Here's a page from "Wee Pals," the barrier-busting comic strip (and also a short-lived but interesting Saturday morning cartoon) by Morrie Turner. Launched in 1965, "Wee Pals" was the first truly inclusive strip syndicated by a mainstream syndicate, and it literally changed the face of the comics pages.
Morrie Turner died Saturday, not quite six weeks after he turned 90 and just two days after leaving a message on his Facebook page saying that he was headed to the hospital for some treatment and recuperation.
In that message, he also shared his dialysis schedule so people could come for a chairside chat. "No need to call first; simply sign in, don a paper gown and visit!"
Looking through various on-line sites this morning, I guess that kind of sums him up. Here's a blog post from September about an appearance he made, with an appreciation for what he meant to young artists in the minority community.
There used to be -- perhaps still is -- a saying in the black community that there are no rearview mirrors in Cadillacs, but it's clear that Morrie Turner had no problem looking back over his shoulder to see where he came from.
This particular photo is from a 1995 session at the East Oakland Youth Development Center in his hometown, but an image search shows many, many similar shots of him with kids who are smiling and engaged in whatever he is telling and showing them.
With advancing age, his line faded considerably. Maybe someone else would have put the strip aside and retired, or hired an assistant, or passed it on, and maybe there was a touch of the workaholic in that. But if you go through his current strips you realize that the spirit of his work never faded or lost its consistent vision.
There are many, many more cartoonists whose creative energy has flagged well before their hands began to lose precision.
The old line about workaholics is that nobody, on his deathbed, ever said, "I wish I'd spent more time at the office." But however it was at the end, he couldn't possibly have said "I wish I'd spent more time helping kids," because he spent all he had doing just that, and 90 years is a lot of time.
Now, "Wee Pals" wasn't necessarily my cup of tea, but, then again, I'm not 8 years old. And if I can, as I often do, justify "Garfield" as a gateway for youngsters to begin to enjoy comics, "Wee Pals" falls into the same category: Accessible humor.
A good comics page should have a few strips for each demographic, and "Wee Pals" is not only accessible to kids as a gateway strip, but it's a whole lot kinder in spirit than some of the other "old standards" that offer simple gags about hostile people (and animals).
And beyond the marketing impact of having strips for kids, there is the historical perspective to be considered.
Maybe you had to be there to appreciate what it meant to break barriers, back when the barriers were firmly set up, not just by Jim Crow laws in the South -- those were obvious -- but by societal conventions everywhere that were, and remain, more insidious and slippery.
I have one of my back-up laptops set up over the kitchen sink so that I can stream video while I do dishes, and I recently began watching "I Spy" on Hulu. It holds up pretty well.
"I Spy" and "Wee Pals" started out in the same year, and Bill Cosby, who had recently emerged as a top-line stand-up, became the first African-American co-star of a continuing TV show. His race was rarely if ever made an issue on the show, which is silly on one hand -- I mean, he was certainly a black man -- but was necessary on the other.
I recall, though I can't find, an interview in which Sidney Poitier was asked about the upstanding, positive roles he always took, and he said that he felt the need to present a positive image until things had come to the point where African-American actors were featured in deodorant commercials.
Well, we've got deodorant commercials and mouthwash commercials and even regularity commercials featuring black couples, and we've also got commercials featuring mixed couples and the gloves are pretty much off: Conversations once held only within the black newspapers through the work of cartoonists like Ollie Harrington are now being carried out front and center in the mainstream (i.e., formerly "white") newspapers, and not everyone in either community is entirely comfortable with that.
"Wee Pals" was not "Bootsie," nor did Turner want it to be. But, as with Cosby on "I Spy," as with Greg Morris in "Mission Impossible," as with Diahann Carroll in "Julia," as with Nichelle Nichols in "Star Trek," it helped normalize the idea of minority faces appearing in the roles of average people rather than as entertainers or domestics, not just for White America but also for minority kids who needed to see themselves in those "normal" roles as successful individuals.
You absolutely need Jackie Robinson before you can have Jim Brown or Muhammad Ali.
And then you absolutely need to have Jim Brown and Muhammad Ali.
Morrie Turner was one of the giants upon whose shoulders others have stood.
They all contribute. We all benefit.