REVIEW: A Son's Memoir of the Golden Age of Cartoonists


Cartoon Country: My Father and His Friends in the Golden Age of Make Believe by Cullen Murphy (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

By Ann Fabian

Journalist Cullen Murphy grew up in “Cartoon Country,” in Fairfield County, Connecticut, where “a populous concentration of the country’s comic strip artists, gag cartoonists, and magazine illustrators” had come to settle in the 1950s.  Lucky boy.  It was “the high summer of the American Century,” he writes, good years for boys, newspapers, advertising men and cartooning fathers.  Everyone’s father, it seemed to Murphy, was a cartoonist or illustrator.  His own, John Cullen Murphy, was the artist and illustrator who drew Prince Valiant and Big Ben Bolt—a strip about a muscled boxer.

Murphy’s cartoon country was a quirky corner of the suburban world of post-war America. Grey-suited neighbors jammed morning trains into Manhattan, but the cartoonists stayed home to draw strips for the Sunday papers.  Fathers golfed, swapped jokes, and drank.  On “look days,” they took the late-morning train to New York to show their drawings to editors and art directors.  It was a good life--newspapers fat with ads and thick with cartoons landed on doorsteps of millions of houses all over the country, and a man with a syndicated strip could raise a sprawling family of eight children.

John Cullen Murphy was born in 1919.  He discovered early on a talent for caricature and knew he wanted to grow up to be an artist.  By a lucky chance, he met his New Rochelle neighbor Norman Rockwell, who took him under his wing.  Murphy modeled for one of Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post covers, and Rockwell encouraged him to take his art seriously, sending him off to study drawing at New York’s Art Students League. 

World War II grew Murphy into a confident artist.  He enlisted in the army in 1942. Talent for the quick sketch landed him a position on Douglas MacArthur’s staff.  Murphy drew what he saw, as he followed the general into occupied Tokyo.  He sent sketches to his mother, who peddled them to stateside magazines, but preserved most in the family files Cullen Murphy uses in a lovely central chapter of the book. 

Murphy settled his growing family in suburban Cos Cob, Connecticut, and took to drawing.  Cullen Murphy remembers sitting in his father’s studio. “From my stool I now had an angled view of my father’s hands at work—a picture to go with the ambient sound of pen and brush.”  He takes that angled view of hands, pen and brush out onto his father’s world.

We learn a lot from Cullen Murphy about how cartoonists worked, plotted their stories, sharpened their pencils and polished their gags.  They posed their children, took Polaroid snapshots of grins and grimaces.  They had cliques, clubs and professional organizations, good friendships, small rivalries and odd rules.  Some comic characters never aged; others, like Prince Valiant, grew old, if at a cartoon-country glacial pace.  Women could wear bikinis in cartoon country, but never show a belly button.  Sloppy soldiers couldn’t leave dirty socks on chairs.  Boxers, barbarians, and cavemen could bare their chests but bare-chested men couldn’t have nipples—a challenge, for sure, for a man drawing a story about Big Ben Bolt.

And “Cartoon Country” was pretty much a white suburb, where race, politics, and religion were off limits. 

Murphy’s book is a visual record of a particular time and place.  The world was done in by newspaper strikes, by changing technology, politics, and culture.  But if you grew up, like I did, caught up in the stories of Sunday comics, you’ve passed hours in “Cartoon Country.”

You’ll see what I mean if you bring up their comics next time you sit down with friends of a certain age—or your parents or your parents’ friends or your friends’ parents.  It doesn’t matter where they grew up—Texas, Montana, California, New York—they’ll all know “Brenda Starr,” “Terry and the Pirates,” “Mary Worth,” “Dondi,” “Gasoline Alley,” and “Beetle Bailey.” They’ll know about Basil St. John. They’ll recognize smells coming off the wavy lines of a waftarom and be happy to translate #!*$%!&*#! 

So with this son’s book in hand, a nod of thanks to John Cullen Murphy and all his friends who settled their art and their jokes down deep into our cultural memories.  A lot of us grew up in “Cartoon Country.”  It’s good to know what the place was like.


Ann Fabian is an American historian working on a book about herpetologist Mary Cynthia Dickerson.