Sunday, August 23, 2020

A Crowded Life in Comics –

When I Was In the Funnies.

By Rick Marschall

The first time I was in the comics – my name, anyway, not my face or heroic self – I had a difficult time actually showing it to friends and relatives. Details at 11.

First. When I was hired by the Connecticut Herald in 1972 after a few months at a small north Jersey weekly, the Valley Star of Englewood, my duties were few and specific: reporter; political cartoonist; columnist; editor of the weekend magazine section, Leisure Plus. I lived an hour away but was alerted about the opening from Jerry Norton, a friend and official with Young Americans for Freedom, the campus conservative group founded by William F Buckley. YAF was headquartered in Washington DC; Jerry was publication director and taught me how to fake editing; and I worked in YAF’s mail room. A YAFer of all too familiar a type – barely 21, but wedded to tweed jackets, turtleneck sweaters, pipes, and a fake British accent – was leaving his job and wondered if Jerry knew a conservative who could apply.

The Herald was a conservative paper, an anomaly in Fairfield County, but the liberal journal had been purchased by William Loeb to add to his New England newspaper chain. Check that box. He was a rabid comics fan, which occasioned many conversations. Check that box. And he was the son of William Loeb, private secretary to President Theodore Roosevelt, an interest of mine since childhood (mine). Bingo.

I applied and got the job, even though it was an hour’s commute from my parent’s home in New Jersey (yes, a struggling recent grad). I was sat at Smith’s desk, right next to a man I shall tell more about some day here, Harry Neigher – one of the last of the Winchell-style three-dot gossip columnists, celebrity interviewer, and the Herald’s cartoonist, a chore he was happily to put aside. He became my serious mentor.

On the first afternoon I discovered that he (in fact, nobody there) could stand the pompous Gaines Smith. “Our Gaines is our loss,” he told me.

If it sounds like I was handed a lot of assignments… I thought it was not enough. In its glory days, the Herald had been the biggest paper in Connecticut, even publishing Springfield, Mass., editions. When I joined it was a ghost of its former self, but small enough that I was obliged to do all that writing and drawing, but also edit wire copy, help compose the weekend paper at the printing plant (when Watergate broke, it was a Saturday night and I had a ball). It was still the days of typewriters and carbon paper; a “morgue” of clippings and old photos; and yelling “Copy Boy!” when you pulled a finished story from the typewriter. We had no copy boys; no one came to the desk. But that didn’t stop us from calling out.
An ancient Harry Resnick shuffled around the ad department. He was Al Capp’s uncle, and had helped pitch Li’l Abner to syndicates back in 1934…

But I stray. I’ll return to the Herald (in a way, I wish I could: the best job of my life) some week.

One of my first assignments was to revamp the weekend color comics section. No one liked it – especially the readers, according to polls – so I added “Features Editor” to the hats on the rack.

Cutting to the chase. One thing I noticed was that the paper seemed have every clone of Blondie in existence. OK, Fairfield County was iconically suburban, but cartoon housewives, mostly blonde, glutted our funnies. Hi and Lois; Dotty Dripple; the Berries; Trudy; Family Circus; Dennis the Menace; even Prince Valiant, who had married Aleta, if you recall. I’m kidding about Hal Foster’s page but there were other carbon-copies.

I canceled many – of course not all – and brought in some contemporary stars, some old classics (United Features wanted to test my sanity for ordering Captain and the Kids) and even brand new strips. I laughed so hard at Frank and Ernest samples that I signed a contract before its debut.

One feature that went was Trudy by Jerry Marcus. This was before I knew Jerry, and loved Jerry, and became a weekly lunch buddy (with Orlando Busino, Bob Weber, Gill Fox, Ron Goulart and others), but what really persuaded me was more than a hundred cards and letters pleading for Trudy’s return.

“A” for effort. I quickly noticed that most postmarks were from Ridgefield (where Jerry lived); and the same phrases popped up, like “Trudy is our favorite neighbor” and “Trudy is part of our Sunday mornings.”

Well. All cartoonists like to have their features in the local paper, and have (real) neighbors see it. I reinstated Trudy and, except perhaps for the Post Office, no one regretted that.

Several years later, after getting married, working for three syndicates in New York and Chicago, working as Editor for Marvel Comics and a writer for Disney; I moved back with wife and family to Connecticut. And back to weekly lunches with the cartoonists.

One day Jerry gave me an original Trudy daily panel (The Herald had folded, so I was not seeing it). It is reproduced here – Trudy answers the phone; the call is for her husband; but she monopolizes the call first with gossip. Jerry slipped in my name as the caller. Cool! You’d be surprised, or maybe not, how often this “inside” stuff happens in comics.

But – completely unknown to Jerry, the other names he plucked from the air, made the who caption too complicated to explain to relatives and friends. (I’d have to wait almost 40 years to share it here.) OK, the “Ted” is Trudy’s husband… but also my son’s name. “Nancy” is a generic name in the conversation… but also my wife’s name. “Betty,” another suburban name… is my sister’s name.

It looked like Jerry was doing a biography, or an obituary, of me and family. It was a great gesture, but the drawing went straight on the wall, tough to explain except to Mensa members once a month (and they are too dumb to remember the details).

When we moved from Connecticut, to take a teaching job in Philadelphia (College of Art, now University of the Arts), Jerry did a private drawing that was easier to explain. So special, and funny, and I used it as a change-of-address notification and for much else. Special is special, and it was specially colored too.

And since those days, Trudy has always been, after all, my favorite imaginary neighbor.


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