Artist Spotlight John Cullen Murphy King Features

John Cullen Murphy Interview

National Cartoonists Society entry.

Interview conducted summer of 2000.

In John Cullen Murphy’s own words, “I never had an ambition to be a comic strip artist.” This from a man who’s been awarded the silver plaque for Best Story Strip by the National Cartoonists Society a record six times.

Taught the fundamentals of illustration by such legendary artists as  buy Lyrica online uk Norman Rockwell, George Bridgman and  Franklin Booth, Murphy became a prolific illustrator. His work in the forties ranged from portraits of military figures, including General Douglas MacArthur, to magazine illustration for such well known periodicals as Collier’s and Esquire.

When approached to do a comic strip, having determined that the market for magazine illustration was shrinking, he decided to take the plunge. Murphy would illustrate the exploits of boxer Big Ben Bolt for King Features, in addition to his magazine work, for the next 20 years. Then, in 1970, Hal Foster began looking for someone to take over illustrating Prince Valiant. Three artists were considered – John Cullen Murphy was selected.

One of the most successful story strips in syndication, the year 2000 (when this interview was conducted) marked the thirtieth year of Murphy’s tenure on the strip. In a field pervasively distinguished by gag-a-day strips drawn with felt tip pens, John Cullen Murphy’s lush illustration harkens back to a golden age of comic strip art.

–Jim Keefe

Jim Keefe: I understand that at age nine you studied at the Chicago Art Institute. What were the classes like?

John Cullen Murphy: They were Saturday morning classes for kids. The Chicago Art Institute is a great museum, and down in the cellar they had classes for students. They had us working from models and plaster casts and all that. I’d take the ‘L’ in each Saturday with my Father and come back on my own. You could do that in big cities in those days.

JK: I take it your parents were supportive.

John Cullen Murphy: Oh sure. They knew a lot of artists. My Father was in book publishing with Doubleday so he knew a lot of writers and artists.

JK: What artists inspired you at that age?

John Cullen Murphy: Gee, I can’t remember. I wanted to be a baseball player.

JK: So you kinda got sidetracked a bit.

John Cullen Murphy: I was drawing ever since I can remember, my parents encouraged me. I don’t recall any favorite artists, I probably didn’t know enough at the time.

JK: Were you interested in comic strips or comic books back then?

John Cullen Murphy: No, never. I never envisioned going into comic books or strips at that time. I wanted to be a sports cartoonist. I did do a lot of sports work later on, but I never had an ambition to be a comic strip artist. Magazine illustration is what I did and enjoyed. Back then they had a lot of magazines with fiction stories that were popular. I think TV later broke the back of general interest magazines. Of course, specialty magazines are very much in now.

JK: As far as magazine illustrators, I heard that as a teenager you modeled for Norman Rockwell.

John Cullen Murphy: That’s after we moved east. we moved into New Rochelle where he lived at that time. He saw me playing ball one summer and came across and asked me to pose for him for a cover, so I did. I posed another time for a mural he did.

Click on image to see larger.
Click on image to see larger.

JK: What kind of influence did Rockwell have on your career?

John Cullen Murphy: Oh, great. Great because he was very interested, I was doing a lot of drawings then and he was of great encouragement to me. He was instrumental in getting me a scholarship to an art school in New York City after I graduated from High School, the Phoenix Art Institute which is now a part of Pratt. And when I went to the Art Student League he told me to study with George Bridgman for anatomy, the same teacher that he had. It was then that I took up painting for the first time. I use to do illustrations where Rockwell would give me a story to do. He gave me a short story by Hemingway and I had to do illustrations for it. I would bring in each stage. First a rough sketch, then a composition sketch, a color sketch and then to the big finish. And at each stage I would bring it in and show him and he’d criticize it. So it was like he was being another teacher.

JK: I understand you also studied under Franklin Booth?

John Cullen Murphy: That was at the Phoenix Art Institute. Another wonderful man. A very kindly, elderly gentleman. Probably in his sixties at that time. I thought that was pretty old, but he was a very nice man. A great technician. Walter Beach Humphrey was another Saturday Evening Post cover artist I studied with. Also Charles Chapman who was a great painter.

JK: This was all at the Phoenix Art Institute?

John Cullen Murphy: And the Art Students League. I’d go to the Phoenix Art Institute in the morning then walk down to the Art Students League in the afternoon.

JK: How old were you when you first started getting illustration work?

John Cullen Murphy: At seventeen, doing sports cartoons for Madison Square Garden. They’d use them as publicity for upcoming fights. That was the first work I sold. Then there was a weekly magazine out in Chicago that was nothing but sports cartoons covering events of the past week. I use to have one or two of those every week when I was still in High School.

JK: In 1941 at age 22 you joined the army. Where were you stationed?

John Cullen Murphy: In 1940 I was in the National Guard, the 7th Infantry Regiment in New York City. We kept waiting month to month to be called into federal service which finally happened in February of ’41. I went down to Camp Stewart, which is now Fort Stewart, near Savannah, and I was down there until Pearl Harbor day. I had a cover that I did for Liberty magazine come out when I was down there.

JK: Were you able to keep drawing while in the service?

John Cullen Murphy: Oh yeah, I use to do heads of the guys, portrait heads, for a dollar a piece. Then I went to Officer’s candidate school in ’42, then out to California, then from there I went on to the South Pacific. I did a lot of portraits of people out there. I did General MacArthur and his wife and son, an Australian field marshal, a lot of high ranking guys. Then I did a lot of on the spot sketches that were printed in the Chicago Tribune for their Sunday supplement.

Painting of Field Marshal Sir Thomas Albert Blamey by John Cullen Murphy - circa 1945.
Painting of Field Marshal Sir Thomas Albert Blamey
by John Cullen Murphy – circa 1945.

JK: How do you go from being out in the Pacific doing sketches to being published in the Chicago Tribune?

John Cullen Murphy: I was just making sketches all the time and I met a war correspondent from the Tribune. He said, “Hey, send them back to my paper.” So I did.

JK: Once the war was over, were you able to get back into the job market where you left off?

John Cullen Murphy: Oh yeah. The first day I went around I was still in uniform. I was on terminal leave and decided to keep my uniform on, I didn’t have any other clothes. I went around and I got a bunch of jobs the first day I went in. I did a lot of stuff for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Portraits of Van Johnson and Sinatra and all those people for publicity for the movies. And I did work for Look magazine.

JK: It sounds like you were real prolific as far as how much work you were getting.

John Cullen Murphy: Well it’s what I enjoyed – still do

JK: How did the comic strip Big Ben Bolt come about?

John Cullen Murphy: Every week I would have a water color painting in some sports thing in Collier’s magazine. This particular one was a prizefight scene when Willie Pep was fighting Sandy Saddler for the featherweight championship.


Elliot Caplin, who was the brother of Al Capp, saw it and he called up my agent and wanted to know if I’d be interested in collaborating on a boxing comic strip. After mulling it over I conceded illustration was fazing out from what we had during the golden age so I thought this would be a nice way to have some steady income. I did two weeks of samples of Big Ben Bolt and Elliot took them to King Features and old man Hearst himself bought it. I had never contemplated doing a comic strip until that.

Big Ben Bolt promo piece.
Big Ben Bolt promo piece.

JK: You said that some of the first illustrations you had sold were for boxing matches so it kind of came full circle then.

John Cullen Murphy: I got to be a real expert on boxing. Though it’s not much of a sport anymore, where you have three champions for every division. It’s a mess. At the same time I was still doing magazine work. Doing covers for Collier’s, for Sport Magazine, Holiday, Bluebook. I had about six double page spreads in Esquire. Sports things.

Jim Keefe: How did you balance doing a full weeks worth of strips, Sundays and dailies, with your magazine work?

John Cullen Murphy: I worked hard. (laughs) I didn’t want to give up the magazine work right away.

JK: Did you have a studio in the house?

John Cullen Murphy: Yes.

JK: Now this is of particular interest to me as someone who works out of the home. In ’51 you started raising a family, you got married – how did you get your work routine worked out?

John Cullen Murphy: Well, I didn’t have any children before I was married…which would be pretty unusual today I guess. (laughs) But anyway – I had a large apartment in New Rochelle and took the biggest room and made it my studio. That’s the most important room outside of the nursery. Then we moved up to Connecticut and bought a house that had more room. A big old Victorian house and I used the whole third floor. Then we had a lot of children and I built a studio in the backyard.

JK: How do you schedule your time? Is it a discipline of say, getting out to the studio by nine?

John Cullen Murphy: Sometimes seven, nine would be kind of a late start. And of course nights too.

JK: Nights seem to be the quiet time. Everyone’s sleeping and no interruptions.

John Cullen Murphy: And no telephones.

JK: No pun intended, but I take it the family got drawn in to help with reference?

John Cullen Murphy: Oh yeah. I have voluminous files my wife, Joan, use to help me out with. We married in ’51. She use to pose for me a lot, then the kids would pose later on. When my first, my oldest son Cullen, was just out of college he use to give story ideas and outlines to Hal Foster. So Hal always liked him. He’s writing Prince Valiant now and has been for almost twenty years.

Cullen Murphy (writer) and John Cullen Murphy (artist).
Cullen Murphy (writer) and John Cullen Murphy (artist).

JK: Did the writing go from Hal Foster to your son?

John Cullen Murphy: Yup, In fact when he sold Prince Valiant to King Features he recommended that I be retained as the artist and my son be retained as the writer. That was when he was down in Florida and retired.

JK: You started doing Prince Valiant in 1970. Now Big Ben Bolt ran until 1975. Did you end up dropping that?

John Cullen Murphy: Yeah. I would do an occasional Sunday page or something like that, but I wasn’t drawing it at all the last few years. A bunch of different guys did it. There was a lack of interest in boxing by that time. We started out and were very good for a number of years and then the interest kind of petered out.

JK: How did Hal Foster go about picking someone to take over illustrating his strip? Did he approach you?

John Cullen Murphy: There was two or three guys, Wally Wood was one, but I had gone to him in ’68. I wanted to broaden my income and thought he might be wanting help. At that time he didn’t. I had brought a lot of my work and showed him and then two years later he called me up and asked me to come up and see him. I started doing it and never stopped.

JK: What was the work routine like between you and Foster? Was he still living in Connecticut then or was he in Florida?

John Cullen Murphy: He was in Connecticut, about forty-five minutes from here. West Redding, Connecticut. He had a beautiful place there, several acres out in the country. He would give me the script and make little thumbnail pencil sketches, you know, ideas for composition, and I’d take them home and bring them back up to him the next week. Then after about a year of that he moved down to Florida and we did everything by mail. Talked a lot over the phone.

Prince Valiant page – Number 3000

JK: It was a good working relationship then?

John Cullen Murphy: Oh yeah. He was like another Father to me. Great guy. A lovely wife too. But they’re both gone.

JK: He passed away in ’82?

John Cullen Murphy: Yeah. He would have been ninety in another week or two.

JK: Then he passed away just a couple years after he stopped scripting it.

John Cullen Murphy: Yeah, that’s right. I kept in touch with him all the time, but he wasn’t well. I think he had an artificial hip put in.

JK: You mentioned he sold the ownership. Was it hard for him to give up the strip?

John Cullen Murphy: Sure,because it was his baby, his creation.

JK: I understand he initially had it plotted out until Prince Valiant’s death.

John Cullen Murphy: He wasn’t sure if he wanted it to continue on after he died or retired, and he was going to have one big Armageddon where everyone would come in and get killed, but then he took pity on me and kept it going for my sake.

JK: Very nice of him.

John Cullen Murphy: Well, I’m a nice guy.

JK: (laughs) When I saw you up at the tribute they had for you at the NCS function in Connecticut last November, you had your son there who writes the strip and your daughter who letters and colors it. You mentioned your son took over the writing after Foster. Has your daughter Meg been lettering and coloring since then also?

John Cullen Murphy: No, in fact for a while I did the lettering myself. Ben Oda did the lettering at first and then he died. Remember him from King Features? He was very well known down at the syndicate, if there’s anybody left there.

JK: I started at King Features in ’89 and I don’t remember…

John Cullen Murphy: No, he was gone by then, long gone.

JK: One of the nice things about when I worked on staff was seeing full size artwork when it came in. I especially remember those big panels you’d occasionally do.

Prince Valiant - February 15, 1987 50th Anniversary page.
Prince Valiant – February 15, 1987
50th Anniversary page.

John Cullen Murphy: Y’know, years ago, people use to go into that storeroom there and walk out with the stuff. I was never in that place in my life to tell you the truth.

JK: Well, they’re much better about storing things now. The only reason they have all the old Flash Gordon proofs from the thirties is because they bought them from the Raymond estate.

John Cullen Murphy: To me that was his peak period, those earlier things. Marvelous.

JK: To segue into another question, on Flash Gordon there’s been Austin Briggs, there’s been Dan Barry…there’s been a lot of artists since Raymond, and on Prince Valiant it went from Hal Foster to you…

John Cullen Murphy: Well, he had a couple guys for a few weeks I guess, and then I took over the whole thing.

JK: It’s been thirty years now, right?

John Cullen Murphy: In August.

JK: Was there any initial pressure when you first started?

John Cullen Murphy: Nah, I was very confident. I was almost fifty years old at the time. I had been in this business ever since I can remember and I knew Hal personally for years before.

JK: It seems like the comic strip illustrators of your generation tended to come from magazine illustration and formal training, where they don’t as much today.

John Cullen Murphy: Yeah, like Briggs and all that. Alex Raymond’s younger brother was my assistant for fifteen years. So I knew all the Raymonds very well.

JK: Which brother was that?

John Cullen Murphy: George.

JK: And then Jim Raymond did Blondie, right? So the whole family did comic strips or..?

John Cullen Murphy: No, they were the only other two. George began as my assistant after I started Ben Bolt. He did all the lettering, laid things out for me and did research.

JK: On a strip like Prince Valiant where you have all the historical aspects and settings, how much time goes into research and reference?

John Cullen Murphy: I couldn’t tell you. I have lots of stuff right here, books and things, Hal gave me a pile of books. But there’s not much research on that, nobody knows anything about that period. It’s just a bunch of barbarians, unless they were kings or something, they pretty much dressed the same. We take a lot of liberties with it. We have elaborate palaces and castles. This was the time of the barbarians, right after the fall of the Roman Empire. Instead of being enormous marble castles what they really had was probably wooden stockades and that sort of thing. But you want to make it pictorial and interesting looking.

JK: You mentioned having an assistant on Ben Bolt, do you have assistants now?

John Cullen Murphy: No. The last year or two Frank Bolle had been helping me with lay outs and that sort of thing, but the pen work was all mine. I went over all the drawings.

JK: In one of Foster’s last interviews he wrote that you’re a very good illustrator in that you can make the hands talk, that they confirm the expression on the face. What do you see as the points that make up a strong illustration?

John Cullen Murphy: Light is very important. You’re like a stage designer and you want to have it as powerful as you can, so you have big strong blacks and such. But it’s a combination of drawing and composition and lighting.

JK: Do you do much painting these days?

John Cullen Murphy: I painted today. I do oil paintings, portraits and things.

JK: Do you still do freelance in addition to Prince Valiant?

John Cullen Murphy: No. What I do is for myself or for my 8 kids or their children, my 16 grandchildren. I use to do these big oil paintings, these big chairman of the board things and all that.

JK: I’m going over my notes and there’s Norman Rockwell, Booth, Foster. You just run the gamut here.

John Cullen Murphy: I use to go to the Art Student’s League one night a week and I’d paint portraits under a great portrait painter named Sidney Dickinson. I don’t know if you’d remember the name.

I was very fortunate in my mentors.

John Cullen Murphy 1919-2004

To see more of John Cullen Murphy’s work, check out Classic Comics Press’s Big Ben Bolt collection.

Francesco Marciuliano King Features Sally Forth

Sally Forth – Drop Panels

Comic Strips are formatted different ways for different size requirements. The “drop panel” is a panel or tier of the strip that can be omitted because of size restrictions without affecting the gag or storyline.

For example, Here’s today’s Sunday strip (June 9, 2013) as it appears on Daily Ink and in many papers.


And here is the black and white version with the drop panel.


For those readers who haven’t seen them, here’s a spotlight on last month’s Sally Forth drop panels.

Side note: They’re black and white as I don’t have access to the color files.


June 5, 2013
May 5, 2013


June 12, 2013
May 12, 2013


May 19, 2013
May 19, 2013


May 26, 2013
May 26, 2013


June 2, 2013
June 2, 2013



The standardized system to format strips for newspapers was devised years ago by King Features’ Comic Art Production Supervisor, Frank Chillino (1920-2007). It helped streamline the process saving countless hours of production time (and money) for King.

Jim Keefe - Frank Chillino - Jerry Craft
Jim Keefe – Frank Chillino – Jerry Craft

Frank Chillino was my boss when I first started at King – One of the greats! The above pic is from the 1993 King Features Christmas party in New York City. For those interested, the following link is an interview from when he retired back in 1991. As mentioned in the post, it pretty much encapsulates the history of the syndicated newspaper strip, as Chillino was one of the key players…

King Features – Frank Chillino

Craig MacIntosh Francesco Marciuliano King Features Sally Forth

The Chronicles of Nona


Art: Craig MacIntosh (earlier strips) and Jim Keefe (most recent).

To borrow from Lee Falk,
For those who came in late…

The breakup…




Holiday cheer…



After the holidays, a less than stellar reunion…





Missing a beat…







Things go from bad to worse…







Depression sets in…


Trying to make sense of things…


Parents are consulted…


Constant reminders…




    Is Nona back to stay or just back to have her say?

    Will Hil apologies in a way that only makes things horrendously worse?

    And if so, CAN FAYE STOP HER IN TIME?!

For the answer to these and many more questions,


If Sally Forth isn’t in your local paper, you can check it out online at…

A yearlong subscription to all of King Features’ comics (new and vintage) plus two years worth of archives for every single strip is a pittance at $19.99 a year. Unsure? Try a 7 day trial subscription for free.

Craig MacIntosh Francesco Marciuliano King Features Sally Forth

Sally Forth – Passing the Torch

As many of you have already heard, I’m the new artist of the Sally Forth comic strip. My name has been on the dailies since March 11th, and even though I drew the strip for this past Sunday (3/31/2013), that was the last one overseen by cartoonist Craig MacIntosh and bears his name.


Back story: A few years ago I connected with Craig and began working as his assistant inking and coloring the Sally Forth Sunday pages. When Craig decided to retire last year I worked up some samples (under Craig’s watchful eye) which were then submitted to King Features Syndicate. After navigating the proper channels the word was given from on high – editorial approval – and I was given the green light

I can’t say enough about how great it was working with Craig. He’s the consummate professional who makes the incredibly stellar work he does look easy – a great friend and mentor.

Craig Macintosh
Craig Macintosh

He’s currently turned to writing. His two most recent books are The Fortunate Orphans and The Last Lightning. I was able to make it out for the launch party for The Last Lightning and posted about it last fall.

Sally Forth is currently written by bestselling author, cartoonist and writer, Francesco Marciuliano.

Francesco Marciuliano

He was handed the baton by Sally Forth’s creator, Greg Howard, when Greg decided to retire from the strip back in 1999.

I found a great interview with him on the Jeff Rubin Jeff Rubin Show where he talks about his work on Sally Forth (below).

I was a fan of the Sally Forth comic strip long before coming on board, so I truly lucked out as far as being able to collaborate with Francesco. In addition to being a 15-year veteran on the strip, he knows the characters inside and out – which as far as I’m concerned makes the humor strike closer to home.

Warning: Unabahed plug time.

If Sally Forth isn’t in your local paper, you can check it out online at…

A yearlong subscription to all of King Features’ comics (new and vintage) plus a year’s archive for every single strip is a pittance at $19.99 a year. Unsure? Try a 7 day trial subscription for free.

Unabashed plug officially over.

Artist Spotlight Artists - Cartoonists Flash Gordon Joe Kubert King Features

Joe Kubert – Flash Gordon page

Joe Kubert (1926-2012)
Tribute: Part 1

Back in 2002 I dropped Joe Kubert a line asking if he’d be interested in drawing a Flash Gordon Sunday page for the small sum I could afford to pay at the time. I figured I had a shot at him accepting as first, I was a Kubert School alum, and secondly (and more importantly) because of his fondness of the strip and its creator, Alex Raymond.

He said yes with the stipulation that he would have full control over the finished product. In essence, for the paltry sum I had offered, he was willing to do not just the art but also the lettering, coloring and color separations as well. He also wanted to include as many classic Raymond characters as possible. I sent him some reference (Raymond clip art and color specs) and a loose script that I told him not to adhere to – to just use as a springboard. I gave him the page well in advance so I would have plenty of time to fashion the surrounding Sunday pages in regards to continuity.

Example of Alex Raymond clip art sent to Joe Kubert as reference.

Flash Gordon Sunday page: Loose script

Panel 1
Reaction shot of Flash, Vultan and Thun to creature (creature as yet unseen).
Vultan and Thun are momentarily frozen to the spot.
Flash springing forward into action.

Flash and Thun have swords, Vultan has spear. See reference for costume.
Note: Flash wearing holster but gun has been removed.

Text Box: As the grisly creature enters the arena, Flash springs into action!
Flash: Vultan, Thun, no time to waste… That thing is headed straight for Dale!

Panel 2 (inset in panel 3)
Close up on Ming in his spectator’s booth. A look of macabre enjoyment lights his face.

Text Box: Far above the horrible spectacle, Ming issues a proclamation as old on Mongo as time itself…
Ming: Let the Tournaments of Death Begin!

Panel 3
Flash, Vultan and Thun engaging creature as it reaches Dale. Dale is chained to center of arena (see reference), straining at bonds.
Vultan flying, swooping in for the attack.

Creature is your design – go nuts!

Text Box (lower right hand corner): To be continued!

Promptly and WAY before deadline, he emailed me the finished artwork.

Click on image to enlarge.

The changes he made to the script were sublime.
Flash entering with weapons? Where’s the fun in that?
Joe had Flash and his allies chained in the center of the arena – defenseless.

The layout: Panoramic establishing shot followed by reaction shots of our helpless captives leading up to the cliffhanger as the creature is released.
A master storyteller, Joe had amped up the drama from my initial script to a fevered pitch.

After the page saw print I sent Joe a copy of it from the Boston Herald’s Sunday Comics section. A few week later I got the following response…

December 2, 2002

Dear Jim,
It’s amazing and sad the depths to which syndication has sunk. I was sorry that they distorted the strip to the extent that they did, but what do people say about crying over spilt milk?

I hope the New Year brings good things for you.

Take care,

To fully understand Joe’s reaction I’ve included the following quick visual showing what Joe Kubert grew up reading in the 1930’s compared to what Sunday comics look like today.

Left to right: Flash Gordon 2/25/1934 by Alex Raymond – Flash Gordon 11/10/2002 by Joe Kubert

A short time afterward Mark McMurray and I (a fellow alum) were visiting Joe in his studio and I asked (if it wasn’t any trouble) if I could get a copy of his Flash Gordon Sunday page artwork full size. Joe found the art and asked me if I would rather just have the original instead – dumbfounded I accepted. He bent forward to sign it for me, and before pen touched paper he turned to me and said, “I better not see this on eBay tomorrow.”


Footnote: Suffice it to say, it did NOT go on eBay. As a matter of fact it went on display in the fall of 2012 at the Stamford Museum & Nature Center for the exhibit, Flash Gordon and the Heroes of the Universe. Also on display were Works by Alex Raymond, Al Williamson, George Evans and myself.