When Comics Were King

Over the years, Westport has been known nationally for a few things.

During the Civil War, our onions helped Northern troops stave off illness. In the ’70s and ’80s we were awash in marketing companies.

And for a longer period of time — the 1950s through ’90s — we were part of “the comic strip capital of the world.”

Vanity Fair’s September issue explores that funny period in our history. Writer Cullen Murphy — whose father was one of those illustrious illustrators — looks at all of Fairfield County as the world capital. It was

where most of the country’s comic-strip artists, gag cartoonists, and magazine illustrators chose to make their home. The group must have numbered 100 or more, and it constituted an all-embracing subculture …. In the conventional telling, the milieu of Wilton and Westport, Greenwich and Darien, was the natural habitat of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit — and I was certainly aware of the commuters who took the train into Manhattan every morning from my own hometown of Cos Cob. But, for me, those salarymen with their briefcases seemed like outlandish outliers.

Murphy cites Westport’s “large cluster” of cartoonists Bud Sagendorf (“Popeye”), Leonard Starr (“On Stage,” “Little Orphan Annie”), Dick Wingert (“Hubert”), Stan Drake (“The Heart of Juliet Jones,” “Blondie”), Jack Tippit (“Amy”), John Prentice (“Rip Kirby”) and Mel Casson (“Mixed Singles/Boomer”).

Bernie Fuchs’ famous studio. It was demolished earlier this year.

Murphy’s father compared Bernie Fuchs to Degas. The writer adds: “Fuchs’s career was all the more remarkable because he had lost 3 fingers on his drawing hand in an accident when he was a teenager.”

Murphy does not mention Curt Swan (“Superman”). I’m sure he’s missed others.

From the 2002 book “Curt Swan: a Life in Comics”

Murphy offers a few reasons why this area attracted so many illustrators: lack of a state income tax; affordable homes, and of course the presence of other artists.

It was solitary work — which is why so many Fairfield County illustrators got together in groups, here and on Wednesdays when they brought their art to their editors in the city. They talked about their work. They also ate and drank.

Murphy notes:

One defining reality about the cartoonists was that although their characters —Beetle Bailey, Snoopy, Prince Valiant, Blondie — were known worldwide, they themselves passed through life more or less anonymously. Unlike actors or sports figures or reality-TV stars, they were never stopped on the street. They didn’t have a “gal” to protect them or “people” to speak for them.

Semi-domesticated, they depended heavily on their families, especially wives, who in many ways held the entire enterprise together, from basic finances to rudimentary social cues…. Life was interrupted mainly by mundane chores. More than a few collectors have bought original comic strips and found notations like “prescription ready” or “diapers, bologna, Chesterfields” in the margins.

Bud Sagendorf, and his most well-known character.

Of course, nothing lasts forever. Murphy writes:

The concentration of cartoon talent in Fairfield County was a product of special circumstances, and those circumstances have disappeared. Newspaper comic strips are not the force they were, and few magazines still publish gag cartoons.

The New York City newspaper strike of 1962–63 led to the demise of the Hearst flagship, the New York Journal-American, whose funny pages were the best in the country. Making it there was like opening at the Roxy. Now it was gone.

New York remains the center of the publishing industry, but the railroad is no longer a lifeline: the Internet has meant that artists can send their work from anywhere. Connecticut has a state income tax now, though that’s not what has made Fairfield County unaffordable — Wall Street is responsible for that.

Westport, of course, is now a financial capital — both as headquarters to the world’s largest hedge fund, and home to many financial executives.

I wonder what kind of cartoon Bud Sagendorf, Stan Drake, Mel Casson or any of the others would draw about that.

(Click here to read the entire Vanity Fair story. Hat tips: Doug Bonnell and Paul Delano)

From comics to capitalism: Westport is now home to Bridgewater, the world’s largest hedge fund.

11 responses to “When Comics Were King

  1. Wonderful, bittersweet piece. If there was a bubble above my head right now it would read: “good grief”.

  2. Mary Cookman Schmerker Staples '58

    Fascinating, beautifully written and Morley already said it, bittersweet. Those were the days my friends……

  3. Nice write up Dan – and special thanks for recognizing my father. I knew many of those other artists listed – including John Cullen Murphy – as I would see them at their annual golf tournaments when I would be invited to play in a foursome with my father – 1964 to 1971 or so vintage. We arrived later in the golden era, finally moving to Westport in 1961, after living in New Jersey prior to that. My father always needed to be close to Manhatten, as D.C. Comics had their HQ on Lexington Avenue and he had to go in every week or two to meet his editor and the other artists who inked and wrote his strips or stories for the book he was doing original pencil art for. When I was on school holiday during our New Jersey years he would take me along, driving into the City in his MG sports car. So thanks for rekindling the memories! PS – we’re out in Michigan, again, watching our U9 granddaughter and U12 grandson, play in a big tournament this weekend in Lapeer County Michigan. One of these days we will become expatriates too and likely make Michigan our home… Leaving the memories of good old Westport to you, Fred and the others who still manage to find reason to remain as life long Westporters! Our ties are almost now just old memories. See ya in late August. Chris

    Sent from Yahoo Mail for iPhone

  4. I never knew there was a book done on Chris Swan’s dad. That’s very cool and I will definitely check it out. (And Curt Swan definitely merits inclusion with those other prominent artists listed in the article. He was renowned for his work on Superman.)

  5. Roseann Spengler

    I read it in your magazine yesterday Knew of many people. Good article. So much talent in Fairfield County through the years. One of my good friends at Westport news father was Jerry Dumas who died last year.

    Sent from my iPhone


  6. Nancy Hunter

    Maurice Sendak, too, another Connecticut talent.

  7. Marty Sagendorf

    It was a wonderful period! The cartoonists were a great group – always laughing and trading ideas.

  8. Hey Dan, another comic strip originator in Westport was Dick Brooks of The Jackson Twins. He had a syndicated strip from 1950-1979. The only reason I know is that he lived on our street and was a friend of the family. Funny, funny guy!

    • Roger, if you don’t mind me asking, which street did Dick Brooks (and your family) live on?

  9. Lowell Hess, my stepfather, another 🙂

  10. We lived on Washington Avenue – one over from Evergreen (Street, Ave. or Parkway – I can’t remember… I think that Dick Brooks lived on Tamarack Ave which was off one of the Evergreens – it went between Evergreen and North Compo – he was the first-on-the-right off Evergreen. Marty