Award-winning "Wee Pals" creator Morrie Turner, the first nationally syndicated African American cartoonist, regaled the crowd at his recent talk and book signing at Underground Books in Sacramento, CA. In the midst of his talk, as guests continued to arrive, Turner, 88, with his infectious smile, interjected a quick hello, calling the late arrivals by name, and then continuing on with another fascinating gem from his 47-year career as a beloved contemporary of Charles Schultz, Dale Messick and Bill Keene, friends and colleagues whom have all passed but were fondly recalled during Turner's hour-long conversation. During the audience exchange, like a teacher calling an errant student to the front of the class, a sheepish Petri Hawkins-Byrd, the stern Judge Judy bailiff, was called up front for a hug and handshake from his old friend after raising a question from the back of the standing room only area. When the official talk ended, young and old chatted patiently in line, clutching multiple copies of Turner's newest book "Wee Pals" Presents Black Sports Heroes: Past and Present, the 31st title he's authored and illustrated, in a string of best-selling titles published by Signet in the late – 1960s and early- 70s, during the height of his career. For those of us at the tail end of the line, the hour-long wait for an autograph, or better yet, a quick sketch of one of our favorite "Rainbow Power" gang gave us more time to discuss the legend in our midst, while proud recipients of a Nipper or Sybil illustrated-signing fondly displayed them on their way out of the store.
A self-taught artist who drew cartoons for Army newspapers while serving in the all-black 477th bomber group during World War II, Turner began selling his work in 1947 to a variety of newspapers, trade journals and other buyers before creating "Wee Pals" in 1965. But it wasn't until 1968, within months of signing with the Lew Little Syndicate, and the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., would his integrated "Wee Pals" comic strip get picked up in dailies across the nation.
Turner is still at work creating Nipper and pals Oliver, Randy and Ralph for several dailies, using his comic wit, focused commentary and signature artistry to bring awareness to serious topics such as racism and intolerance, AIDS, sickle cell anemia, American and African American history, integration, religious acceptance, and the dangers of drug use through his "Rainbow Power" gang.
Black Sports Heroes is Turner's first self-published work, and he's excited; stepping out on his own gives him full ownership of his book. While syndication enabled his strip to appear in more than 100 newspapers, it also required him, like many of his colleagues, to forfeit full or partial copyright of his acclaimed work in exchange. As he heads to San Diego for his third Comic Con appearance later this year, he'll be packing cases of books, with pen poised to sign or illustrate title pages for hundreds, possibly thousands, of his adoring fans.
Friend Al Attles of the Golden State Warriors states, "The skillful way [Turner] combines humor with facts makes the reading [of Black Sports Heroes] not only interesting, but more importantly provides an educational tool which most surely will appeal to and inspire readers of all ages."
"At the 1936 Olympic Games in Germany, Jesse Owens won gold medals in the 100-meter dash, the 200-meter dash, and the 400-meter relay – and Adolph Hitler scrambled from his private box to avoid honoring the black athlete.
During World War II, Joe Louis, heavyweight champion of the world, paid surprise visits to military hospitals. Though he later lost his title belt to the German Max Schmeling (which pleased Hitler), when Louis died broke, Schmeling used his wealth to pay for Louis' funeral.
In the 1971 World Series, Roberto Clemente posted the greatest single performance by any player ever, making two impossible catches in the outfield, batting .414, and hitting seven singles, two doubles, one triple, and two homeruns. Clemente died the next year in a plane crash while flying relief supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.
Stories like these are testament to the power of athletics to influence and inspire people, nations, and cultures. In Black Sports Heroes: Past and Present, best-selling author and award-winning cartoonist Morrie Turner masterfully presents cartoons and stories, known and unknown, about Black athletes of all nations and the impact they had upon their sport, their countries and the world. Through his impressive combination of fact and humor, Turner brings 45-years of "Kid Power" and "Rainbow Power" to life, showing us a world where all people, regardless of racial, religious, sexual or physical differences can live, work, and play together."
On December 6, 2011, Turner was honored with an Oakland City Council resolution and a mayoral proclamation "For using his extraordinary artistic skills and interest in social justice to inspire people of all races, and not just children, to work together in harmony to further their dreams, the City of Oakland congratulates and commends Morrie Turner." The Oakland native has been honored with 45-year retrospectives in both San Francisco and Sacramento.