When Morrie Turner was just a cartoon-doodling kid in Oakland, he wrote a fan letter to the creator of the popular comic strip “Terry and the Pirates.” In return, Milton Caniff, who later created “Steve Canyon,” sent young Turner a typed, six-page personal reply with pointers on story lines and drawing.
“It changed my whole life,” Turner told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2005. “The fact that he took the time to share all that with a kid, a stranger, didn’t impress me all that much at the time. But it impresses the hell out of me now.”
An artist whose “Wee Pals” comic strip appeared in more than 100 newspapers at its height, Turner was similarly generous with other aspiring cartoonists. In particular, the African American Turner was sought out by young black artists trying to break into territory that he had been among the first to chart.
Turner, who created the first nationally syndicated comic strip with a fully integrated, multiethnic cast, died of natural causes Saturday in a Sacramento hospital. He was 90.
For several years, he had been under treatment for kidney problems, said Jeannette Eagan, the daughter of Karol Trachtenberg, Turner’s longtime companion.
Still, he kept drawing his gently humorous “Wee Pals,” a seven-day-a-week tribute to tolerance, until the end of his life. He was several months ahead when he died, Eagan said.
Before becoming famous in the 1960s, Turner had long been a freelance cartoonist in a field that was not hospitable to African Americans.
George Herriman, whose “Krazy Kat” ran in newspapers across the U.S. for decades before his 1944 death, kept his mixed-race heritage secret, according to biographers. Olive-skinned, he allowed friends to think he was Greek and often wore a hat indoors to hide his kinky hair.
Others, like Jackie Ormes, who is thought to be the first female black cartoonist, sold their work mostly to black newspapers.
In 1959, the Chicago Defender, a black paper, started running Turner’s “Dinky Fellas,” which was conceived as an all-black “Peanuts.” By the end of its run in 1964, Turner introduced white characters.
In 1965, he started “Wee Pals,” soon populating the strip with clever kids spanning a rainbow of races and ethnicities. Among others, there were the bookish Oliver, a bespectacled white boy; Diz, a beret-clad African American; the Vietnamese Trinh; and Sibyl Wrights, a black girl who was modeled on Turner’s wife, Letha, and Shirley Chisholm, the late New York congresswoman and civil rights leader.
“I’d been critical of the major metropolitan newspapers for not having anything but whites reflected in their cartoon strips,” he once told an interviewer. “So I decided to make myself right before I popped off anymore.”
In 1972, he added the dense and bigoted Ralph, who allowed Turner to voice sentiments that never would have come from his other characters. Naturally, they specialized in showing him up.
“Now I had a new gag!” Turner said.
Born in Oakland on Dec. 11, 1923, Morris Nolton Turner was the son of a Pullman porter and a nurse. Growing up in Oakland and Berkeley, he joined the Army Air Corps, where he was a mechanic for a unit affiliated with the famed Tuskegee Airmen. He also drew “Rail Head,” a comic strip for a base newspaper about a feckless recruit’s misadventures.
After the war, he worked as an Oakland police clerk and continued to churn out cartoons. In a social group of Bay Area cartoonists, he became good friends with Charles Schulz, who later asked for his advice as he sketched out a black character for “Peanuts.”
“Wee Pals” initially ran in only five newspapers but surged in popularity after the 1968 assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
“There was always a sadness in his voice when he’d relate that story,” said Andrew Farago, curator of the Museum of Cartoon Art in San Francisco.
A “Wee Pals"-based TV cartoon show — “Kid Power” — aired in the early 1970s. By then, Turner had attracted fans like the cartoon-doodling Robb Armstrong.
“Morrie was part of my DNA,” Armstrong told The Times. “I used to carry a ‘Wee Pals’ lunchpail.”
Armstrong, an African American comic strip artist whose “Jump Start” appears in more than 300 newspapers, said Turner eventually steered him into syndication. He had been given Armstrong’s number by an editor at a Philadelphia newspaper.
“It was like someone in Hollywood giving a young actor George Clooney’s number,” Armstrong said.
Over the years, Turner turned out numerous cartoon books. Some, like “Super Sistahs,” focused on figures in African American history — a subject he also explored on Sundays in the single-panel “Soul Corner” at the end of his strip.
As time went on, “Wee Pals” started fading in popularity. Some newspapers were forced to limit the space they used for comics; others replaced it with edgier fare.
Asked about “The Boondocks,” a popular comic that generated a number of controversies, Turner would answer: “ ‘Boondocks’ is hip-hop. ‘Wee Pals’ is cool jazz.”
“Wee Pals” appears in 40 newspapers and about a dozen websites. It is distributed by Creators Syndicate, which estimates its daily audience at 2 million.
Turner’s wife, Letha, died in 1994.
In addition to Karol Trachtenberg, Turner’s survivors include his son Morris; four grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.