Corner’ on Sundays. Because I sure as hell never saw them in the rest of the newspaper. I used to imagine myself appearing in one of those Corners someday. I don’t think you can possibly know how many little kids you inspired, sir.”
I told him it was an honor to see him receive this award and that recognition of his work by the NCS was long overdue. Decades overdue.
He gave me a little hug and told me: “You’re doing something important just by being here. We need people like you to BE here.”
I’m not going anywhere, Morrie. Morrie Turner was the father of diversity on the comics page, and I doubt I’d be here if it weren’t for him.
Eleven years ago, I was considering walking out of that organization and not looking back just because I felt as if I didn’t belong. Morrie Turner stopped me. Today I’m the third vice president of the NCS. I wish I could meet him one more time to thank him again. With just a few words, and just a few lines of ink and color on the page, the man inspired me just as much when I was 28 as he did when I was 5.
Andrew Farago (Curator, Cartoon Art Museum): Morrie claimed he was finally going to slow down in another year or two, once he’d done 50 years’ worth of Wee Pals. That would have been nice, matching his old friend Charles Schulz’s tenure on Peanuts, but I don’t think any of us really believed Morrie would stop drawing. Or could stop drawing.
Nearly every student in the Bay Area since the 1970s, especially in Morrie’s hometown of Oakland, met him on one of his countless classroom visits, where he’d tell kids stories about his life as a professional cartoonist, and as a proud graduate of the Oakland public school system. As proud as Morrie was of his own success, he was even prouder of all of the other cartoonists he inspired. And doctors. And scientists. And teachers. Morrie never forgot where he came from, and never missed an opportunity to inspire the next generation.
Even in recent years, as his health declined, Morrie’s schedule barely slowed up. A typical week involved three trips to the hospital for dialysis, a school visit, a library appearance and maybe a comic book convention. And everywhere he went, he showed up smiling and ready to share some of his favorite stories about cartooning. Or about his friends. Or his military service. Or his school days. Or whatever popped into his head. And each and every audience had a great time.
While it’s sad that Morrie is no longer with us, the last several years of his life were almost like an extended farewell tour. Everywhere he went, people were thrilled to see him, whether it was the first time or the fiftieth time they’d heard his stories. He received awards from the Cartoon Art Museum, the National Cartoonists Society, Pittsburgh’s ToonSeum, Children’s Fairyland, and many others. Some organizations made up awards just for the sake of getting one more visit from Morrie. It’s rare that someone can do what he did for so long and maintain an enthusiastic, appreciative audience of friends, family, and fans, but Morrie was a rare kind of person. Morrie loved what he did, and everybody loved Morrie. And Morrie loved everybody.
Jeff Keane (former NCS president, who inherited Family Circus from his father): Morrie was one of my Dad and Mom’s best cartoonist friends, and the first time I met him, I could see why. … He and Dad went to Vietnam with the USO together. Dad literally shared the clothes off his back during the trip due to Morrie’s luggage getting “lost” in transit (of course, them being about the same size was a bonus, although my Dad’s taste in clothes was probably a negative). It was the late 1960’s.
That experience, I think, helped them form a bond that lasted till the day Dad died. I know my Dad was thrilled and honored to present Morrie with the Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement award from the NCS in 2003. It was a most deserved award. What Morrie did with his Wee Pals strip was groundbreaking, and his own humbleness and continued joy of sharing his love of all people through his cartoon was a true gift.
I know he and Dad are probably laughing together right now. And if Morrie’s luggage got misplaced on his way up there—well, I’m sure my Dad has him covered.
Envoi. Musing about his craft, Morrie once said: “Doing a cartoon enables you to step outside and look at yourself. It’s like therapy, and I’ve become a better person for it.”
So, we submit, have the readers of Wee Pals.
Sources. Some of my sources are cited at the place they are quoted in the text. But many are not mentioned specifically—that is, the dozens of obituaries and farewell articles of acclamation and affection that flooded the Web as soon as Morrie’s death became known. I read as many of them as I could find and picked up a piece of biography here, a scrap of information there, and mashed it all together in what you’ve just read. A general source for information about black American cartoonists is Tim Jackson’s website which is temporarily offline because it’s being turned into a book, tentatively entitled A Salute to the Pioneering Cartoonists of Color, due out later this year.