Morrie Turner, December 11, 1923 – January 25, 2014
February 13, 2014 1:19 PM   Subscribe

"Morrie Turner, a cartoonist who broke the color barrier twice — as the first African-American comic strip artist whose work was widely syndicated in mainstream newspapers, and as the creator of the first syndicated strip with a racially and ethnically mixed cast of characters — died on Saturday in Sacramento. He was 90. "

Morrie Turner's comic strip Wee Pals was the first widely syndicated comic strip by an African-American cartoonist, while the strip itself had the first true multi-cultural cast. As Tom Spurgeon reports, Wee Pals' unique cast and setting meant few papers took it on, until a certain tragic event made having a multi-racial comic strip fashionable:
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.

It all started, according to R. C. Harvey's obituary of Morris, through a meeting with Charles Schulz:
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.

“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.”
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:
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.
posted by MartinWisse (20 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
OMG I remember Wee Pals! It's one of the comics from when I was very young, lived in Chicago, and got the Tribune. Sorry to see him go.
posted by edheil at 1:32 PM on February 13, 2014

I thought I'd never heard of it until you mentioned Nipper, the kid in the Confederate cap. Then I knew it. Looked it up in Brian Walker's Comics and it was all so familiar. Funny how the brain works.
posted by Bee'sWing at 1:47 PM on February 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

posted by Thorzdad at 1:49 PM on February 13, 2014

posted by Pope Guilty at 1:50 PM on February 13, 2014

posted by Navelgazer at 2:01 PM on February 13, 2014

posted by brand-gnu at 2:04 PM on February 13, 2014


Anyone else remember watching Kid Power?
posted by mogget at 2:09 PM on February 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

posted by Slothrop at 2:13 PM on February 13, 2014

I had this Wee Pals Kid Power! lunch box for some reason, even tho I never took my lunch to school. I sort of think my mom got it for me for the Women's Lib playground protest happening on one side.
posted by katinka-katinka at 2:19 PM on February 13, 2014

Keith Knight drew a tribute in Turner's own style.
posted by hydrophonic at 2:25 PM on February 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

posted by gingerest at 2:32 PM on February 13, 2014

Anyone else remember watching Kid Power?

*raises hand*
posted by briank at 2:41 PM on February 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

posted by allthinky at 2:58 PM on February 13, 2014

The first Wee Pals book. Note who wrote the introduction.
posted by Toekneesan at 3:41 PM on February 13, 2014

posted by Blue Jello Elf at 4:37 PM on February 13, 2014

I remember this comic from when I was a kid. I think the paper only carried it on Sundays, but I always liked "Soul Corner." Neil deGrasse Tyson made it into Soul Corner last month!
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 4:43 PM on February 13, 2014

posted by Smart Dalek at 4:52 PM on February 13, 2014


And, wow, not even 50 years ago: "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."

Much left to do, but there's much that's been done. Thanks, Morrie, for being part of that!
posted by barnacles at 5:36 PM on February 13, 2014

I have the Kid Power soundtrack album.

posted by jonp72 at 5:40 PM on February 13, 2014

Nipper had a dog named General Lee? Had no idea.

posted by Halloween Jack at 4:36 AM on February 14, 2014

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