Above: Hi And Lois 1954
Long known as Wall Street’s bedroom, Greenwich was a nexus of another kind a generation ago, of cartoonists and illustrators who shaped American life and culture without leaving their homes.
Mort Walker’s “Beetle Bailey” 1950
Mort Walker, creator of the long-running comic strips Beetle Bailey and Hi And Lois who lived in Greenwich for decades, did much to define this community—as did the gregarious Jerry Dumas, creator of Sam and Silo. Another was John Cullen Murphy, longtime illustrator of the comic strip Prince Valiant, who lived in Cos Cob. His widow, Joan, still resides there. His son Cullen, a former editor with Vanity Fair and The Atlantic, helped write Prince Valiant and recently published a 248-page lavishly illustrated history/memoir, Cartoon County, about Fairfield County’s unique place as a center of American comic art.
We recently spoke with Cullen about his father, John, Mort Walker and other local comic-strip legends who lived in and around town.
WHAT PROMPTED YOU TO WRITE CARTOON COUNTY?
A I began to realize the world of cartoonists of Fairfield County was vanishing before our eyes. My father died in 2004. Every couple of months, it seemed another one of the great ones was going off to their great reward.
HOW MUCH AWARENESS DID YOU HAVE OF THIS SPECIAL WORLD GROWING UP?
A What struck me and my [seven] brothers and sisters most forcibly at the time was the fact that our father was home all the time. That was not typical in Fairfield County. That was what we had in common with the other cartoonists of Fairfield County. Our fathers were somewhere on the property, wherever their studio happened to be.
NEXT TO WESPORT, GREENWICH SEEMED TO HAVE THE BIGGEST MASS OF CARTOONISTS.
A That’s right. Westport had the Famous Artists School and many who drew cartoons for The New Yorker. Then you had Greenwich, with people like Ranan Lurie, Tony DiPreta, John Fischetti. But that world wasn’t so narrowly territorial. Everyone lived close enough that people were going to other people’s houses.
WITH ALL THOSE CREATIVE TEMPERAMENTS IN CLOSE PROXIMITY, IT’S STRIKING HOW WELL EVERYONE GOT ALONG. YOU WROTE THAT WHEN YOUR FATHER WAS SICK WITH PNEUMONIA FOR A TIME, OTHER CARTOONISTS COVERED FOR HIM BY WORKING ON PRINCE VALIANT UNTIL HE RECOVERED.
A One of the things I recall vividly was how helpful cartoonists were to one another. It is my remembered view of things and also my view after speaking with a lot of cartoonists over the years. It wasn’t a zero-sum game. In advertising, it’s much more cutthroat. Cartoonists were constantly under stress, but they were also more laid-back. They were in this life for a reason. They got joy from what they were doing.
HOW CENTRAL TO EVERYTHING WAS MORT WALKER?
A Mort created and drew half a dozen strips syndicated around the world. Many people worked for him over the years. He helped give many people their start. Socially, also, he was an important figure, someone whom other cartoonists rallied around.
CARTOON COUNTY ALSO INCLUDES JERRY DUMAS [CREATOR OF THE STRIP SAM AND SILO WHO PASSED AWAY IN 2016.] HOW IMPORTANT WAS HE TO THE GREENWICH GROUP?
A Jerry Dumas is a significant figure in the book. He was very significant among the group, too. The strips he did were not in 1,500 newspapers, unlike Beetle Bailey. But I think he had more of an appreciation for the history of comic strips and the nature of craftsmanship than just about anyone. He was also an essayist and a poet and a raconteur and a wonderful artist. I always thought of him, along with my father, as one of the renaissance men.
IT SEEMED A MAN’S WORLD AT THE TIME.
A One has to bear in mind a significant social reality: Almost all the cartoonists were men. But I don’t believe that world would have been possible without the women. My mother was extremely well-organized. She had enormous stamina. She was practical in a way my father was not. When he was off in the studio doing his work, she was thinking about the longer term, like getting eight kids prepared for school.
Like the other mothers in that circle, my parents had a natural partnership that worked very well and was also creative. My mother and father talked about ideas. My mother even posed for my father’s illustrations.
HOW HAS THE RESPONSE BEEN TO CARTOON COUNTY SO FAR?
A The reception has been astonishing. It’s very gratifying seeing how beloved this work really is. I don’t mean my book, but the cartoon work the book is about, and for so many people. People learned to read from the funny pages. They come to it with a built-in passion and an appreciation for what the book is about.