From the Vault ~ Funny but serious

October 19, 2017

Has everyone brought their dish to our ethnic cultural picnic? Wee Pals, September 12, 1971. Register and Tribune Syndicate. Morris “Morrie” Turner (1923-2014). Ink, blue pencil and graphite on paper. 14 3/8 × 27 11/16 inches. Delaware Art Museum, Acquisition Fund and Gift of Helen Farr Sloan, 1983. . © Artist or Publisher.

If you’re reading this post, you probably already know that the Delaware Art Museum is famous for an illustration collection that focuses on the period 1875 to about 1940. But our holdings also include a smaller number of seminal works from 1950 forward. We acquire works from the 1940s forward if they have a distinct visual link to historical examples or if the artist is particularly distinguished for his or her contribution to the art of illustration. The two works here are by such an artist.

Cartoonist Morrie Turner (1923-2014) was the first African-American cartoonist whose comic strip had a racially mixed group of characters.[1] Since their appearance in 1968, the integrated Wee Pals have been making witty remarks and acting out plots that re-enforce racial harmony. Sometimes the pals cleverly turn prejudice on its head to their advantage. Any intruders who are out of sync with the group’s good will promptly get their egos punctured. Turner’s minimal backgrounds convey just enough to create a location; the words and individual characters are the essence of each story. He modeled the group on his own childhood experience in Oakland, California, where “We were all equal.” Turner tried to embody the spirit of the Wee Pals: when one observer asked why a black child wears a Confederate cap, Turner replied “forgiveness.” One commentator called his message a “gentle lesson in tolerance.”

Our two examples include only boys, but Wee Pals also features girls. The group encompasses Nipper (based on Turner himself), several other black characters, and an assortment of kids who are Asian, Latino, white, and Jewish. One uses a wheelchair, and another is deaf. Turner distinguished the children not by stereotypical physical traits but by their personalities.

What’s your problem, Diz?, Wee Pals, September 5, 1971. Register and Tribune Syndicate. Morris “Morrie” Turner (1923-2014). Ink and light blue pencil on paper. 14 7/16 × 27 1/4 inches. Delaware Art Museum, Acquisition Fund and Gift of Helen Farr Sloan, 1983.  © Artist or Publisher.

In the first illustration, the youngsters are celebrating their diverse identities with a picnic featuring food of various ethnic traditions. Each child has a different appearance, but Turner does not caricature any of them. The punchline about peanut butter and jelly—at the expense of the Jewish boy, Jerry—evokes a mildly bemused look but not ridicule. The poster at right announces “Rainbow Power Club / Togetherness Power” and Nipper wears a shirt proclaiming Rainbow Power. Turner used that term to express the inclusive attitudes of the Wee Pals before the phrase won national recognition with Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition of 1984. At the strip’s far right, under the title “Soul Corner,” Turner adds three more vignettes. Sometimes such additional comics were an adjunct to Wee Pals; Turner also used this section to highlight drawings and brief stories of distinguished African Americans produced in collaboration with his wife Letha. Here, Soul Corner shows the pals reacting to each other’s schemes and predicaments.

The second Wee Pals strip presents another conversation about food, as the dashiki-wearing Diz updates Oliver about the slang use of the word bread for money. Again the humor centers on a favorite of children no matter what their heritage: peanut butter and jelly. In this Soul Corner, three put-upon pals react to the frustrating behavior of adults.

Born and raised in Oakland, California, Turner began his art education with a correspondence course. As a teenager, he admired the cartoons of Ollie Harrington (1912–1995) in the Amsterdam News, Harlem’s chief newspaper, and practiced cartooning on his own.[2] Stationed at Tuskegee Army Air field during World War II and attached as a clerk to the African American 477th Bombardment Group, he was also a reporter, illustrator, and cartoonist for the base newspaper.

Once back in civilian life Turner worked in the offices of the Oakland Police Department until his free-lance cartooning was steady enough to support him. In the early 1960s, encounters with Charles Schulz, creator of the strip Peanuts, and with the comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory led him to think about drawing comics with all-black casts. After selling such a strip, called Dinky Fellas, to two black newspapers—his hometown Berkeley Gazette and the Chicago Defender—he was approached by the Lew Little Syndicate, who placed Dinky Fellas in three major newspapers under the title Wee Pals in 1965. The new title also reflected a newly diverse cast of characters. The strip had limited success because white publishers were nervous that black-oriented materials of any kind might inflame the atmosphere around the 1965 riots in Watts and other cities and their aftermath. In fact, one editor at the Los Angeles Times accused Wee Pals of orchestrating the Watts riot.[3]

After the 1968 assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. over 100 newspapers began to run Wee Pals, hoping to capitalize on its theme of racial equality. Turner noted that it was guilt that “got (me) into the newspapers.”

From the 1950s through the 1970s, Turner created cartoons for publications beyond the syndicated Wee Pals. In the African American magazines, Negro Digest, Black World, and Ebony, the comics were more pointed but still modulated by Turner’s optimistic attitude.

Beginning in the 1970s, Turner frequently visited schools, entertaining children as well as educating them about art and history. The popularity of Wee Pals generated the live-action television show Wee Pals on the Go (1972-1973) and the animated series Kid Power (1972-1974). Turner also published several cartoon books. Some, like Super Sistahs, highlighted figures from African American history. He contributed his talents to numerous causes, especially those dedicated to children and youth, serving as a mentor to many aspiring cartoonists, particularly young African American artists. He was honored with exhibitions, numerous awards, and—upon his death in 2014—widespread personal and professional tributes. Despite limitations of ill health in his last year, Turner did not retire, and so—upon his death in 2014—had several weeks of Wee Pals ready for publication.[4]

Mary F. Holahan
Curator of Illustration

The Delaware Art Museum has made every reasonable effort to contact and credit copyright owners of images appearing in this post. Any copyright owners who have not been properly identified and acknowledged should contact the Delaware Art Museum so that corrections can be made.

[1] Morrie Turner died in 2014, but the strip is still drawn and distributed by Creators Syndicate, Inc.
[2] For a history of black American cartoonists, see Sheena C. Howard and Ronald L. Jackson (editors). London: Bloomsbury, 2013
[3] For this and other Turner references and quotations, see R. C. Harvey, Morrie Turner: To Say the Name is Both Eulogy and Tribute, in The Comics Journal, February 10, 2014 /   http://www.tcj.com/morrie-turner-to-say-the-name-is-both-eulogy-and-tribute/; and Michael Cavna, RIP: Morrie Turner: Cartoonists say farewell to a friend, a hero, a ‘Wee pals’ pioneer, in the Washington Post, January 31, 2014 / https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/comic-riffs/post/rip-morrie-turner-cartoonists-say-farewell-to-a-friend-a-hero-a-wee-pals-pioneer/2014/01/31/9201b0ac-8a9f-11e3-916e-e01534b1e132_blog.html?utm_term=.d67928e10154
[4] For a 45-minute interview with Turner, see https://archive.org/details/caolaam_000020



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