He had spent a lifetime living by his wit.
But despite more than 40 years as a successful magazine and newspaper cartoonist, Virgil Partch--known around the world by his "VIP" signature--was plagued by the professional insecurities of any free-lancer.
Unlike people who work for a company with such built-in fringe benefits as medical insurance and a pension fund, a free-lancer, in Partch's words, "lives in suspense, dangling like a puppet from the edge of a cliff."
"Suppose I run out of ideas, or my eyes fail, or my health collapses?" Partch wondered in a 1976 Times interview. "I live in envy of all those people who are paid regular salaries."
Having been faced with large medical bills and unable to do much work at one point in his life, Partch had decided "to stay ahead of the game" by drawing extra cartoons each week.
By 1976, he had created a two-year backlog of "Big George," his syndicated cartoon series which debuted in 1960 and at one time appeared in about 300 newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times.
Hedge Against Illness
The backlog, he explained, was his hedge against the possibility that "some sneaky bug takes a bite out of me and I'm floored for a while."
Tragically, that was not to be the case for the Laguna Beach cartoonist. In August, 1984, Partch, 68, and his wife, Helen, died in a freeway crash near Newhall.
But nearly two years after Partch's death, his offbeat wit lives on--in 50 newspapers that still carry "Big George," including the Washington Post, the Chicago Sun Times, the Sacramento Union and, locally, the Orange Coast Daily Pilot.
When he died, Partch had left behind not two, but six years of "Big George" cartoons--an unheard of feat in a field in which most cartoonists are content to remain six weeks ahead of the game.
Worked in Advance
"At the time of his death, we were told he had worked in advance until the year 1990," said Patti Manassian, manager of promotions and public relations at Irvine-based News America Syndicate.
Indeed, Manassian said, the final "Big George" cartoon will not appear until sometime in December, 1990.
Until then, "Big George" will continue to serve as a sort of ongoing tribute to the humor of its creator, who viewed his often hot-tempered, middle-class protagonist, Big George, as "my Walter Mitty release."
"I am actually a shy, timid sort," Partch once said. "I never tell waiters or cab drivers off. But, as they say, I let George do it."
The Alaska-born Partch, who studied art at Arizona State University and at Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles in the 1930s, made his first free-lance cartoon sale--for $50--to the New Yorker--in 1941.
Worked for Walt Disney
That was $15 more than the $35 a week he had been making working on animated cartoons for Walt Disney and Woody Woodpecker-creator Walter Lantz, and from that point on, Partch sold frequently to a host of magazines, including the Saturday Evening Post, Colliers, True and Playboy.
In the process, he earned a worldwide reputation for his off-the-wall brand of humor and visual puns.
In one vintage Partch cartoon an aunt tells her nephew he has "grown a foot" since she last saw him. VIP's patented visual punch line has a foot actually growing out of the boy's head. In another cartoon--one of many he did without a caption--a man stares bug-eyed at an hourglass, in which appear tiny footprints in the sand.
"Virgil Partch's name is one that if you mention in a circle of cartoonists you will hear nothing but praise," Manassian said.
Veteran cartoonist Ed Nofziger of Laguna Beach, who met Partch in 1951, agrees.
"VIP was an unbelievable gag man--the gags just rolled out of him," Nofziger said. "He loved to get up and start work at 5 o'clock in the morning. He just had this old pen, and he just drew them and wrote them as they went (without first penciling in the drawing). And there's mighty few people who can do that."
After putting in his stint at the drawing board in the morning, Partch--a big, husky man with a toothy grin, thick glasses and a penchant for wearing hats and caps--"would knock it off for the day and go down to the Ivy House for his play period," Nofziger said.
The Ivy House is a restaurant across the street from the Laguna Beach City Hall, and it was at the rectangular, leather-padded bar that Partch and his "playmates," members of Laguna's cartoonist contingent, would assemble. The Street Gang, as management jokingly called them, included Partch; Dick Oldden, a former cartoonist for the New Yorker; Playboy cartoonist Phil Interlandi, and his twin brother, Frank Interlandi, a former Los Angeles Times editorial cartoonist.
Outings With the Boys
"He enjoyed his companionship with the guys, and I think that's why he did his work earlier," said Frank Interlandi, who met Partch in the 1950s. He recalled those midday outings away from the drawing board as "a fun, fun thing. We were throwing ideas at each other all the time."
"It's difficult for me to place him in (cartoon) history, but I think he's universally thought of as pretty much a genius with his line drawings and his approach to cartoons--his weird sense of humor," Interlandi said. "I think his better stuff--his genius work--was with True magazine and his free-lance work. He had more freedom of style and content" than with "Big George."
Nofziger describes the VIP drawing style as being "remarkably simple. But actually, it sort of grew out of his resistance, if you will, to the Disney style."
As a "Disney man," Nofziger said, Partch was required to follow such strict edicts as, for example, drawing four fingers on Mickey Mouse to make it easier for animating. "So VIP went the other way and drew six to eight fingers on his cartoons," he said. "It was sort of teasing (the Disney style) in a way."
Nofziger said: "VIP was also an artist and a painter and there is a little Picasso there in the beginning, with the eyes on both sides of the face, six fingers, the outrageous graphic puns. An awful lot of people back then were outraged. And, of course, that only made him more famous."
In contrast with other cartoonists who were more literal in their approach to drawing, Nofziger said, VIP's "was a very original style and a real breakout--way off the board. He had people holding their (disembodied) heads in their hands and talking. It was a thing like, 'Anything goes for the gag.' "
As an example of one of Partch's visual puns, Nofziger recalled one cartoon in which "somebody had a lot of 'connections'--and here's a guy with pipes all over the place. Well, nobody else could have gotten away with it."
Anna Couch of Costa Mesa, one of Partch's three children and his only daughter, sums up her father's prolific output of cartoons this way: "He liked his work."
And for her father, Couch said, drawing cartoons "was an ongoing thing."
"When I was a kid and we traveled," she recalled, "he did drawings on scraps of paper when we were sitting down at dinner. He'd use paper place mats and whatever was handy. When we were in Europe, he used toilet paper. He tried traveling once and not working and he ended up with an incredible migraine and not feeling good. If he tried not to work, it would make him sick."
"Being raised with him," she added, "I thought that's the way all cartoonists worked. And when you find out it's not, it's a surprise."
Couch said she looks at the "Big George" cartoon only occasionally. "I don't think about it that much. It's there, and it's around and that's neat."
For her, she said, it's not the cartoons but the memories of her parents that she thinks about.
Asked to describe what she most remembers about her "Pop," as she called him, Couch admitted that she hasn't been able to pin it down.
Flood of Things
"Every time I try to sort it through, there's a flood of things that made his personality, humor being a part of that," she said. "He had a real keen sense of humor in things--and not a sarcastic humor, but a warm humor and a comforting humor that would, I don't know, there's a word there that describes that. . . . But he would take an unhappy situation and make it not so bad, make it more bearable.
"And that was part of his work, too. It's what made people laugh at themselves and get through their problems."
Partch's cartoonist buddies, of course, have their own memories of Partch.
"He was a very, very gentle man," Interlandi said. "Virgil's passing had an impact on our lives."
Indeed, Interlandi said the weekly lunches and the daily bar stops at the Ivy House have largely fallen by the wayside.
"We don't meet as regularly as we used to," he said. "Something kind of happened after Virgil died."
But beyond their individual memories of Partch, his friends are pleased that a bit of VIP remains alive--in the old cartoons and in the continuing saga of "Big George."
Nofziger observed that, to young people, the VIP signature on a cartoon might not mean as much as to the older generation.
"Kids today are glued to adventure comics," he said. "I have a grandson who's 11 and a granddaughter who's 20, and if you say Virgil Partch, or VIP, they'll look at you like, 'What?' "
But, Nofziger believes, VIP will not be forgotten.
"My personal opinion is that Virgil was one of the originals and he will be known," Nofziger said. "As time goes by he will stand out. It's like what happens with artists and musicians. If he's ever forgotten, he'll come back again because he was a doggone original."