From “Wee Pals” to real pals: Black-Jewish connection endures on and off strip
Morrie Turner shambles into Sid Shaffer’s Oakland living room, a cane clutched tightly in his right hand and a sheaf of oversized comic strips clutched even more tightly in his left.
“Whatta ‘ya got for me there, a pair of Sundays?” Shaffer asks in his unmistakably East Coast Jewish staccato.
“Three? And how many ‘Soul Corners’?”
“Well, well, well, you ain’t getting all those back by next week, kiddo,” says Shaffer with a laugh.
Shaffer has been calling Turner “kiddo” for nearly 45 years. “Kiddo,” incidentally, is 84 — one year Shaffer’s senior.
“We’ve been friends since 1965, and there hasn’t been one difficult moment,” says Shaffer.
Turner smiles. “I kicked at him a couple of times, but I missed. He doesn’t know about that.”
A thought suddenly percolates into an idea for Shaffer, and he makes his ensuing exclamation with the gusto of an inventor bellowing, “Eureka!”
“Morrie, you know what we are? We’re a couple of alter kockers!”
Turner laughs good and hard. Then he asks, “What’s an alter kocker?”
Shaffer first heard of Turner when the Oakland Tribune ran a front-page photo of him in 1965, announcing it was picking up Turner’s “Wee Pals” cartoon. Shaffer, who was hawking insurance for New York Life at the time, felt they could connect.
“I wrote him a letter pointing out we had much in common: We were both Army men, both family men, both artistic — that’s one of my paintings, by the way,” he says, nodding toward a large canvas on the wall featuring a Technicolor Chassidic wedding attended by figures resembling Disney cartoon characters from the days when Walt was drawing them himself.
“Anyhow, I wrote him that the only difference between us was that he’s black and I’m white. We became friends right away — but it took me five years to sell him a policy.”
Shaffer, whose handwriting is immaculate, began “inking” (cartoon strip lingo for tracing the art and rewriting the text in pen) the occasional “Wee Pals” strip and some of Turner’s cartoon books decades ago.
And when he retired from the insurance game in 1995, he started inking nearly every strip, including the text-heavy “Soul Corners,” which honor overlooked community leaders — “no athletes or entertainers,” says Turner.
Turner’s comic — which you can still read in the Oakland Tribune, all of the papers in the Alameda Newspaper Group chain and a few dozen other papers nationwide — is a “Peanuts”-inspired comic set in Oakland, Turner’s hometown.
And after Charles M. Schulz took a suggestion pitched by Turner and other minority cartoonists and added a black character to the Peanuts gang, Turner figured he should put a white kid in his cartoon, too. But he didn’t stop there.
He added Hispanic kids and Asian kids and Indian kids and Arab kids. He added an Archie Bunker-style bigoted kid. And, after a discussion at Shaffer’s son’s bar mitzvah in 1967, he decided it was time to add for a Jewish kid.
The two men talked it over during kiddush in the social hall at Oakland’s Temple Beth Abraham. Turner decided he would get Shaffer more involved in his comic strip — by putting him in it. Turner based his Jewish character on a childhood snapshot of Shaffer (down to the young Sid’s red hair and freckles) and told him he could name his alter ego.
“If I called him ‘Sid,’ that’d be taking advantage,” recalls Shaffer, who also noted that if Turner asked him a Jewish question and he got it wrong, it would look bad for him if his character shared his name. So he named the kid Jerry — after Temple Beth Abraham’s longtime executive director, Rabbi Jerry Danzig (who, thankfully, never got a Jewish question wrong).
In recent years, however, a couple of Jewish faux pas have slipped into the strip.
Once, Turner had Jerry inviting over his pals for dinner — and his Yiddishe mama was serving ham hocks that night. “Ham hocks? Ham hocks? Wait ’till my kosher friends see this!” the flummoxed Shaffer said at the time.
In another, Turner adorned Jerry’s door with a mezuzah the size of a king salmon. “What the hell are you doing with a mezuzah that’s the same size as the door?” shouts Shaffer.
Long before he began inking comic strips in his kitchen, Shaffer had put his hands — actually, make that thumbs — to work for him. After serving as a combat artilleryman in World War II, he hitchhiked from his native Boston to Oakland with all the money he had in the world secured in his hip pocket.
Prior to that, he worked as a cub reporter for the local paper in Malden, Mass., writing profiles of town luminaries and drawing little caricatures of them to boot. He spent about 35 years as an insurance agent.
A member of Oakland’s Temple Beth Abraham for nearly 60 years, Shaffer has volunteered in a number of positions in the Oakland Jewish community, including serving as the collector of deadbeat donations for the Jewish Community Federation of the Greater East Bay. His weapon of choice was not a baseball bat, but multiple letters, which he insists he always wrote “in a nice way.”
Whatever he wrote in those letters, it worked. The federation’s national umbrella organization gave him a certificate of recognition for his efforts. Locally, he jokes, “people would see me coming and walk across the street to get away.”
Once a week, cartoons in hand, Turner drops by Shaffer’s home tucked away in the hills overlooking Lakeshore Avenue. Turner draws his strip on stiff construction paper. In their raw form, the pencil-drawn panels are about six times as large as the strips that appear in the newspaper.
Over the course of the week, Shaffer spends about 10 to 12 hours painstakingly going over Turner’s artwork and rewriting the text in pen. “You’ve got a lot of shmutz in these; not everything is erasing,” Shaffer said, gently chiding his old buddy at their recent meeting.
He hands off the finished cartoons when Turner shows up to give him more work. In their years of collaboration, Shaffer has refused any payment grander than dinner and a drink. This is his hobby, Shaffer says, and he likes being part of the world of cartooning. Besides, Turner admits, “I couldn’t afford him.”
Although Shaffer and Turner are getting older, their cartoon alter egos will always be wee pals. Turner, who often thinks, “What would Sid do?” before writing gags for Jerry, never realized the character of Nipper (the one in the Civil War-era Union soldier’s cap) was a personification of himself — until his mother pointed it out.
Wee pals or old pals, Morrie and Sid vow that they will be drawing Nipper and Jerry “until the end.”
“I don’t have much choice,” says Shaffer with a chuckle.
“Yeah, if I’m doing it, he’s got to do it,” says Turner. “I’ll find him, wherever he is.”
The old friends smile at each other. It’s a warm moment — then a thought comes to Shaffer. “What the hell was the deal with the ham hocks?”