Local artist, writer, and comics scholar Kirk Taylor came by the Cartoon Library last week to donate the brand new Abrams ComicArts book “Bazooka Joe and his Gang”, for which he co-authored the introduction with Nancy Morse. Kirk had spent some time in our library in 2012 while piecing together his research for the book, and during that visit he shared with us a fascinating story about his personal connection to Wesley Morse, the unsung cartoonist who created Bazooka Joe. During Kirk’s recent visit, we chatted about his process and involvement with the project, and how he was able to use the Cartoon Library as a resource.
What is your connection to Wesley Morse?
Kirk: My great aunt Avonne Taylor passed away in 1992, and hidden away in her storage locker in California my family discovered a series of 80 illustrated love letters of, and for, her by Wesley Morse. They were on his personal stationary, with his address listed at the Hotel Des Artistes, a noted artists cooperative on 67th street in Manhattan. At the time I discovered these, nothing was published about Morse, so I held on to them for years before I understood the history. In 1996, “Tijuana Bibles: Art and Wit in America’s Forbidden Funnies” came out, with an introduction written by Art Spiegelman. In it, Spiegelman mentions that he could recognize the hand of a cartoonist named Wesley Morse as one of the artists in the old Tijuana Bibles, and that was where I first made the connection with who this man was from my great aunt’s letters. Based on the drawing style in the book, I knew it had to be him.
How did Avonne and Wesley know each other?
Kirk: Although she never talked about it with family during her life, my great aunt was a Ziegfeld Follies dancer in the 1920s, and kept exhaustive scrapbooks from those days. In 1922, during her time there, Wesley Morse was an illustrator for the Follies, long before entering the world of comics. Morse was a peer of greats like Alberto Vargas–one of the famous painters from the Ziegfeld days–and his murals were even painted on the walls of the New Amsterdam Theater lobby where the Follies were held at the time. The main photographer of the Follies was Alfred Cheney Johnston, who also had his studio in the Hotel Des Artistes, and the dancers would be coming and going all the time. It’s likely that they met there. My aunt stayed on with the Follies until 1925, and then went on to have success in film. Morse seems to have faded from employment with them in 1924, which is when he started emerging in comics.
Wow, so after you made the Tijuana Bible connection, how did you start discovering more?
Kirk: In 2007 I was able to track down Wesley Morse’s son, Talley Morse, through cartoonist Jay Lynch. Jay is also a fan of his work, and during exhaustive online searches to find more information, a comments thread on an art blog popped up in which Talley’s wife Nancy Morse mentioned that she was married to the son of the cartoonist who created Bazooka Joe, that cartoonist being Wesley Morse. Jay contacted Talley through Nancy, who was eager to talk to me about his father and my great aunt, and that is when ideas for working on a book first began. Jay Lynch, Talley and myself met up in New York and were able to visit the Topps headquarters, where the young artists on the creative staff were all excited to meet the son of the man whose cartoon character became a national icon. They all said that they looked specifically toward Morse’s work for the drawing style of the Bazooka Joe characters — he was totally celebrated at Topps.
When did the Bazooka Joe book start to come together?
Kirk: In 2009, I was put in touch with Charlie Kochman of Abrams Books, and told him about our ideas. Charlie had been interested in doing a series of books with Topps, Wacky Packages being the first one. By 2012, we were ready to work on it, and throughout the time leading up to that I was doing more and more research. I had made connections with people all over the world to learn more about Morse, including bubble gum historian Jeff Shepherd, much of whose collection of memorabilia is included in the Abrams book.
How did you come to use the Cartoon Library collection during your research?
Kirk: After working for the Follies, Wesley Morse started making comic strips for Hearst, including a feature written by slanguist H.C. Whitwer titled Switchboard Sally. The Cartoon Library has a run of the strip, so I began my research there to study his style. Being able to see these old strips was like being one step closer to the original art, and it was also informative to see how Morse’s line developed over the years as he went from working in illustration to the sequential comics format. I even think his cartoons of Sally were reminiscent of my great aunt! I was also able to connect Morse with the work of his contemporaries while at the Library. I knew that when he was living in New York in 1925 he was roommates with Chic Young [Blondie] while they were both working for King Features. At the time, Young was working on Dumb Dora, and I wanted to see if there were similarities in their style, as they were both finding their way in the comics form, still immature in the format. This research, and some of the strip collections themselves, will come into use for my next project which is underway right now with the Morse family — a comprehensive biography of Wesley Morse, which will ultimately be the most extensive one written on him. Currently, the piece in the Bazooka Joe book is the most that has ever been documented on this extremely prolific artist.
To keep up with the progress of Kirk Taylor’s upcoming book on Wesley Morse and view some of the gorgeous illustrated love letters sent to Kirk’s great aunt Avonne from the Taylor-Morse Collection, visit: http://taylormorsecollection.com/