23 September 2016

[cartoonists] Why Was Morrie Turner Important?

Yesterday a dear friend shared with me a personal treasure, they'll let me publish it here. It was a  delightful thing, something that made my heart sing with joy a little; I want her to add her memory in her words which will make a finished piece of the thing.

Until then, I need to set the table for it. For those of us who still might not know.

Chances are about even, my gut tells me, my faithful interlocutor has only heard of Morrie Turner on his death in 2014 at the age of 90. You heard he was a pioneering black cartoonist who created a strip called Wee Pals, and you heard that he was the first national cartoonist to have a strip with such a integrated (what we said when we mean 'diverse' back in the 70s) cast.

Oliver steps up; Nipper shows him
where he stepped in it.
Shades of Milo Bloom here?
Aspirational, book-smart,
bespectacled, good-
natured and stocky, Oliver
was my dude.
All of which are true. Wee Pals, which ran from February of 1965 (and is still online at Creators' Syndicate) had an armful of characters which represented just about every outlook you could expect to find. The Rainbow Gang included several black kids, a Latino boy, an east Asian boy, a native American, a few young ladies of more than one color who dealt in 'Girls' Lib', and a bookish bespectacled know-it-all white kid named Oliver who, for me as a reader, was my avatar there. There was even a bigoted white kid. The kids lived life, played together, planned and schemed together, and occiasionally smash-talked each other.

It was, in other words, like life with real people.

Morrie Turner in 2005
(via Wikipedia)
Morrie Turner came up from Oakland where he was raised by a Pullman porter father and a housewife mother; learned cartooning via Art Instruction Schools, served as a mechanic for the Tuskeegee Airmen and had art published in Stars and Stripes, was a member of the Oakland Police Dept, and was inspired down the road to create Wee Pals when, the legend has it, he noticed there were basically no minorities in popular comics at the time and his mentor, Charles Schulz, suggested perhaps he should create one. The strip was eventually carried in more than 100 dailies, and in 1972, moved to TV under the Rankin-Bass aegis as a 17-episode season of animation called Kid Power, which was where I came in on it

This was where I came in. I ate it up like I ate up every other Saturday morning 'toon.

And I told you all that to tell you this: there is a moment that sticks with me, and I don't know if it's where something started with me or not, but it must mean something, because at one point, the gang was trying to resolve some situation or other, and Oliver, in his good-natured, smarts-proud, well intentioned way, boasts "We'll find the chink in the armor".

At which point his friend of Chinese descent, George, points out that he should perhaps watch how he throws that word chink around.

Life is a series of beginnings, and in 1972, in whiter-than-white Silverton, Oregon, someone had one of the many necessary beginnings toward the realization that other people of differently-colored skin are people, too; that words matter; that the best intentions don't mean that arrogance still doesn't hurt, and to learn from those casual mistakes. George didn't hate Oliver for it, they came to understand what that meant, and Oliver grew from the experience. It wasn't just that one moment, of course, but it probably is a single thing from which can come much humanity.

Turner did this all while we thought he was just making us laugh with sassy kids. That's why he's important and why is legacy still matters.

Stay tuned to this channel for a splended Morrie Turner memory from a dear friend's past coming up very soon.

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