Morrie Turner Guest Lecture -
Aesthetics & Criticism
What I do, why I do it, how the characters...I do a cartoon strip called, which I'll hope you know, called "Wee Pals." I've been doing that now for 23 years, and there are 14 kids in that strip. Because I like to deal with various ethnic characters. Sometimes I bring in a character and leave 'em, depending on who I hear from and the tone of the letter, of course.
I became a friend--I freelanced cartoons for many, many years, to magazines mostly, like--I'm proud of the fact that I was in the very first issue of Playboy, and, like, they used to have a lot of good magazines, American, Collier's and Saturday Evening Post. And I did a lot of trade journals, magazines, too. (Kurt von Meier: you weren't a centerfold, were you?) I tried; I tried. I was rejected. So I became involved with a cartoon group in San Francisco and I had the opportunity to meet and become friends with Charles Schulz, who draws Peanuts, as you know. And at that time I was, you know, cartoons represented a totally white world. I had to sit--all the cartoons that I drew had to be of white characters. And whenever I would (decide/defy?) to--because no one knew who I was...I had that going for me, so I could never--of course, I could never say I can't get into cartooning because, you know, those editors are prejudiced, well they didn't know (what/who?) I was. With a name like Morrie, you know, how you gonna know? So---yeah, yeah--now they might have been anti-Semitic...
But I used to draw and draw, and I was...certain magazines, well, I'll tell you what magazine it was, "Scouting," I had a regular deal with "Scouting." And one day they had, I drew a cartoon with five characters with the scoutmaster, and I decided to make all the little kids of various ethnic backgrounds. And they had to approve of the...I had sent them the rough, pencil rough, and then they approved of it, that's when I...they said do a finish of it, and that's when I did a finish and I decided I would make all the kids, like I said, various ethnic backgrounds, and they rejected it. They suddenly decided...yeah.
So, I was talking to all the cartoonists I could reach: Bill Keane, and...incidently, Bill Keane does have a black kid in his Family Circus now...if you'll look at him very closely...his name is Morrie...and he keeps his little book in his back pocket: "How to Draw" and that's me. And....I talked to... Sparky, Schulz--he included, he did come around and he included a character named Franklin, a little black kid. Actually, I thought he was just a dirty kid with a dirty face, but... yeah. He told me one day, and he said "you're quite a historian, aren't you?" I said, "no, I'm not a... Black history." And I said, "no, not actually." I said, "As I read these things, I put 'em in the paper, as I find out about 'em." And I said, "why?" He said, "well, somebody told 'im, you know, the little kid that plays the piano," what's his name? Like Schroeder--Schroeder plays the piano, he has a bust of Beethoven on his piano, and he asked me, and he said, "he had been told by some people that Beethoven was black, and could I tell him if that was a true story or not?" And I said I didn't know, why? He said, "oh, that's all right." He wouldn't tell me why he wanted to know, and he gave me the date that...for me to look for the strip, and it came out, when the strip came out, it was wonderful. He had Schroeder playing the piano, and Lucy comes in and she says to him, "Did you know that some people said that Beethoven was black?" And he looked at her and he said, "You mean, all these years I've been playing soul music?" I was jealous of that one, I tell you--I was really jealous.
So I decided that I was going to redraw as a joke, all the Peanuts characters as black kids, how they appeared to me, and I was going to give it to him and say, this is Peanuts from a black perspective. Then I saw Charlie Brown--I didn't do anything about it--I saw Charlie Brown wearing a Confederate hat, and I thought, hey, that's pretty funny, but it would be hilarious if Charlie Brown were black, so I proceeded to make my own Charlie Brown.
Charlie Brown has a dog, so I said, well, I'll give my kid a dog, too. So, but instead of giving it to Schulz, I liked what I had, and I said, here's a great time to start a comic strip, integrated. And at the same time I had been talking to Dick Gregory, and I was all set to--Dick had asked me to, he was going to do a new book, and he asked me to do some cartoons for the book--and I discovered that I, I tried and tried and tried. I had all of this material written, but it was no good for him. Well, I didn't even give it to him, because it was no good for him, because I think in--my humor goes in different directions. I think in terms of one, two, three, four. And it had to be one solid idea. So I sent it to a syndicate. And believe it or not, they signed me to a contract. But then they said, the kids had to have names.
The kids didn't have names at that particular time, I'm talking 25 years ago... So, I had to put names together in about a week's time. So I'm going to tell you, each, I'm gonna put each kid's name on here, and tell you how they got there. This kid's name is "Nipper." Now that was a takeoff on the name Nipsy Russell who was appearing on a, with Herb Caen--not Herb Caen--Les Crane, on late night television show at that time. And I admired Nipper very much. And I got this kid started. And then I learned that this also names, you know, an English and Australian expression for small child, so that was great. Also that dog that stands in front of the Victrola. Did you know that dog's name when looks...sits there and looks...his name is Nipper--His Master's Voice--his name is Nipper, yeah. So I'm...oh, incidentally, when the people on To Tell the Truth program, which Nipsey Russell was appearing on at that time, found out that this kid was named after Nipsey Russell, they gave me an all-expense trip for three days to New York, my wife and I, and I went on the show--I lost, but I did get a chance to meet Nipsey Russell.
You know, I hate to tell you, when there were no black characters in the funny papers at all, not at all, and here comes Nipper, you know? Not only is he a black kid, but he's wearing a Confederate hat. A reader, I don't know where he was, I think it was Detroit, he wrote the syndicate and he said, "No black man in his right mind would wear a Confederate hat." He said, "I suggest that your cartoonist get to know a few black people." He actually said that, he...the syndicate laughed too, and they would talk to me about it and let me respond to this person, I said I know two black people: my mother and my father. Needless to say, we didn't hear from him since. (At any point you want to ask a question, just raise your hand and I'll deal with that.)
This is, we call this kid the resident intellectual. He doesn't have all the answers, but he thinks he does. You know the type I'm talking about. Yeah. They usually end up as art instructors or something like that. Every once in a while he will don this little costume-- superhero's costume. Nipper wanted to know what's this superhero costume...his name is, incidentally, is Oliver. Where I got that from--Oliver Twist was appearing in San Francisco at the time we started. So he said, to explain to Nipper's question, he said, "I am Captain Oliver, Intolerance Fighter." He said, "It's my job to rid the neighborhood of intolerance." Nipper said, "You do not have to worry about me. I had mine taken out when I was six years old."
This kid, this next kid is a takeoff of Lucy. I've been unable to change her. She gets her name from my third-grade teacher, and that's a lie, which I kept saying (?)... When I signed the contract with the syndicate, they said we don't want any boys to strike any girls in this comic strip. I said, " I wouldn't do that." Or the older children to strike any younger children. I said I wouldn't do that either. They said, "No inter-racial fighting in the comic strip." Ridiculous. I discovered then, at that point in time I discovered that the only person who could hit anybody was Connie. And the only person she could hit was Oliver. And the editor of the Cleveland Press said, "Connie strikes Oliver one more time, you're through in Cleveland." So she started to kicking him. But I survived that one. But then, but then, a woman psychologist in Los Angeles wrote me a letter and said, " Obviously you have had an unfulfilled romance with a white woman, and you're taking it out on Connie." Well, you can laugh, my wife said, "Who is she?" I said, "My third-grade teacher," that's all I could think about at the time. So I got away with that one.
Then later on, when women...I'm talking 1965, well, then the women got into women's rights and the whole great deal, and the mail for Connie now is "right on, Connie!" Incidentally, I had to do something to change--how I broke the bonds from the syndicate was by, through one cartoon. I had Connie in the first panel, she hits Oliver. No reason, she just lays him out. And Randy, who is black (?) is standing behind her. And she turned on him, too, laid him out. And she said, "That's just to let you know I am not prejudiced." And they didn't know what to do with that one. They printed it, and they don't bother me about that ever since.
Connie's friend, and Oliver's intellectual equal, is this kid. Anybody remember Sibyl Burton? She was married to Richard Burton when, you know, the famous divorce? that was in '60, '64, and I saw this name, I said, what a nice name, so I gave her that name. As a cartoonist, I don't particularly care for the pun. But in 1964, Civil Rights Movement, I couldn't resist the pun. So I gave her a last name. It gave me a lot of opportunity. For instance, she wanted to become the first black congressperson and write her own civil rights laws.
(I'll just put these on the floor; easier to do.)
This kid is Asian. He gets his name, George, from my father, who is not Asian. In fact, my father's name was James. That's the truth. The reason I gave him the name George, after my father, whose name is James, is very simple: my father was a Pullman porter, right out of Oakland. And one thing, in those days, to everybody, all Pullman porters were called George. I have no idea why, but my dad hated it. "That's not my name; my name is James. Don't call me that (damn?) name." But you know what my father did? This is a story of coping. He couldn't quit the job--he legally changed his name to George. So when a guy called him, "How did you know my name, man?" ...that's so cool, I wanted to remember that. 'Course when Sybil learned, I mean when George learned about Sybil becoming a congressperson--this guy quotes Confucius a lot. He told her, he said---"well, first you fill your mouth full of marbles, then you spit the marbles out one at a time, and then when you've lost all your marbles...."
I wanted this kid in the comic strip from the beginning but I ... took a while, 'cause he's Native American. And, you know, in the old days, when I used to read comics, and you knew when you saw a Native American in the comic strip because he was wearing a feather. I'd say, "Ahhh I" Well I didn't want to do that. So I picked up books of Native American Sioux, and I saw this face and I did a caricature of this face. So when he came onto the scene, the first person he saw was Nipper. And like any good Native American, he said, "How, paleface!" Nipper said, "Son of a gun! A colorblind Indian!" Now also when he first came on the scene, the kids wanted to know what, what was it? (?) Native American, we know that, we want to know (?) what tribe--Mohawk? Sioux? Blackfoot?
Shawnee? just what are you? He said, "I'm a Sioux." One of the kids said, "You don't look Siouxish." While I had the book, I read the book, I learned that the Native American was into ecology long before we were so I wanted to say something about that. I called him Rocky. Unfortunately for me, when Rocky first ap...see, we're working six weeks in advance, I had no idea of what's going to happen when the script comes out. Unfortunately for me, when the ....Rocky first showed up, the Native Americans were occupying Alcatraz. You remember that? And I...in a lot of trouble. I was called very insensitive, very insensitive.
Rocky--I have so many kids, I have to keep a list. This character a had a lot of trouble with the syndicate getting her in there.... her name is Charlotte. It's crazy, but they didn't want this kid at all. She happens to be in a wheelchair. And then I was asked to do, I wanted the kid, and I couldn't find a way around it. Then I did--Kaiser Industry asked me to do an animated film on --- (let me get this wheel down there...) on Affirmative Action, so I said, "Here's my chance!" I mean, how can you do (an) Affirmative Action film without using the disabled persons? Well, I applied that to them. One thing I know about syndicates, what motivates a syndicate is the bottom line, money. So they knew that if I .... that what I was saying was correct, and also that the kid would have to be in the newspaper before she appeared in the film, otherwise she would belong to the producer of the film. So in order to get the copyright on the character, they had to accept her. And so we talked about it, and I said, "Well, what about..." I said, "We'll give her something to interact with for the humor of it all. So I'll give her a pet." And put the pet on the wheel, right there. And they said, "Well, well, what is that thing?" I said, "It's a parrot!" So, ah. "What's the parrot's name?" I said, "Polly." Well, they thought that wasn't too original, wasn't too creative, so I said, "Well, how about I change it? We'll call it 'Polyester.'"
So we're off and running, and we had a...we did one strip in which the kids, we did a Sunday page in which the kids were trying to decide--they were playing baseball--they were trying to decide who was going to play center field. Charlotte said, "I'll play center field." Why? She said, "I'm the only one they can play in the tall grass and not to worry about snakes." I thought that was kind of insensitive for me to do that, but I went with it anyway because the idea was supplied to me by a kid in Philadelphia, 12 years old, who resides in a wheelchair. Thank goodness, nothing happened. The one that did get a response, and a very good response, and it was repeated and repeated and repeated, Charlotte is at the bus stop with Randy, who is black--you're going to meet him a little later. And Randy says, "You know, it hasn't been too many years since my relatives living in the South had to sit in the back of the bus." And she says, "We're still trying to get ON the bus!" And that one was, that one was, I'm proud of that, I wish I could think of something else quite as good as that one was.
Pablo; I went to school with Pablo. Only in those days, we called him Peter. He also knows this kid is him; he always buys me a drink whenever I see him. One of the things I do in my strip, is the kids share their own, their culture with the other kids. But, you know, like they will, Nipper will have a chitlin stand, for instance, you know, sell the kids chitlins. Rocky will have buffalo burgers, and on it goes. But this kid is giving his tacos away. Nipper tries to explain it to him: "You can't make any money giving your tacos away. You can't do it." "Go away, kid, y'bother me." ...All the kids are standing around devouring all the tacos. Munching 'em up. And when the tacos are all gone, ...he's not dumb.
I was talking about Randy, Randy's the image of my son, who is so cool, he can't walk straight, I tell you. His body language, is very important to the cartoonist so the reader can get a feel for the character right away. "How does that character feel?" When I have two characters talking together, if one..let's say, two characters who are really the same size, and one character is putting down the other character, the character that's being put down I shorten just a wee bit. Until pointed out to me, I didn't know I was doing that. But...when I'm aware of it, I shorten `em too much. But when I'm not thinking about it, it's just enough. People used to come by to see me to watch me draw, not so much for the cartoons but to watch my face, 'cause my face takes on all of the whatever the character's feeling, I feel.
Here's Randy. You've been wondering about that sign there, "Remember the N double A C P?" George said, " What's the sign for, 'Remember the National Association for the Advancement of Certain People'?" He says, "What does that mean, anyway?" He said, "Well, whenever I get, my white classmates, get me uptight, I come in and read my sign." He said, " Come on, come on." So he explains, "Yeah, he says, Remember: Never abandon adolescent caucasian pals. That's what it really means."
We were talking about putting--I think somebody asked me earlier about the character, and I deliberately didn't fully answer the question. You said... the characters were created, you know, one by one, and you were asking me about New York. Well, I'll draw the character first. You know, there's three hours difference between us and New York, right? So when they, usually, they want to talk to me, they'll honor those three hours. But if they're upset about something, they call you right away. And that's early, okay? Well, they were upset about this character. It's (Fretzelface?)...and he's redhead, at least he started out that way--he--they couldn't find the proper red that we could use, so he got his hair more brown. Well, this is a kid that made the, you don't look silly (?) He's also, well, the kids are playing Native American and cowperson, okay? I'm real careful. So, he also, the kids, see, we gotta have this ranch that has to have a name. So Oliver said, "Well, how about the Bar X?" And Nipper said, "How about the Barbecue?" And this is the only kid that came up with "the Bar Mitzvah." I got a call, real early. They said, "You got a new kid in the strip." I said, "Yeah." They said, "He's Jewish." I said, "Yes, I know." And they said, "What do you know of the Jewish culture?" I said, "I met Sammy Davis, Jr., once," which I did. But they didn't buy; no, that didn't take. So I went to ...the character was really based on a very close friend of mine, Sid Schaeffer, but his letter wouldn't do me any good, so I went to the Temple Beth Abrams in Oakland...I met the associate to the Rabbi, Jerry Danzig, and he wrote a letter promising to check me out on my Jewishness. So I gave them his name. Jerry--I haven't seen Jerry in years. He became a Rabbi and moved to Los Angeles, and, but the syndicate doesn't know that, so they accept everything I do...must be okay!
I did this kid...when the Beatles first came to this country, I liked them, this was a, I loved their hairstyle, so I did a takeoff...and I said, this kid is going to be English, and he's going to be update. I said, but how are people going to know he's English? I don't want him saying, "By Jove" all the time, so I gave him the name "Wellington," this being the gentleman who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo. I said, that's pretty English. But it didn't work out that way. You don't always, sometimes, and this is really weird--sometimes a character will take off on its own. I mean, he developed...you don't know, has a wonderful personality that you can deal with...I can't really tell you how he got that way. I didn't plan it that way. So, Wellington is very curious. I mean, he's always asking questions about things. I'll give you an example. He's passing a synagogue and he sees this sign, "All races welcome." Well, he's curious. I love words with kids; they'll say, neutralize the words totally. So he went to Wellington, you know, Wellington went to Oliver, Oliver being the resident intellectual, and he asked him, "Oliver, what does 'race' mean?" Oliver doesn't always have an answer for you, but he'll try. He said, "Race is a contest of speed." So he goes to Nipper and he says, "You know, there's a track meet going on at the synagogue." Now we're talking about a word. So Nipper says, "Perhaps you should talk to Randy. He's the fastest person in the neighborhood." "Oh, really?" So he went to Randy, looked him right in the eye. He said, "Randy, is it true that you're a good racist?" I love that.
I shouldn't tell you this secret, but I've been doing it every day for 23 years. And somebody said to me, half in jest--I'd said I was out of ideas--says, "Why don't you go back and use some of the old stuff?" And after he left, I did go back, 'cause I assume there must be a new audience out there. After 25 years or so, a lot of kids weren't born--a lot of adults weren't born when I did the first guy.
(Question asked about disabled) Sometimes they don't know they're giving me ideas. That's why I have to sneak out at a party sometimes and write it down. People are funny when they're trying to be serious. When they've had too much to drink. "I have the solution to the world's problems." Oh, god, they're so funny. (?)
Oh, I've got to introduce you to Diz, my alter ego. Diz gets his name from Dizzy Gillespie, and again, it happened, when Dizzy Gillespie's people found out that this kid was named after him, I was invited to Monterrey for the jazz festival, went backstage, met Diz, Dizzy Gillespie, great! Now I'm working on a new character, who's going to be called Lena Horne...l'll let y' know! Diz is carrying a book. He's on his way to the library. Oliver stops him, he said, "Where you going?" He said, "I'm going to the library to return this book." He said, "You just checked that book out!" He said, "Yeah." He said, "What's wrong?" "Well, the title of the book has nothing to do with its contents." He said, "What's the title of the book?" He said, "Black Beauty. It's all about a horse." He wears a dashiki, an African dashiki. Connie says, "What's that thing you're wearing?" "A dashiki." She said, "God bless you."
We were doing, when we got ready to do an animated show for ABC called "Kid Power," we had preliminary talks in New York with ABC people. At the time it was, I can't think of the guy's name, he's now president of ... something Stone, well, the Disney people, he's taken over the Disney. Mike Eisner, Mike Eisner, yeah. So Mike wanted us to do this show. And how it came about was that, well, the two producers, Rankin and (?) were from New York, they operate out of New York, and they had this, they knew nothing about me. They didn't know of my existence, but they had the same idea that I had on paper already. But I only had about 30 papers at that time. So, and what they had in mind, they were constantly coming to California to meet with the William Morris Agency because they were trying to interest Bill Cosby into backing, not backing them, but sort of being the host of the show. And out of frustration, they went to a bookstore one night, and they came across my book, "Kid Power." And they said, "There it is!"
And so they called the syndicate, and the syndicate gave them my phone number, and called me one day and said, "How would you like to do a television show on ABC nationally?" Well, you know, I'm trying to pick out this voice... I said, "Sure, I would." Yeah...it turned out to be true, although it wasn't until a year later because it takes such a long time to put animation together. So when we went to New York to meet with the people, they said, Jules, Jules said, "Couldn't you make Connie a little more bigotted?" I'm talking 1972. "Couldn't you make Connie a little more bigotted?" I said, "Connie's not a bigot." Like a lot of us, she strikes out at things she does not understand, and she doesn't understand Oliver, but she's not a bigot. But my syndicate is very nervous about this because, again, the bottom line, "This idiot going to blow it for us?" I'm, at the same time, I didn't want to change any of my characters. I mean, you're going to change a character, then go... television isn't going to last forever, they're only asking for one show. So I said, "How would it be if I gave you such a character?" 'Cause I knew what they were talking about; they were talking Archie Bunker. And I said, "How..." you know, that way I wouldn't have to change a character. So they said, "Fine. What does he look like?" So I drew him, without thinking about it ahead of time. And they said, "Hey, that's okay...well, what's his name?" I said, "Glenn?" They said, "Ralph?" I said, "Yeah." So that's how he got his name. Well, I kept him for the, for the films...I thought we were going to do one show. It turned out we ended up doing 17 for them. And he became pretty important to me because I could say things with him that only he would think of. Give you an idea. He was talking to Randy one day. He said, "Before you came to this school, did you go to an all black school?" Randy thought about it for a minute, he says, "No, near as I can remember, it was sort of bluish-green." And then I had the...I was talking to some kids in Stockton, sixth graders (or were they seventh graders, I don't remember)...but they said, "Is there any kid in the strip you don't like?" And right away, I said, "I don't like Ralph." They said, "That's funny, because the other kids seem to get along with him okay." I said, "Oh my god, I'm prejudiced." I've been cleaning, trying to clean him up ever since.
The night....my son of course finally grew up, got married. And had a little baby, a little girl. And they called and told me about the kid. I said, "That's great. What're you going to call her?" And they said, "Michelle." So I said, "They'll probably going to end up calling her 'Mickey.'" So I drew this kid that's very nice and I said, "Mickey, Mickey...how are you going to spell Mickey?" I'll spell it like Nikki Giovanni spells her name, you know, N I K K I. She wears little earrings, little coveralls, and I want to tell you, two years after THIS Mikki was born, the original Mikki walks into my house, and she looked just like the kid. Just like her. I was so embarrassed I couldn't look my son in the face. One of those weird things.
The kids...let's go back to the ranch. There's Ralph. Here's Randy again. Pablo. Rocky. George. Connie. Jerry. And me. That wasn't always the case, but maybe it was, it was the case but I just didn't recognize that fact. My mother was, my late mother was a fan of mine, she lived until she was 98, and she was still quite interested in the strip at that time. But her eyesight was, certainly wasn't what it used to be, and she couldn't remember the names of these kids. And she was trying to tell me something about one of the characters, or asked me something, and she became--I didn't know what she was talking about--she became frustrated because I couldn't understand what she was saying, what she meant. And then she said, "You know the one, the one that's you!" And I did know who she was talking about, and I suddenly realized that WAS me. And then another miracle happened enough, strangely enough, from that day forward, this kid got a lot more intelligent. Started getting the big lines. So the kids, at the ranch, said, "We need some words to live by." Well, Randy said, "How 'bout 'Black Power'?" That's a nice slogan. Ralph said, "What's wrong with 'White Power'?" I can go for some Brown Power. "Red Power," says my Native American friend. "How 'bout some Yellow Power?" Power...through the Sisterhood. And Jerry, was a little lost by this whole thing, so he, not to be denied, "Dago Power!" So Nipper says, "Hold it, you guys. You're all going off in different directions." They said, "Nipper, what do you suggest?" He said, "How about a little Rainbow Power?" They said, "What's this Rainbow Power you're talking about?" "That's the power of all colors working together." Incidentally, I did that before Jesse Jackson. Years, before Jesse Jackson. Any other questions? You gotta ask me questions, 'cause I'll start...