Flash Gordon, Brenda Starr and Dick Tracy are lurking in Murray Harris’ back bedroom.
Krazy Kat, Prince Valiant and Mandrake the Magician are hiding there too, sketched onto penny postcards and mailed to Harris at his request.
When he started collecting comic strip art by mail in 1927, Harris never planned to go so far.
But at 84, the retired illustrator has amassed a vast collection of original drawings that traces the history of the American comic strip from Depression-era “Gasoline Alley” to the “Doonesbury” of today.
“They’re special, because they were drawn especially for me,” said Harris, lingering over a sharp, glowering portrait of Dragon Lady, inked for him in 1940 by “Terry and the Pirates” creator Milton Caniff.
“People said, ‘Well, you knew it was going to be valuable when you started,’ ” he said. “As a matter of fact, I had no idea of value. It was the drawing I was interested in. If I was interested in somebody’s work, I’d write ‘em a letter and ask for a sample.”
Obsession bloomed in about 1916, when 5-year-old Murray hunkered over the Sunday funnies in his parents’ Boston parlor and began copying the beloved “Mutt and Jeff” onto scraps of paper.
Harris later studied fine-art techniques of painting and illustration at the Massachusetts School of Art, and later at the Boston Museum of Fine Art and Harvard University.
He shadowed the art departments of Boston’s daily newspapers, peering over artists’ shoulders and snatching discarded sketches from their wastebaskets for later study.
And he jumped into the field as a professional, drawing newspaper illustrations, whiskey labels and drugstore ads.
But classical schooling and the workaday world never drummed love for the funnies out of Harris.
At 16, he mailed a blank prepaid penny postcard to comic artist L.C. Segar, asking if he would be so kind as to scribble a little something on it and mail it back.
To Harris’ delight, the card returned a few weeks later--animated with Castor Oyl and Nana Oyl. These were the brothers of a character whom Segar had not even invented yet--Popeye’s girlfriend Olive Oyl.
“I knew I’d get a personal response,” Harris said. “But I didn’t expect they’d put the time and effort into it the way they have.”
Harris sent out more requests. And in flowed personalized drawings from the comic field’s favorite artists: Blondie’s Chic Young, Joe Palooka’s Ham Fisher and the Toonerville Trolley’s Fontaine Fox.
He hit up artists he admired, such as Rube Goldberg and Uncle Sam creator James Montgomery Flagg. And he got a famous illustrator’s sketch of a dog, inscribed, “Your faithful friend, Norman Rockwell.”
In 1948, Harris and his wife, Beatrice, moved to Los Angeles to ease the burden of emphysema on her lungs--which later would require them to move out of the San Fernando Valley and into the Simi Valley.
The collection grew, and grew more modern: Charles Schulz’s Snoopy joined the gang, as did Johnny Hart’s Wizard of Id and Garry Trudeau’s Tiparillo-puffing Duke. And Hagar the Horrible took his place between a rough sketch of Sergio Aragones’ Groo the Wanderer and a razor-sharp ink drawing of Lil’ Abner and Daisy Mae Yokum.
After Beatrice died in 1990, Harris remarried.
Now, his greatest regret is that he gave in to his second wife’s demands two years ago to pare his collection.
She was not interested in the art or the clutter it created, he said.
So Harris sold off priceless original panels of Flash Gordon and Krazy Kat and liquidated an amazing array of antique comic-strip toys--including a “Buck Rogers” ray gun and a windup “Dick Tracy” patrol car--for probably a third of what they were worth, to a Burbank art dealer.
For a while, he just let the dealers come and go while he was out, taking whatever they pleased and cataloguing it for the bottom line.
Six months later, with the collection decimated, Harris recalled sadly, “She abandoned me.”
“It was a crazy way to do things, a stupid way, really,” he said.
But Harris clung to the personal sketches, because they were drawn especially for him.
And he is hoping someone somewhere will see the value in his collection and put it on display, the way the Smithsonian Institution did many years ago for a traveling show on comic strips.
“Actually, it’s disposable art,” Harris said. “Comic strips were wrapped [around] fish and garbage and thrown out. But not now. The comic strips are worth something.”