Cartoonist Lives, Creates in Irvine : ‘Wizard of Id’ Artist Finds New ‘Castle’
The King is still short. The Wizard is still henpecked. The peasants are still revolting. And the Spook has yet to make a clean getaway.
But there is an upheaval in the Kingdom of Id. After 38 years, 66-year-old Brant Parker, one of the two wizards behind the nationally syndicated comic strip, “The Wizard of Id,” has moved to a new “castle.”
Born in Los Angeles, and raised on California sunshine, Parker and his wife, Mary Lou, purchased a town house in the Woodbridge area of Irvine last year. The couple still own a home in Virginia where they plan to spend part of the year, but Parker moved himself and the Id characters into Irvine this summer, turning an upstairs room with a view of the Santa Ana Mountains into his studio.
“One thing I love about Irvine is that it has some planning,” Parker said, gesturing at his surroundings. “I say to Mary Lou, ‘Good grief. I love this. They didn’t just stick something here and something there. . . . They thought about it.’ ” It’s been 22 years since Parker and his Id collaborator and lifetime friend, Johnny Hart, created the “Wizard of Id” strip and took it to the Big Apple. For a while the wizards were standing on shaky ground, Parker recalled, laughing as he remembered what happened the morning after he and Hart stayed up all night revising the strip.
“We called the syndicate and told them we were ready. We thought we would be going over there, but before we knew it there was a knock at the hotel room door and there was the syndicate president with an entourage of about 10 people behind him.
Not Ready for Guests
“I was in my shorts, John was shaving, beer bottles were everywhere--it was a real mess. We had taped the cartoons all on the walls because we had wanted to see them in sequence. . . . So they came marching in and started in one part of the room and walked around, all of them, like judges. They got to the end, and he (the syndicate president) looked at us and said, ‘We think you guys are disgusting, but we love the strip. We’ll take it.’ ”
Starting in 1964 with an initial 50 newspapers, the “Wizard of Id” has increased its readership over the years: Now more than 1,000 newspapers carry the strip in the United States, with the figure rising to more than 1,100 with international printings. Hart and Parker also have more than 20 “Wizard of Id” books in print, according to Parker.
“Of course, I’d hoped the strip would do well,” he said. “It did better in university towns and big cities when we started. We were the avant-garde ones--the young, wild ones. We’re not young anymore, but we’re trying to stay young.
“Southern California is a wonderful source for humor. This life style is faster and, therefore, funnier. It’s ahead of the East in so many ways, fun-wise at least.”
A proper working environment is extremely important for the “continual well-being of Id,” according to Parker. “I like working here outside rather than in the studio,” he confessed, sitting on the back patio of his home. “But I have to find a way to keep the sun from chasing me out of here. Maybe I’ll have to get up earlier.” He grinned, adding that he presently starts working between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m., stopping in the evening.
“For me, cartooning has always been a compulsion,” he said, rough sketching the Wizard between sips of iced tea. “Almost as long as I can remember I loved drawing, and I wasn’t very old before I decided that cartooning was what I wanted to do. I snuck off in corners and doodled all the time. When I wasn’t getting in trouble over it, I was drawing posters or drawing for the school paper--everything I could do.”
Visits With Cartoonist
In grade school, while other students dreamed of recess, Parker would skip school, making a beeline for the Los Angeles Times’ office. He would sneak in and sit next to Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Bruce Russell, watching him draw “for hours. I don’t know how I got past the guard,” he mused, then laughed. “I guess I was pretty nervy.”
In junior high school he worked at a Disney-owned theater testing film (“just to be able to be near the cartoons”) and in high school found inspiration in the artwork of a fellow artist and classmate destined to be an actor, Jack Webb. “He did some of the most beautiful posters I ever saw. That influenced me a lot. And then he never did it again. He went off to movies and TV.”
After two years of study at the then-Otis Institute in Los Angeles, and a stint in the Navy during World War II, Parker in 1945 joined the ranks of cartoonists to pass through the Disney Studios. He recalled his two years with Disney enthusiastically, “Walt Kelly (‘Pogo’) had already come and gone. Hank Ketcham (‘Dennis the Menace’) had been there and left. So had Virgil Partch (‘Big George’) and a lot of the other greats. I think they studied there more than anything. They worked there, but like me they learned. The Disney school was great. That was my main school of cartoon learning.”
During his two years at Disney, Parker worked on several shorts with “the Duck.”
“They figured I was better with Donald than with anything else so I did a lot of him.” He also reminisced about working on a scene in “Mickey and the Beanstalk” in which Mickey Mouse falls into some Jell-O.
“I worked for weeks on that,” he said, delight on his face. “Making Mickey go up in the air, having his hat come off and then having him come down, sink in and go back up. It was fun. I worked and worked and it went by like ‘poof,’ ” he snapped his fingers.
In the late 1940s, the Parkers moved to upstate New York. It was while he was in Endicott, N. Y., working as an editorial cartoonist for the Binghamton Press, that Parker met Johnny Hart. “He was in high school at the time,” Parker explained. “I was judging a local art contest. Johnny’s stuff was all over in all areas--pastels, pen and ink--you name it--but no cartoons. I was so impressed with what I saw that I looked Johnny up just to talk with him. Ever since then we’ve been working together.”
Hart Works on Ideas
Although he has collaborated with other cartoonists, producing “Crock” and “Goosemeyer,” it’s the “Wizard of Id” that Parker’s stuck with. Parker does all the drawings while Hart “comes up with a lot of the gags” and discusses them with Parker. “It’s two different kinds of thinking always,” Parker said of the collaboration. “The trick is to find two people who are basically alike. We were very fortunate there. We’ve never had any problems. We both enjoy the same kinds of humor so it’s been a great relationship.”
While Parker has moved several times over the years, Hart has stayed in Endicott. Despite the distance, no matter which coast he’s on, Parker keeps in contact with his partner by telephone, overnight mail and Nefax machine. “We’re in touch with each other constantly, talking and testing out gags for the ‘Wizard.’ I usually don’t think of Johnny being that far away.”
Of the early Id strip characters, four (the Wizard, the King, Rodney the knight and Bung the court jester) have survived, Parker said. “The original premise was built around the Wizard goofing up and everything backfiring on him. Everything kind of grew out of that. We didn’t know what to do with the King, but then the King started talking to the peasants and giving speeches.”
“Just about everybody has changed,” Parker added. “The Wizard the least because John really wanted him to stay the way he was. However, the King was much taller with a little nose. The King became short because we used to kid John about being short and a lot of the short gags began to slide over into the strip. As we talked more about his shortness, it seemed appropriate to emphasize the shortness. Looking back I can see the changes, but it wasn’t a conscious change at the time.
“So he just kept getting smaller and as he shrunk the nose got bigger and bigger. I don’t think he can shrink much more.”
It’s Rodney, the tall cowardly knight, in whom the equally tall lanky Parker sees himself. “I really have no idea why, but he’s me. I can’t even define that. I feel somehow Rodney is closer to me and more like me, except that he’s a coward. I don’t think I’m a coward.”
Sees Pathos in Spook
On the list of Parker’s favorite characters is one of his own contributions to the Id cast, Spook, the hairy prisoner in the dungeon who’s always attempting his great escape. “I think it’s because of the pathos in Spook’s situation,” Parker explained. “He’s stuck in there for life, and he keeps trying to get out. I love pathos humor.”
Time has added characters to the kingdom and taken some away. “The King for a while had a rat as a pet. That was fun. I don’t know why he disappeared,” he mused. “That was a good bit, and I just remembered it. Some of those good bits you just lose somehow.”
“We’ve always tried to keep the strip very contemporary word-wise,” Parker added. “When you have the old era, as we do, along with the contemporary words, it becomes even funnier. Like a guard saying, ‘Teflon underwear.’ Teflon is a juicy word for us. It’s a funny word, everyone knows it and it says a lot if used right.”
Although the “Wizard of Id” has made general social and political jabs, the strip has escaped controversy by “not being specific,” Parker said. “We’ve used the King over the years to make comments about the President and other leaders, but we’ve kept it general, so we’ve managed to avoid the controversy that (Garry) Trudeau sometimes has with ‘Doonesbury.’ ”
Still, Parker and Hart have had their share of reader complaints. When the Wizard had the Midnight Haranguer ride through the streets shouting, “The King’s a fink!”, they received mail from people saying, “Why did you use our name, Fink?”
Also, there is one character who was banished from the kingdom of Id for all time, Parker said. “Years ago we were spoofing a little Japanese karate expert. . . . Then we received a letter from a Japanese-American girl. She said, ‘Why did you choose our people to ridicule?’ Kids were kidding her in school about the character and it was getting pretty tough on her, so we dropped the character.
“And I loved that little character. But we didn’t want to hurt anyone. It wasn’t with malice or anything that we were doing it.”
He shook his head. “That really made me sad. We all have to learn to laugh at ourselves. If we can’t we’re in trouble--deep trouble. Humor is a very strong and very important part of our survival and existence now. I see it as the balance--a kind of escape valve for a lot of our readers. There’s nothing that eases tension like a good laugh. It can just about solve all the problems if it were used right.”