The Life of a Cartoonist
Jerry N. Weiss, an artist and contributor for The Artist’s Magazine, shares a tribute to his father, cartoonist and illustrator Morris Weiss in this excerpt from “The Artist’s Life” in the July/August 2011 issue of The Artist’s Magazine. Join a conversation with others who are interested in illustration at Wet Canvas!
Born in Philadelphia in 1915, Morris Weiss has spent most of his life involved in art in one way or another. When he was 9, his family moved to Manhattan. Weiss drew and dreamed of being an illustrator. One of his boyhood idols was James Montgomery Flagg, best known for painting the World War I “I Want You” recruiting poster of Uncle Sam. Weiss befriended him in 1934, and Flagg drew his portrait. That drawing formed a cornerstone of what would become one of the first and most notable private collections of American illustration, which at one time included works by Norman Rockwell, Dean Cornwell, Charles Dana Gibson, J.C. Leyendecker, and Edwin Austin Abbey.
From Aspiration to Success
Weiss began drawing cartoons. One of his earliest jobs was doing the lettering for the Katzenjammer Kids comic strip; this was followed by a slew of assignments during what is now called the medium’s golden age. Weiss worked as an assistant, lettered, wrote, drew or did all these tasks on comic strips including Mickey Finn, Joe Palooka, Mutt and Jeff and Joe Jinks. In the 1940s and 1950s he worked on teen comic books such as Patsy Walker for Stan Lee (before Lee created the Marvel superheroes).
There were other opportunities, too. At various times Weiss was offered the chance to continue landmark strips such as Terry and the Pirates and Nancy, and the creators of Superman approached him separately to collaborate on new ideas, all of which he humbly turned down. One opportunity he couldn’t refuse involved a talented young female artist he met in George Bridgman’s class at the Art Students League of New York; as a result of that meeting, he and his wife Blanche have been married for 67 years and have four children. Weiss retired from drawing cartoons in 1976.
Cartooning and More
Weiss could always draw, but he’s modest about his skills. He acknowledges that it took him years to learn how to write a dramatic episode: “Every now and then I came up with a story that was really good.” A look at his best work, which encompasses many thousands of published drawings, reveals a mastery of the form. He could adapt to the styles of many different cartoons because he was a fluid draftsman with pen and India ink—a medium rarely used today. Weiss used it with both discipline and flair. Varying the quality of the pen’s line, balancing bare spaces with solid blacks, hatching or cross hatching with ease, he constructed artful panels while developing characters ranging from very straight to utterly ridiculous. I especially like the ridiculous ones, for they remind me of his unfailing sense of humor and his knack for portraying a multitude of personality types. His early work has a Runyonesque New York accent, drawn rapidly and with verve. The later drawings for Mickey Finn are elegant and controlled, well suited to a “story” strip that was printed each day in hundreds of newspapers.
I submit that the draftsman’s complexity is a reflection of the man. For all his ability at the drawing board—where he often drew funny pictures in the small hours of the morning—I believe his most impressive accomplishments were informed by his social awareness. As a young man, Weiss proposed that the National Cartoonists Society start a fund to aid its indigent members, an idea wisely adopted. In the early 1970s he wrote and drew a storyline for Mickey Finn about a then nearly unknown issue, the strain on a young family raising an autistic child. In real life, Weiss and his wife founded the Miami Society for Autistic Children and became deeply involved in providing care and education for autistic children in general, and for my younger brother in particular.
It should be no surprise that I’m anything but objective. As a boy I watched the production of comic strips, from the development of a gag or story through the penciling, ruling, lettering, inking and, last of all, the addition of solid black areas with an ink-laden brush. It was hard work. As I grew up, I became so intent on distancing myself from comics and illustration—the very arts that first inspired me—that I didn’t always take a fair measure of my parents’ gifts. As I write this now and look again at his cartoons, I’m newly appreciative of my father’s proficiency with pen and ink. I love him for being my father and friend, and I’m proud of him as an artist. I’ve had the great fortune to live with his art but, more importantly, I’ve had the great fortune to learn from him the art of living.
Jerry N. Weiss is a contributing editor for The Artist’s Magazine. Visit his website at
Read more from the July/August 2011 issue of The Artist’s Magazine to learn about other artists’ interesting lives.
MORE RESOURCES FOR ARTISTS