FUNNY THING: Some of the world’s best-known cartoonists got their start in Texas. The state’s fondness for the funnies isn’t new. Way back in 1928, schoolkids willingly pored over Texas History Movies, a combination comic book and textbook drawn by Dallas’ Jack Patton and distributed free by Magnolia Petroleum. In 1933 the prehistoric terrain around the West Texas town of Iraan inspired V. T. Hamlin’s caveman-and-dinosaur fantasy, Alley Oop; a few years later the patriotic Buz Sawyer, about a gung-ho World War II Navy pilot, was created by Roy Crane, who first published his work at the University of Texas’ Daily Texan (the single greatest breeding ground ever for Texas ‘tooners). More stereotypically Texan were the squiggly efforts of Kerrville’s Ace Reid, whose lowbrow cowboy cartoons adorned millions of cheapo calendars, and Austin’s C. M. Rogers, who dashed off hundreds of Texas-brag postcards (a.k.a. “boast cards”). Texas residents who went on to excel in other disciplines dabbled in cartooning — short-story writer O. Henry, folksinger Woody Guthrie, movie director Robert Rodriguez. Carrying on the tradition today are ethnic humorists like Leo Garza of the San Antonio Express-News ( Nacho Guarache), underground oddballs like Austin’s Walt Holcombe ( Poot), and moonlighters like Brownsville attorney Charles Pugsley Fincher (whose Thadeus & Weez stars a lawyer and his sidekick weasel). And Charles Barsotti, a San Marcos native who now lives in Kansas City, regularly features a squat little cowpoke in his panels for The New Yorker and other publications (see The Ex Files). On these four pages we showcase ten Texas cartoonists, from political pundits to fringe funnymen (no animators allowed; apologies to Bugs Bunny creator Tex Avery and Mike Judge of King of the Hill fame). Which one, you ask, is the very best? Hmm — we’d have to say it’s a draw.
THE GRANDFATHER OF TEXAS CARTOONISTS, Austrian-born John Knott churned out some 15,000 panels at the Dallas Morning News between 1905 and 1957. His regular mouthpiece was Old Man Texas, a genial, lanky cowboy who epitomized the state’s salt-of-the-earth laborers. A favorite subject was statesman John Nance Garner of Uvalde, famous for his tufty eyebrows and his tenure as Franklin Roosevelt’s crotchety veep. Knott died in 1963.
THE DOONESBURY-LIKE Bloom County started out as a 1978 strip in the Daily Texan while its creator, Berke Breathed, attended UT, but eventually graced a thousand newspapers nationally and internationally. Its most winning character was Opus, a puzzled little penguin with a big nose. Always topical but not particularly political, Bloom County nevertheless snagged the 1987 Pulitzer prize for editorial cartooning, a decision that elicited squawks from many of Breathed’s peers. The 42-year-old, who now lives in California, shelved his opus in 1989.
LONGTIME DALLASITE Buddy Hickerson started conjuring the warped little world of The Quigmans in 1986 with co-writer Mike Stanfill. Today the 42-year-old Hickerson works solo, but nebbishy Bob is still suffering at the hands of heartless Francine. (“After six months of dating, Francine finally allowed Bob to kiss her lip gloss.”) Hickerson now lives in Hollywood and works on an NBC animated sitcom, God, the Devil, and Bob.
WHILE A UT STUDENT in the mid-sixties, Dallas native Gilbert Shelton produced his first cartoon series, Wonder Wart-Hog. A local hit, it nonetheless paled in comparison to his second undertaking, The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers . Later written with Paul Mavrides, it became the best-selling underground comic ever. The title characters — potheads Phineas, Fat Freddy, and Freewheelin’ Franklin — were too dopey (literally) for mainstream success, but the joint appeal of Shelton’s wacky art and wit inspired Esquire magazine to dub him “the H. L. Mencken of the counterculture.” Now 59, Shelton has lived in Europe since 1979. Currently he collaborates on the rock and roll comic Not Quite Dead with the French cartoonist Pic.
BORN AND RAISED IN DALLAS, Marian Henley drew her first comic, Banana Man, at age six. “He was an existentially tragic character,” she recalls, “always trying to find something to eat and getting thwarted.” After a fling with fine art, Henley returned to cartooning. “That’s my knack,” she says. “Painting was too open to interpretation. I wanted to tell stories and make points.” The result was Maxine, whose long-limbed, shades-sporting heroine offers a feistily female view of life and love. “An editor once pointed out to me that Maxine’s mouth is always open,” says Henley, who now lives in Austin. “That’s because she always has something to say.”
ANXIOUS TO LIVE in “a hotbed of ‘tooning,” California native Shannon Wheeler arrived in Austin in 1991, showing up at the Daily Texan and “hanging out at their offices with a backpack until they thought I was a student and ran my cartoons.” That year the idea of Too Much Coffee Man started percolating through his brain. Soon Wheeler’s bug-eyed java junkie and his fixated friends (notably Too Much German White Chocolate Woman With Almonds) were starring in a regular strip that paralleled the spread of caffeine mania across Texas. In 1995 TMCM won an Eisner award, the industry’s Oscar, for best new series. Last year the 32-year-old Wheeler moved to Portland — fittingly, a coffeeholics’ hub.
THE FAMOUSLY LIBERAL Ben Sargent has produced his satirical work for the Austin American-Statesman for 26 years. In 1982 his controversial panels on local, state, and national politics snagged him a Pulitzer when he was only 33. His artistic style — a combination of quizzicality and boldness — is among the most recognizable of editorial cartoonists working today.
THE SINGULAR JACK JACKSON — illustrator, cartographer, historian — is an alternative-comics pioneer. As a UT student in 1964, he self-published his first series, God Nose. Along with fellow Texans Gilbert Shelton, Fred Todd, and Dave Moriaty, he founded Rip Off Press in San Francisco in 1969, then came back to Austin in 1975 and turned his attention to Texas history.