‘Cartoon County’ recalls Fairfield community of newspaper comics creators
Published 1:09 pm, Tuesday, November 7, 2017
Fairfield County in the 1950s and 1960s is often caricatured as a place of suburban conformity — a notion that inspired both “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” and “The Stepford Wives” — but that is an oversimplification.
A new book by Cullen Murphy, “Cartoon County” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27), gives us a vivid alternative view of the area as a hot bed of creativity, where artists and writers flourished in what were then affordable homes and studios. (The group was also drawn by the fact that Connecticut had no income tax in those days.)
Murphy’s father, the late John Cullen Murphy, was the man behind the comic strips “Prince Valiant” and “Big Ben Bolt,” but he was part of a large Fairfield County community of artists that included the people who gave us “Superman,” “Beetle Bailey,” “Pogo” and many other newspaper features that entertained tens of millions of readers. The men inspired each other and would fill in for each other during times of illness.
In one scene in the book, Murphy’s father and some of his friends hoot when they hear a TV commentator refer to the 1950s as “a decade of conformity.” Their collective disproofs of this idea include Miles Davis, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, the architect Eero Saarinen and Vladimir Nabokov’s international best-seller “Lolita.”
“As the cartoonists saw it, conformity was not a major feature of the landscape they inhabited, no matter what the train platform at Cos Cob might look like at 7 a.m. on a Wednesday,” Murphy writes. “The people they knew were all living by their wits.”
In addition to its portrayal of what was then the mass medium of newspaper comics, Murphy’s nostalgic view of Fairfield County long before upscale national chain stores replaced local shops in towns such as Greenwich and Westport will resonate with local readers.
“You had a locally oriented population then, rather than an interest in Frankfurt and Shanghai,” Murphy, who lives in Massachusetts, says of the invasion of hedge fund and financial services people that caused property values to spike during the past few decades.
“It was a different world — more like a small town,” he adds of his memories of the Cos Cob section of Greenwich before Interstate 95 sliced through Fairfield County. In those days, teachers, merchants and laborers could still afford to live in the towns in which they worked.
“Cartoon County” was prompted by Murphy’s desire to tell the story of his dad’s many years as an illustrator and cartoonist, but also to present the Connecticut community that nurtured him (the book’s subtitle is “My Father and His Friends in the Golden Age of Make-Believe”).
The cartoonists and illustrators in Fairfield County in the years after World War II were able to take advantage of a peak period in newspaper history. “There were more newspapers than ever before — about 300 that appeared in the morning, 1,500 that appeared in the afternoon and 500 that appeared on Sunday. Those Sunday newspapers, with their thick comics sections, had a combined circulation of 50 million, which meant that more copies were being sold than there were households in America at the time,” Murphy writes.
“Prince Valiant” was especially prized for its beautifully detailed drawing and wonderful color. Famous fans of the strip ranged from the Duke of Windsor to the Oscar-winning star Greer Garson.
“I started to have a growing appreciation of the very special world my family and I were a part of,” Murphy says of deciding to do a book almost a decade ago. “I had an inkling of it when I was very young, that the milieu was not run-of-the-mill.
“I also experienced the deaths of many people (in the newspaper comics world) and then my father’s own death in 2004 ... so much of the special knowledge of that world was about to be lost,” he says of artists such as “Joe Palooka” illustrator Tony DiPreta, who died in 2010, and a dozen or so cartoonists who passed on around the turn of the century.
Murphy was inspired by the diaries and journals his “pack rat” father left behind. It took the author many months to go through material that provided him with a whole new view of his dad, both in their years together and the adventures his father had before Cullen came along. The author says the papers in the boxes his father kept went all the way back to tests he took in second grade.
“The great thing about being allowed to read the diaries of someone you knew and loved is the daily aliveness you get to see. They are gone, but they (seem) as alive as you are. You also get to see that their daily lives were much like your own,” Murphy says of the way his dad recorded the movies he saw, the books he read, meetings with friends and family and ideas for work.
John Cullen Murphy’s diaries included very down-to-earth drawings of what was going on in his life. The book shares many evocative sketches the artist made during his service in World War II — island natives get the same treatment as fellow soldiers and top brass.
“He was very observant, but less about what was in his head than the world around him — what people were doing. For someone trying to be a historian that’s very helpful,” Murphy says.
The author was thrilled by his publisher’s decision to print “Cartoon County” in an over-sized format with color illustrations throughout. “The design is extraordinary. ... I couldn’t be more pleased,” he says.
email@example.com; Twitter: @joesview