Wee Pals focused on a set of childhood playmates like a few other prominent, past comic strip features. Unlike those features, the group readers encountered in Wee Pals clearly racially and ethnically diverse: white, black, hispanic, asian, Jewish. The lead character was a black kid named Nipper, visually distinguished further by a Confederate cap that covered his eyes. Other characters were Jerry, Diz and Ralph, and the cast would eventually expand to include any number of kids defined only cynically by something other than their individual personalities. Despite its friends in high places -- Bil Keane named a character in his Family Circus after Turner in 1967, Wee Pals was at best a slow-builder and at worst a near non-starter. Wee Pals only attracted a few client upon its debut from the Register and Tribune Syndicate in 1965. It wasn't until 1968 that a number of clients less than ten started to grow, in part because of that year's troubled political climate including the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Spring. Legend has it by year's end that Turner's client list had swollen to over 100, certainly a sustainable number of several years moving forward.
Morrie met Charles Schulz at a gathering of California cartoonists, and they became friends. The civil rights movement was gathering momentum with sit-ins and marches in the South, and once while they were having lunch, Morrie asked Schulz why he didn’t have any black kids in Peanuts, and Schulz told Morrie he should create his own.Wee Pals has been running for almost fortynine years and was still being published at the time of Morrie Turner's death. As fellow cartoonist Jimmie Robinson explains, just knowning a black artist could even exist was inspiring:
“I couldn’t participate in the marches in the South, and I felt I should,” Morrie later told the San Francisco Chronicle. “I was working and had a wife and kid. So I decided I would have my say with my pen.”
The fact that he, a black artist, even existed, spoke volumes. I was living in the notorious West Oakland Acorn projects. It was full of all the negative things you can dream of in an economically depressed inner-city. I had to take two buses to get to the arts school — which took me to a magical world away from the dark crime of my neighborhood. At the time I saw my school as the end of the road for someone like me. But when Mr. Turner arrived… just by his presence and career alone… he showed me that the world beyond my quirky school was open to anyone — no matter the race of gender.For more on Morrie Turner and Wee Pals, the San Jose Mercury News has a roundup of obituaries and other tributes to him, including several interviews.
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