The Cartoonists by Susanna McLeod        Susanna@thecartoonists.ca

 

Morrie Turner, Ground-breaking Creator of "Wee Pals"

November 30, 2013

 

The year 1965, like other years in the mid-20th century, was rilled with racial strife in the United States. Protests, riots, violence - the country was roiling in the turmoil of change. Cartoonist Morrie Turner took his own stance on the vital issue. He introduced a comic strip that united blacks and whites, then incorporated other cultures as well. His ground-breaking comic was "Wee Pals." Its message: we can all live together.

 

"When I was a kid growing up in West Oakland it was the Depressiona nd everybody was poor. We had peole of just about every race and religion living there," Morrie Turner told Brian Sulkis of the San Francisco Chronicle. "You couldn't run away from each other. Everybody got along just fine."

Turner turned that cohesive, multicultural childhood into a comic strip, still in print after close to 50 years.

On December 12, 1923, Morrie was born into the Turner family living in Oakland, California. His father was a Pullman porter with the railroad and his mother a pious Christian. The family of four boys was instilled with strong religious values and Morrie Turner carried them with him throughout his life.

Morrie Turner, Cartoonist of "Wee Pals"
Morrie Turner discussing his work on comic "Wee Pals" at the San Francisco Main Library, September 13, 2009. Brant Ward, Photographer, SF Gate

Cartooning caught the boy's interest but he received no training other than a correspondence course. He "was writing and illustrating his own weekly Neighborhood Nooz (sold on street corners for 5 cents) while still in grade school and drew for his high school newspaper," wrote Dennis Wepman in "The Encyclopedia of American Comics From 1897 to the Present," edited by Ron Goulart, Promised Land Productions 1990. On graduation from high school, Turner enlisted for duty in World War Two and submitted his drawings to Stars and Stripes newspaper.

"Wee Pals" by Morrie Turner

At age 23, Turner made his first cartoon sale "to Baker's Helper, for $5, and went on to sell to Better Homes & Gardens, True, Argosy, and Negro Digest," said Wepman. The young man was on his way to becoming a ground-breaker as the first African-American to join the Northern California Cartoonists and Gag Writers group.

Turner developed his first comic strip, titled "Dinky Fellas." Impressed by Charles Schulz's Peanuts strip, Turner modelled his creation after the famous comic except with an all-black cast. Debuted in the Chicago Defender in 1959, "Dinky Fellas" ran daily, earning the cartoonist $40 per week. The Oakland Post also ran the strip which also encompassed civil rights issues.

Cast of Characters in "Wee Pals" by Morrie Turner

Reformating and renaming his comic strip, Turner debuted "Wee Pals" in 1965 in the Register and Tribune Syndicate. The groundbreaking strip featured a mix of kids, religions and personalities with an international flavour. The horrifying murder of Martin Luther King in 1968 altered Turner's cartooning future. Initially in only a few newspapers, "a month later I was in 30 papers, and three months later I was in more than 100," Turner told Sulkis. "All of a sudden everyone was interested."

During the Vietnam War, the cartoonist took advantage of an offer by the National Cartoonist Society to go overseas on a sketching mission. "Morrie spent 27 days on the front lines and in hospitals, drawing more than 3,000 caricatures of service people," according to Creators Syndicate. An honour, indeed.

The art of Morrie Turner

The "Wee Pals" themes of kindness, love, and caring humanity has filled the strip for decades and kept readers avidly attached to the characters. Using his skill to benefit others, Turner makes appearances at schools to entertain and inform children while drawing cartoons to music. Authoring and illustrating books, the busy cartoonist also hosts lectures at libraries and universities. Students at University of Portland were very fortunate to have Turner as their artist-in-residence, along with his teaching at Laney Cmmunity College.

In 1972, "Wee Pals" was transformed into a television program. The Saturday morning cartoon developed by Rankin Bass was called "Kid Power" and ran for 17 weeks on the ABC Network.

Receiving awards for his peace- and multiculturally-oriented work, Turner earned honours including an American Red Cross Award, an honour from the NAACP, the Anti-Defamation League Humanitarian Award, California Educators Award, and among many more, the Sparky Award, named for the famed Charles Schulz, creator of Peanuts. (Schulz and Turner became friends, Schulz encouraging the cartoonist in his work.)

 
"Wee Pals" panel by Morrie Turner  

The life and times of Turner was the fascinating subject of a half-hour documentary. "Keeping the Faith with Morrie Turner" was made in the early 2000s and won several awards including Hollywood Black Film Festival's Best Documentary in 2002.

Morrie Turner continues to live in California, sharing his positive outlook on multicultural togetherness and message of love. He has earned all praise given and more. Enjoy the delightful and sweetly inspiring "Wee Pals" at Creators Syndicate.

 
© Susanna McLeod 2013
TheCartoonists.ca