Part memoir, part cultural history, part treasure trove of drawings and photographs, many previously unpublished—and all thoroughly delightful as a celebration of the golden age of newspaper comics.
Murphy (God's Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World, 2012, etc.) has distinguished himself as a journalist through his work at Vanity Fair and the Atlantic, but here he is very much his father’s son—and collaborator. John Cullen Murphy drew the once-popular “Big Ben Bolt” strip and later took over the “Prince Valiant” strip, with his son helping on storylines for some three decades. Beyond that, the author “grew up in an unusual environment—not only as the child of a cartoonist and illustrator, but connected to a network of families where everyone’s father was a cartoonist or illustrator.” He estimates the group comprised more than 100 cartoonists, neighbors, and an extended social circle, all living near each other in Connecticut. Amid the suburban boom to which the artists contributed after returning from World War II—an experience that served as a common denominator and spawned “Beetle Bailey,” “G.I. Joe,” and more—Connecticut was the one state in that region that not only provided close access to the New York publishing world, but had no income tax. In the era before computers, artists working on tight deadlines relied on registered mail when they could and hopped aboard trains when the mail was too slow. Generally working in isolation, they “loved the camaraderie of the cartooning tribe, everyone slightly off register and anxious for company.” There are stories of Murphy’s father serving as the all-American-boy model for Norman Rockwell (who proved an inspiration and a patron), of the creators of “Superman,” “Nancy,” “Family Circus,” and so many others, and of a feud with Al Capp, which resulted in a rival being dismissed by their guild’s “hastily formed ethics committee” for “conduct unbecoming a cartoonist.” The book is also an elegy for the era before comics went online or morphed into graphic novels, when a popular strip seemed to capture the entire nation’s eyeballs.
Fun to flip through; engrossing to read.