A Passing: Oakland’s Morrie Turner, Creator of ‘Wee Pals’ Comic Strip

"Wee Pals" was written and drawn by Oakland native Morrie Turner, who died at age 90 last weekend. (Morrie Turner via Cartoon Art Museum, San Francisco)
“Wee Pals” was written and drawn by Oakland native Morrie Turner, who died at age 90 last weekend. (Morrie Turner via Cartoon Art Museum, San Francisco)

One of my many cultural blind spots: the funny papers. Once upon a time I read them as avidly as anyone. Then probably somewhere in the Reagan years, or Bush or Clinton or Bush II years, I lost the thread and my reading narrowed from a wide range of childhood and teenage favorites, like “Dick Tracy” and “Peanuts” and “Pogo” and “Mark Trail” and “The Family Circus” (comics don’t need to be good to be classic; some you read because they’re consistently lame) to “Calvin and Hobbes,” “Life in Hell” and maybe some Lynda Barry and Roz Chast stuff.

Now, my habit is down to the occasional glance at “Doonesbury” and comics substitutes like “The Colbert Report,” which is essentially the comics taken to manic, steroid-infused, 3-D (or at least 2-D) heights and performed live (or nearly live) on a screen near you every evening.

Long ago, I guess, I had encountered “Wee Pals,” a strip that focused in a direct, honest but non-confrontational way on racial issues. I wasn’t a fan of the strip — again, a comment on me and my tastes, not the quality of “Wee Pals” — and I never delved into what was behind it. And one of the things I missed was an interesting piece of local history.

The creator of the strip, which began to get a national following in the late 1960s, was Oakland artist Morrie Turner, who died over the weekend in Sacramento at the age of 90. The San Francisco Chronicle’s Peter Hartlaub wrote a nice remembrance of Turner on Sunday — RIP Morrie Turner: Comic strip artist, mentor and pride of Oakland. Hartlaub (who also wrote a full obituary on Turner) said in part:

We had been hearing for more than a year that Turner’s health was failing, but it seemed hard to believe. The Berkeley High graduate and longtime Oakland resident continued to draw his strip, even as local institutions including the San Francisco Library, Cartoon Art Museum and Children Fairyland honored his career in recent years. When Turner was with a crowd, he was more enthusiastic than most public figures half his age.

Nationally, Turner will likely be remembered as the first African-American cartoonist to draw a nationally syndicated strip, bringing humorous and honest racial dialogue into newspapers. (His “Soul Corner” on the right side of the strip often celebrated black heroes.)

Locally, I think artists and fans viewed him as more than that. After Charles Schulz died in 2000, Turner embraced his role as an elder statesman of Bay Area comic strip artists. He was a generous and gracious presence at WonderCon and other events, and younger talents were eager to absorb his wisdom. His work also generated pride in Oakland, where Turner’s strip reflected the city in a nuanced way that residents could understand.

A New York Times obituary relates how “Wee Pals” evolved:

Mr. Turner’s comic strip “Wee Pals,” featuring childhood playmates who were white, black, Asian, Hispanic and Jewish (joined in later years by a girl in a wheelchair and a deaf girl), was considered subversive in 1965, when a major syndicate first offered it to newspapers.

Only two or three of the hundreds of newspapers in the syndicate picked it up. By early 1968, there were five. But of the many changes that occurred after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that April and the urban uprisings it started, some of the first appeared in the nation’s funny papers.

Thirty newspapers began subscribing to Mr. Turner’s comic strip in the first 30 days after the assassination; within a few months the number had swelled to 100. “Suddenly everybody was interested in me,” he told a public access television interviewer in 2010.

Later in 1968, the black artist Brumsic Brandon Jr. created his comic strip “Luther,” about a 9-year-old boy growing up in the ghetto. It, too, found a wide audience in newspaper syndication.

“You can imagine how I felt,” Mr. Turner said, referring to his newfound popularity. “I mean, I’m benefiting from the assassination of Dr. King, one of my heroes. It was kind of a bittersweet experience.”

In the video below, a public access TV interview recorded in 2010, Turner comments on one of the mysteries (and ironies) in “Wee Pals”: that its main character, an African-American youngster named Nipper, wears a Confederate cap.

Author

Dan Brekke

Dan Brekke (Twitter: @danbrekke) has worked in media ever since Nixon's first term, when newspapers were still using hot type. He had moved on to online news by the time Bill Clinton met Monica Lewinsky. He's been at KQED since 2007, is an enthusiastic practitioner of radio and online journalism and will talk to you about absolutely anything. Reach Dan Brekke at dbrekke@kqed.org.

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