Don’t let his colored pencils fool you. There’s much more to born-and-bred Oaklander Morrie Turner than the fact that he is the first syndicated black cartoonist to draw black characters. He also is a WWII veteran and original member of the 477th Army Air Force Bomber Group, which consisted of all black pilots and bombers and was a feeder school for the world-renowned Tuskegee Airmen. You could say he was fighting two battles at once, one for his country and one within it — segregation. Possibly the most telling fact about his military service was that he was eventually able to secure a position for himself as a journalist and cartoonist for military publications. “I believe in comics,” he affirms.
It’s hard to question him on that statement. His house is festooned with frames and sketches of his Wee Pals characters, and at age 81 he is still producing at least a comic a day. It’s inspiring to witness a human being who has the courage to follow his childhood passion to be a cartoonist. “They used to say I couldn’t do it,” he says. What’s even more impressive is that the inspiration for Wee Pals came during the thick of the civil rights movement. Basically, Turner picked up his pencil and did his part.
A lifelong fan and good friend of Charles Schulz, Turner initially thought to create a solely black version of Peanuts. He came up with Dinky Fellas, which was initially produced for the black-owned-and-operated newspaper, The Chicago Defender. Turning introspective, Turner admits: “I used to complain about comics being all white, then I saw that mine was all black.” So he integrated Dinky Fellas to create Wee Pals.
The Wee Pals era began in 1964 at The Oakland Tribune, The Philadelphia Bulletin, and The Los Angeles Times. At its zenith, Wee Pals was syndicated in a hundred newspapers nationwide, and in 1972 had its own animated TV series on KGO, Kid Power. Today it still runs in forty publications across the country. Throughout its long life, the strip’s thrust has remained the same — it touches on “whatever is going on in the world,” Turner says. At the same time, he comments on and profiles African Americans notable for their contributions to society. On Turner’s desk are piles of clippings on athletes, entertainers, and actors, including one on media mogul Russell Simmons. What’s that all about? “It’s not that I’m a fan of the music,” he explains. “I think he’s important.” It’s just that simple — Turner has always prioritized what he thinks is important for society. “Because we need to know,” he stresses. “And I want kids to know too.” When asked his opinion of Aaron McGruder’s The Boondocks, he cleverly replies, “Boondocks is hip-hop and Wee Pals is cool jazz.” Classic.
February 12 marked the fortieth anniversary of Wee Pals‘ syndicated publication. In honor of Black History Month, Dr. Comics and Mr. Games of Oakland will host Morrie Turner for a book signing on Saturday from 1 to 4 p.m., featuring his newest publication, Super Sistahs — a book portraying high-achieving African-American women in the trademark Wee Pals comic-strip format. Admission is free. Dr. Comics and Mr. Games is located at 4014 Piedmont Ave. in Oakland. Call the store at 510-601-7800 for further information.