Pioneering cartoonist Morrie Turner passes away

Wee Pals creator Morrie Turner, the first nationally syndicated African-American cartoonist, passed away Saturday in a Sacramento, California, hospital. He was 90 years old.

Raised in Oakland, Turner was a self-taught artist who drew cartoons for Army newspapers while serving during World War II with the 477th Bomber group. Following his discharge, he worked as a police clerk while also creating strips for a number of publications.

In 1959, the black daily newspaper the Chicago Defender began publishing his all-black strip Dinky Fellas, created with the encouragement of his friend Charles Schulz after Turner expressed a desire for a comic that reflected his childhood experiences. But it wasn't until Turner diversified the cast, introducing kids from different ethnic backgrounds, that Wee Pals was born.

"All the kids were different," the cartoonist recalled in a 2009 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle. "White, Filipino, Japanese, Chinese, black. It was a rainbow. I didn't know that wasn't the way it was other places. Oakland was that way before the war. We were all equal. Nobody had any money."

Introduced for national syndication in 1965, Wee Pals initially appeared in just five major newspapers; integration of the comics page wasn't easy. But within three months of Martin Luther King's assassination in 1968, that number grew to 100.

Wee Pals was adapted in 1972 as a short-lived animated television series called Kid Power.

Honored in 2003 with the National Cartoonists Society's Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement Award, Turner was also the subject of the 30-minute documentary Keeping the Faith With Morrie.

Turner spent much of his free time visiting schools until age and failing kidneys made those appearances difficult. He updated his Facebook page on Thursday, writing, "Have been having some medical issues that require surgery -- and I'll be recuperating for a bit." He also invited fans to keep him company during his dialysis treatments, saying, "No need to call first; simply sign in, don a paper gown and visit!"

He's preceded in death by his wife Letha, and survived by his son Morrie Jr., grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and his companion Karol Trachtenburg, with whom he lived in West Oakland.

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