Morris "Morrie" Turner Biography

Morris "Morrie" Turner




Cartoonist and illustrator Morris "Morrie" Nolton Turner was born on December 11, 1923 in Oakland, California. Paul Vitello of the New York Times wrote in his biography of Morris that he was known as "the first African American comic strip cartoonist whose work was widely syndicated in mainstream newspapers and as the creator of the first syndicated strip with a racially and ethnically mixed cast of characters.”

Turner's father was a Pullman porter whose daily routine included unloading the nation's major newspapers - including leading African American publications from Chicago, Pittsburgh, and elsewhere - which Turner's older brothers distributed. They would bring copies home, where the cartoons and comics intrigued the youngest Turner. His mother was a nurse and homemaker who encouraged Turner's artistic interests a well as his interest in Black history. As a teenager he wrote to his favorite artist, Milton Caniff of "Terry and the Pirates" and "Steve Canyon" acclaim, including his own cartoons in the envelope. Caniff responded with a detailed 6-page letter that included pointers on drawing and storytelling and would be a source of inspiration throughout Turner's career.

With the onset of World War II, he was sent to work as a mechanic and clerk for the famed Tuskeegee Airmen. During this time he drew the comic strip Rail Head for the military magazine Stars and Stripes. Following the war he found work as a police clerk with the Oakland Police Department, and during his off time he would continue to work as a freelance cartoonist, contributing work to Ebony and Black World magazines. By 1964 he was working full time as a cartoonist. His first comic strip, Dinky Fellas, was picked up by the Chicago Defender, a Black-owned and operated newspaper founded in 1905. This comic strip, featuring an all Black cast of characters, was Turner's reaction to finding very little representation in comics. However, despite this success, he struggled to find more publishers due to ongoing racial tensions in the U.S. Turner ended Dinky Fellas in 1964 and started Wee Pals in 1965, introducing white and Asian characters. That same year he had established enough of a reputation to become syndicated, but only in five publications. This began to change as the Civil Rights Movement progressed. He was quoted as saying "Within three months of [Martin Luther] King's death, the strip was appearing in over 100 newspapers" (Syracuse University, Morrie Turner Collection biography) - a grim milestone and about which the Museum of Cartoon Art curator Andrew Farago noted "There was always a sadness in his voice when he related that story." (Los Angeles Times obituary, Steve Chawkins, January 29, 2014.) This moment nonetheless reflected a change in attitude regarding Black artists in the U.S. By the turn of the decade he was America's first mainstream Black comic strip artist.

In the 1970s Turner's career expanded to include appearances on Mister Roger's Neighborhood television show for children, and the creation of the Kid Power Saturday morning cartoon series on ABC. He also illustrated his own books and collaborated on other writers' publications, including educational works for children on Black history, racism, sexism, bullying, and classism, as well as the dangers of drugs. In 1980 he was included in the television documentary series The Fantastic Funnies, which took an inside look at the lives of famous comic strip artists. In it, he was included among the creators of Doonsbury, Little Orphan Annie, Dick Tracy, Peanuts, and many more.

Among his awards and acknowlegments are the Lifetime Achievement Award from the California Black Chamber of Commerce, the Humanitarian Award from the Anti-Defamation League, the Cartoon Art Museum's Sparky Award (2000), and the Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Cartoonists Society (2003).

Turner died at age 89 on January 25, 2014, in Sacramento, California.