Writer and Vanity Fair editor-at-large Cullen Murphy grew up in Fairfax County, Connecticut, when seemingly everyone’s father in the region was paying the bills by working on newspaper comic strips. Among the strips on which Murphy’s own father, John Cullen Murphy, worked as an artist was Prince Valiant, and he did so for thirty years. In a new book called Cartoon County: My Father and His Friends in the Golden Age of Make-Believe (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Murphy looks back at his father’s work and examines a childhood spent in a part of postwar America that was once home to the cartoonists behind the country’s most popular comic strips—all living within miles of one another.
It definitely was not a cult; it was nothing like that. But there were lots and lots of cartoonists around. And my parents would entertain a lot, and they would go out a lot. And the people that they would entertain would largely be other cartoonists, and their spouses. It was very much a subculture that was aware of itself at the time. You know, there were probably a hundred people who were cartoonists that we knew one way or another in that group. And they were all essentially within 30 miles of each other. People like Mort Walker, who did Beetle Bailey, and Dik Browne, who did Hägar the Horrible, and Stan Drake, who did The Heart of Juliet Jones, and Jerry Dumas, who did Sam and Silo, and Tony DiPreta, who did Joe Palooka, and Ted Shearer, who did Quincy, and Crockett Johnson, who did Barnaby and also the children’s classic Harold and the Purple Crayon. Not to mention Chuck Saxon, the great New Yorker cartoonist.
My father’s drawing board, tilted to its customary steep diagonal, stands across the room from where I write. Above it hang some of his paintings, sketches, and comic strips, along with work by other cartoonists and illustrators who were among his friends. The surface of the drawing board is five feet long and three feet high, and a polished declivity on the cross brace marks where my father rested his right foot as he sat and drew. Every square inch of the oaken face is covered with flicks and curls of paint or ink, creating an inadvertent pattern as intricate as a Pollock. That surface was the product of almost 60 years, from the late 1940s until my father’s death, in 2004.
Cartoon County is out now from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Image: Big Ben Bolt, drawn by John Cullen Murphy and written by Elliot Caplin. © King Features Syndicate.