Obit of the Day: Creator of “Wee Pals”
Morrie Turner published his first “Wee Pals” strip on February 15, 1965 in the Des Moines (Iowa) Register and a few newspapers in the Tribune Syndicate, making him the first black cartoonist to be syndicated. Depicting the everyday interactions of a group of children who were of various races and ethnicities in a light-hearted manner, the main character was a young black boy named Nipper who wore a Confederate cap and had a dog named “General Lee.” He interacted with his friends Jerry (a freckled Jewish boy), Diz (a black boy who always wears a beret and sunglasses), Ralph (a white boy who shares the racist comments he hears at home), and Oliver (a bespectacled, overweight boy often called “Lil’ Ebert”).
For three years the multi-ethnic comic had a small circulation. Then Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. Over the next 30 days, 30 newspapers picked up “Wee Pals.” By the end of the year Mr. Turner’s work was appearing in over 100 newspapers nationwide. He called the feeling “bittersweet” knowing that his success was connected directly to the murder of Dr. King.
A few years earlier, Mr. Turner had lamented to his friend Charles Schulz, creator of Peanuts, about the lack of minorities in comic strips. Mr. Schulz said that Mr. Turner should create that very strip.
Mr. Turner had worked previously for the Chicago Defender, one of the nation’s premiere black newspapers, drawing comics and even while working for the Oakland police department he worked as a freelance illustrator for various print media.
A veteran of World War II, who served as a mechanic in the Army Air Corps’ 447th Bombardment Group, better known as the “Tuskegee Airmen” Mr. Turner also worked on the newspaper as a writer and cartoonist for both the Airmen and the Army’s in-house newspaper, Stars & Stripes.
As the audience for “Wee Pals” grew, Mr. Turner allowed Rankin-Bass, the studio best known for its Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer Christmas show, to create a cartoon featuring his cast of characters. Called “Kid Power” it ran for one season on ABC, 1972-1973.
Mr. Turner continued to draw and write strips up until his death on January 25, 2014 at the age of 90. At the time of his death he featured sixteen different characters including a Mexican-American boy named Pablo, a Vietnamese-American girl named Trinh, a wheelchair-bound character named Charlotte, and a deaf-mute girl named Sally.
(Image of a “Wee Pals” strip from August 12, 2012 features Ralph, the token racist, opening up a “soul food restaurant.” On the right side of the strip is “Soul Corner” which Mr. Turner developed to teach readers about significant people of color in history. This strip talks about James Herman Banning the first black man to receive a pilot’s license. The comic is courtesy of gocomics.com and copyright Morrie Turner and Creators Syndicate. The strips are current as of January 29, 2014.)