Morrie Turner, a pioneering cartoonist whose multicultural “Wee Pals” comic strip has appeared in The Sacramento Bee and many other U.S. newspapers for almost half a century, died Saturday at 90.
A West Sacramento resident, Turner had been receiving dialysis for the last three years and recently had other health problems, said Karol Trachtenberg, his longtime companion.
A cartoonist by profession, Turner influenced American culture as a civil-rights activist, historian, social commentator and teacher. He was the first nationally syndicated African American cartoonist as the creator of “Wee Pals,” about a group of youngsters who reflect and celebrate differences in race, ethnicity, religion, gender, and physical and mental ability.
The trailblazing strip – which brought black characters to newspapers’ comics pages and personified Turner’s belief in “Rainbow Power,” the idea of people of all colors living and working together – was published by only five major newspapers when he started it in 1965. After Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, “Wee Pals” appeared in more than 100 newspapers nationwide.
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“His impact was enormous,” said Rick Newcombe, founder and chief executive officer of Creators Syndicate, which distributes the strip and estimates it is seen by about 2 million viewers daily in print and online.
“The whole rainbow coalition of Jesse Jackson started with Morrie Turner. Now there are young cartoonists who have copied him, and back in the 1980s we had ‘The Cosby Show.’ That was groundbreaking, but that was 25 years after Morrie. He was a genuine pioneer.”
Turner appealed to mainstream audiences with moderate and pragmatic messages about inclusiveness and equality. While he explored thornier racial issues for publications such as Black World and Ebony, even those messages were tempered: One cartoon shows an African American father figure speaking to a dashiki-wearing youth with an Afro hairstyle above the caption: “It’s time to talk about Job Power.”
Meanwhile, he sought to educate and inspire readers – especially youngsters – with “Soul Corner,” a comic-strip panel featuring short biographies of people of color. In the 1970s, the “Wee Pals” characters and their Rainbow Power message reached new audiences as a Saturday-morning TV cartoon called “Kid Power.”
Turner’s favorite audiences were young people. A gentle, unassuming man with a genuine interest in children, he made numerous appearances at schools and youth groups in Sacramento and the Bay Area. He delighted youngsters with drawings and inspired them with comic strips and stories about people of color who made important contributions to America.
He reached out to young people with an appearance on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” as co-chairman of a 1970 White House Conference on Youth, and as the author and illustrator of historical comic books, calendars and other learning materials. In interviews with The Bee, he often spoke about his commitment to young people.
“I like writing about children and for children,” he said in 2002. “They are so honest and forward, and they will tell you the truth.”
The youngest of four sons of a Pullman porter, Morris Nolton Turner was born Dec. 11, 1923, and raised in Oakland. He started drawing at an early age in school and began freelancing cartoons to magazines for a few dollars while working as a clerk for the Oakland Police Department.
He drew a strip called “Rail Head” for the military newspaper Stars and Stripes while serving in the 477th Bombardment Group of the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II. In the 1950s, he created an all-black character strip called “Dinky Fellas” for the Chicago Defender newspaper.
He befriended “Peanuts” creator Charles Schulz, who encouraged Turner to create his own cartoon with young people of color. He began drawing “Wee Pals” with black characters for African American newspapers but soon integrated the strip.
“I had a lot of things to talk about in the ’60s,” he said in 1991. “When I came out with the theme of Rainbow Power, there was a keen receptivity to it. The message in my strip was one of different cultures interacting and sharing in a positive way.”
Turner received many honors for his work as an artist and social activist, including the National Cartoonists Society’s 2003 Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement Award and the 2000 Sparky Award – named for Charles “Sparky” Schulz – from the Cartoon Art Museum. He was honored for his “Wee Pals” strip by the American Red Cross, the NAACP, the Boys & Girls Clubs, B’nai B’rith International and other groups.
As one of six cartoonists sent by the National Cartoonists Society to cover the Vietnam War in the 1960s, he spent 27 days drawing more than 3,000 illustrations of service people on the front lines and in field hospitals. He mentored and inspired generations of artists and cartoonists, said Mell Lazarus, creator of the “Momma” and “Miss Peach” strips.
“He copied nobody’s style – he was a complete original,” Lazarus said. “He liked helping and advising people. He was like a grandpa.”
Turner lectured at many California schools, universities and museums. He appeared this month in Sacramento at a retrospective of his “Wee Pals” strips that runs through Feb. 1 at the Red Dot Gallery, 2231 J St. He moved from Berkeley to the Sacramento area in the 1980s and was a member of the Center for Spiritual Awareness in West Sacramento.
He drew seven “Wee Pals” cartoons a week until his death.
“This February will be the 49th anniversary” of the comic strip, Trachtenberg said. “He was hoping to make it to that.”
Turner’s wife, Letha, died earlier. In addition to Trachtenberg, he is survived by a son, Morrie; four grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren. Services are pending.