Wee Pals Strip takes its Creator into Big Business
by Jim Scott (Editor & Publisher, January 15 1972)
|Morrie Turner conducts a ‘chalk talk’ for children in Berkeley school.
Integration came later to the fiercely competitive world of cartooning than it did to sports. But the progenitor, Morrie Turner, of Oakland, California, is making it just as big as Jackie Robinson did in baseball, proving anew to youngsters that it’s talent, not color, that counts.
The genial Morrie, whose voice flows as soft as sorghum, is the creator of “Wee Pals,” a daily comic strip, that the Register and Tribune Syndicate, Des Moines, distributes to 75 papers, including two in Africa.
(One African girl wrote Morrie: “Is it possible to make a living selling lemonade on the street?”)
“Cartooning has always been the big interest in my life,” ,says Turner. “But newspapers have provided me with an extra bonus. It’s prestige, prestige that opens many doors, principally the door to childhood.”
Close to Children
Turner appears frequently before school children in Oakland and Berkeley for “chalk talks.” He’s particularly proud of the “Wee Pals Read-in,” which he conducts during the summer, in Berkeley public libraries. Sometimes children refuse to believe that this kindly gentleman is an artist but their doubts vanish rapidly as he sketches Nipper on the blackboard.
He draws about 30 letters a week, about half of them from youngsters. They even send him cartoon ideas-some usable.
Morrie gets no inspiration from his own family, for his and Letha’s only child Morris, is grown, gone and working for the telephone company.
Charles Schulz, of “Peanuts” fame has been Turner’s hero, and he admits patternmg Wee Pals after “Peanuts.” (Schulz first strip was called “Little Folks”)
Like Schulz, Turner now is big in books – author of four cartoon works, “Wee Pals,” “Kid Power,” “Right-On, Wee Pals,” and “Wee Pals Getting Together.” He’s also produced two children’s books, “Nipper” and “Nipper Power.” Moreover, he and Letha turned out a “Black and White” coloring book.
Further, Morrie authored “Freedom Is,” a cartoon compilation of opinions of sixth grade pupils in Berkeley schools. Another of this stripe, bowing shortly, is ‘God is Groovy,” in which youngsters talk about God.
Turner also is following Schulz into television. ABC will give Nipper and his friends the full-hour treatment in the Fall.
Again like Schulz, Turner has gone into merchandising. An Oakland firm, Outta Print, is producing Wee Pals T shirts, bearing such legends as “Rainbow Power” and “Peace Loves Peanut Butter and Jelly.”
A comparative little guy himself, at 5-9, 165, Turner has odd work habits. He prefers the still of the night.
He starts work at midnight and remains at the drawing board until around 4 a.m.
“I also watch television,” “Rather, I listen to it. I watch the start of a movie for about five minutes to place the characters in my mind, then turn away from it to go to work. After that, I don’t see the screen but simply hear the words.”
He sleeps till around noon. Oatmeal is his favorite breakfast food.
The Turners occupy a two-bedroom unit in an Oakland apartment building, and one bedroom serves as his office. Plaques and trophies he has won decorate the walls.
Morrie finds plenty to do after breakfast. With Letha’s help, he answers his mail. Besides his grade school visits, he teaches an adult cartoon class at night at Laney College and also serves the Volunteer Bureau, a wing of the Community Chest. And several times monthly he planes to the East or Midwest for appearances before school and parent-teacher groups.
Turner didn’t make an impressive start in cartooning. In fact, he flunked an art course at Berkeley High, where his only fame came as a quarter-miler on the track team. (“We were always drawing flowers,” he said. “I prefer people.”)
At this time, Morrie had already started sketching friends and neighbors.
After his graduation from high school, Morrie Turner joined the Army, and it was in camp papers that his cartoons first appeared.
In Police Clerk’s Job
At war’s end, Morrie returned home in 1946 and married his high school sweetheart. He caught on as a police clerk in Oakland, remaining on the job 13 years.
In his spare time, Turner kept busy at the drawing board. He sold often to trade journals, then he began hitting Collier’s, Look and the Saturday Evening Post.
By 1960, Morrie was making enough on his cartoons to quit his job and go fulltime into his beloved avocation. He began turning out “Dinky Fellas,” for free for the Berkeley Post, a black weekly. It included only three characters; today, 11 populate Wee Pals.
Lew Little, looking for a Negro strip for his syndicate, heard about Turner’s talent in 1964, checked over his Post creations and signed him up.
The Oakland Tribune and the Los Angeles Times were the first papers to accept the strip and Morrie was on his way. Since then, it has been only onward and upward.
In his Sunday cartoon, Turner early introduced “Soul Corner,” in which he often salutes some outstanding Negro out of the past.
“Letha does all the research on this for me,” said Morrie with a wink.