On Saturday, the world lost another legend when cartoonist Morrie Turner passed away at the age of 90 after suffering complications from kidney disease.
Turner is best known for creating the comic strip Wee Pals, the first comic strip of its kind — not only because it featured a cast of racially diverse characters but it was also the first strip by an African American cartoonist to be syndicated nationally.
Wee Pals went on to inspire a short-lived animated version in the 1970s called Kid Power.
An influence on an entire generation (or two) of artists and cartoonists of color, Turner’s work will be remembered for breaking down barriers but also for using the art form of comics to reflect a world that wasn’t monochromatic.
Image Comics’ writer/artist Jimmie Robinson shared what Turner meant to him as a young man growing up in Oakland:
The fact that he, a black artist, even existed, spoke volumes. I was living in the notorious West Oakland Acorn projects. It was full of all the negative things you can dream of in an economically depressed inner-city. I had to take two buses to get to the arts school — which took me to a magical world away from the dark crime of my neighborhood. At the time I saw my school as the end of the road for someone like me. But when Mr. Turner arrived… just by his presence and career alone… he showed me that the world beyond my quirky school was open to anyone — no matter the race of gender.
It’s been over 50 years since Wee Pals first saw syndication in national newspapers. Sadly, the funny pages have failed to be as diverse as Turner envisioned long ago (though props to Aaron MacGruder and Tak Toyoshima for trying!), but his legacy is secure.