Boston Globe Features WALT & SKEEZIX!

The bittersweet story of fathers, sons, and comics

The Boston Globe    |    Jeet Heer    |    June 12, 2005

Cartooning has been a family business in more ways than one for Mort Walker and the late Dik Browne. In 1954, after creating the strip "Beetle Bailey," Walker launched an equally successful follow up, "Hi and Lois." Cocreated with Browne, "Hi and Lois" steered away from the comic strip convention of bickering couples and offered a gentle and cozy take on suburban family life. Riding the baby boom wave, "Hi and Lois" became the model for many other family strips, including Browne's "Hagar the Horrible," featuring a domesticated Viking.

The family arrangement prevailed not only in the funny pages but also in real life. Now age 81, Walker presides over a nest of strips worked on by his sons, as well as the sons of Dik Browne. It takes a complicated chart to trace this family tree, but, in a nutshell, "Hi and Lois" is now produced by Brian and Greg Walker and Chance Browne, "Beetle Bailey" by Mort Walker and Greg Walker, and "Hagar the Horrible" by Chris Browne.

"Dik Browne used to call it his cottage industry," jokes Brian Walker, interviewed by phone from his studio in Wilton, Connecticut. Brian points out that the family business model of the Walkers and Brownes is typical of how things are done in the still predominantly male world of the comics page. Father-and-son teams produce many popular strips, including "Blondie" and "Ziggy" (which carries the signature "Tom Wilson and Tom II"). Meanwhile, cartoonists from Hank Ketchem ("Dennis the Menace") to Lynn Johnston ("For Better or for Worse") have taken bits of their family life and used them as fodder for strips that get read in family newspapers and stuck to family refrigerators all across America.

Yet in the cartooning world, as in life, there's a more complicated side to father-son relationships. Many of today's most popular and accomplished graphic novelists, like their counterparts among conventional novelists, portray family life as a source of emotional pain and fathers as overbearing or absent.

. . .

For Brian Walker, being the son of a cartoonist meant having a closeness to his father's work that is denied to most children today. "One of the real perks of being a cartoonist is that you can basically work at home or close to home," Walker observes. "I'd come home from school, my father would be there. I'd feel sorry for other kids: ‘You mean your father is not around all the time like mine is?' " Looking over old Hi and Lois strips, Brian is often amazed at how much they resemble a diary of family life, with his boyhood love of stealing cookies and arguments about strict school dress codes immortalized in four colors.

Now in his mid-50s and happily married, Brian Walker has replicated the lifestyle enjoyed by his father, working in a studio not far from home. "As a modern father, I feel that there is this expectation to do everything," Walker says. "To be involved in child rearing, change the diapers, give the kids rides, go to the baseball games. My father did all that stuff, because he was around. Most of the fathers of his generation didn't do that kind of stuff."

Cullen Murphy, who collaborated for more than 25 years on the medieval adventure strip "Prince Valiant" with his late father, John Cullen Murphy, grew up in Cos Cob, Conn., amidst the same sort of suburban bohemianism as the Walkers and Brownes. "Like Brian Walker, we were all part of a fairly large cartoonist ghetto in Connecticut," Murphy remembers. "So this was in my own blood from childhood on."

Murphy suggests that a significant number of strips have stayed in the family in part because the practice of cartooning is akin to a kind of medieval guild. "It's a kind of craftsmanship and sensibility that is picked up by being in close association with people who are doing it," he says. "If you are part of a cartoonist's family, you get caught up into that world."

The younger Murphy, the longtime managing editor of The Atlantic Monthly, gave up writing "Prince Valiant" last fall, shortly after his father's death. (Murphy's sister Meg also worked on the strip, doing the lettering and coloring. Today, the strip is being carried on by writer Gary Gianni and artist Mark Schultz.) "I realized after Dad died how much I was doing it really just to be working with him," he says.

But not all cartoonists have used comics as a way to cozy up to the family hearth. For many of today's graphic novelists, they have just as often been a way to work through difficult relationships with their fathers.

"This is something I found really fascinating when I met Chris Browne," says cartoonist Art Spiegelman of one of Dik Browne's sons. "It's so different from anything I experienced. It was the first time I had ever met a son who had only good things to say about his father."

Growing up in an immigrant household, Spiegelman, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his graphic novel "Maus," received little encouragement to be an artist. "I became a cartoonist because my father couldn't read comics," he remembers. "It was not to please a father, but to run away from one. In a sense I let myself . nd Mad Magazine as my American parent. It was a way of understanding my country that wasn't available to me in the household."

Which isn't to say that Spiegelman and his father weren't collaborators of a kind. "Maus" recounts the troubled history of his parents, who were both Holocaust survivors. (The first volume, "A Survivor's Tale" (1986), is subtitled "My Father Bleeds History.") His mother committed suicide in 1968 when Art was 20 years old, while his father kept sane and alive by developing a hard shell of irascibility. As Spiegelman points out, Maus is about "the oedipal mystery of how the hell I got born with two parents who were supposed to be dead."

In telling his father's story, Spiegelman healed some of the wounds of estrangement between him and his father, who saw some of the early chapters before his death in 1982. "Certainly just by drawing my father and having to inhabit him, there was a way of trying to understand him and trying to come to terms with him," he says.

Many other younger cartoonists have followed in Spiegelman's footsteps in using comics to explore the darker side of the father- son relationship. Chris Ware, raised by his mother, met his father for the first time while he was working on "Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth" (2000), a semi-autobiographical account of a hapless soul whose father abandoned the family when he was young. Dan Clowes's "David Boring" (2000) features another young man who turns to an old superhero comic book to discover clues to his missing father. And working in collaboration with his father, John Gallant, the Canadian cartoonist Seth has created an illustrated picture book, called "Bannock, Beans and Black Tea" (2004), in which Gallant recalls a harrowing childhood at the hands of an abusive father on rural Prince Edward Island during the Depression.

"I sometimes think about sending Art a Father's Day card," jokes Ware, a reference both to Spiegelman's influence, as well as his role in nurturing young cartoonists as an editor. In a more serious vein, Ware points out that for many young boys, cartooning can be a substitute for parental attention. "When I was a kid, I would spend hours filling up my sketchbook with muscle-bound superheroes," he says. "It seems obvious to me that characters like Superman and Batman are father-figures."

. . .

As he grew up, he also looked for cartooning fathers in such early masters as Winsor McCay ("Little Nemo"), George Herriman ("Krazy Kat"), and Frank King ("Gasoline Alley"), whose understated mastery he discovered in the 1977 Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics. Reading through yellowing clippings of the old daily strip of "Gasoline Alley," Ware says, he found a deep affinity with an artist who "tried to capture the texture and feeling of life as it slowly, inextricably, and hopelessly passed by."

Recently, Ware and I (along with Drawn & Quarterly publisher Chris Oliveros) undertook a project to bring King's "Gasoline Alley" back into print in its entirety. As we researched the project, we began to see a persistent theme of father-son love (and its absence) in both the strip and King's life. In 1916, after suffering the stillbirth of one child, King andhis wife gave birth to a son, Robert, who appeared five years later in "Gasoline Alley" as an impish young boy named Skeezix, the cherished adopted son of his "Uncle Walt." But a year later, even as Skeezix played with his adoring father, Robert was sent away to boarding school and saw his parents only in the summer. According to his daughter Drewanna, the adult Robert never talked about the strip that represented an idealized version of his own boyhood.

One "Gasoline Alley" Sunday page from 1930 offers a typically bittersweet moment. As father and son take a walk in the fall, Skeezix asks Uncle Walt why the leaves change color. (King was the first cartoonist to forgo the convention of comic strip time and let his characters age.) The answers that Walt provides are less important than the tone and texture of the scene, a leisurely communion between parent and child marked by an undercurrent of sadness, the feeling that even when the idealized world of comics brings fathers and sons together, they will not be together forever.

Jeet Heer is a frequent contributor to Ideas. "Walt & Skeezix" -- the first volume of his complete edition of Frank King's "Gasoline Alley," created in collaboration with Chris Ware and Chris Oliveros -- has just been published by Drawn & Quarterly.  

You might also like


Select Your Location: