Gus Arriola and the Comic Strip That Never Was
Almost. Until Now.
WHEN I VISITED HIM IN CARMEL, GUS ARRIOLA sometimes introduced me to his friends by saying, “He’s the man who knows where all the warts are buried”—or words to that effect. He was exaggerating. He usually introduced the late Carmel cartoonist Bill Bates as “the father of our country” because Bates had so many children. The allusion was a little vague so Bates felt obliged to explain, which he did: “He says that because I have so many children.” Bates then did the decent thing: he refrained from pulling out a wallet and showing us photographs of all his kids.
Gus was flattering me because I’d written a book about his life and career and creation, the comic strip Gordo, which, from 1941 until 1985, retailed the humorous adventures and amorous preoccupations of a portly Mexican bean farmer, his perspicacious nephew, the menagerie of their farm animals, and the other citizens of their village. Published in 2000, the book is entitled Accidental Ambassador Gordo because of the strip’s unique evolution. (And we offer it for sale at this very place; click on Online Store at the left, and you’ll be transported immediately to where you can find an elaborate description of the tome.)
At first, Arriola’s depiction of his characters perpetuated the stereotypical imagery of Mexicans found in Hollywood and American popular culture. Eventually, however, Gus realized his comic strip was one of the few mass promulgations in the United States that portrayed Mexicans, and in the 1950s, he began to take pains to reflect accurately the culture south of the border. Converting his protagonist to a tour guide in the 1960s, Gus was able to regale American readers with many aspects of Mexican folklore, history, and art in an entertaining (but informative) fashion, winning awards and accolades for his efforts.
Because the animal (and, later, insect) characters in the strip had always been one of its chief attractions, Arriola was creatively positioned to stump for ecological concerns, and he was one of the earliest figures in popular culture to do so. Gus was also a supremely inventive stylist, and his artwork always displayed visual qualities unusual for a comic strip, including, on Sunday, stunning fiestas of color and design.
I loved the strip. All of my life, it seems, I’ve loved it. When I was a teenager aspiring to be a cartoonist, I apprenticed myself to Gus’ drawing style and tried to imitate the way he made lines wax and wane in symphonic undulation. Like all kids aspiring to be cartoonists, I copied the characters of the cartoonists whose work I admired. And the idols changed week by week. That is the apprenticeship of cartooning. I copied Popeye for a while. Then Shadow in Harold Teen. Dozens more. But I never copied Gordo or any of the characters in the strip. I copied the way Gus drew, not what he drew. It was the last stage in my apprenticeship.
It was my admiration for the strip that prompted me when I met Gus in 1997 to suggest that I do a book about him and his creation. He consented, and so I wrote the book and became, by Gus’s estimation, the one who knew where all the warts were.
In my conceit, glowing a little at Gus’s accolade, I would surrender, for a moment, to the idea that I did know about all the warts. But of course I didn’t. The book navigates the main currents of Arriola’s life and the history of one of this country’s most remarkable comic strips, but it doesn’t—it can’t—include all the warts of Gus’s life any more than it can include all of the triumphs and beauty marks.
I found that out fairly soon after the book was published. I got an e-mail from a man or woman, can’t remember which, who wanted to get in touch with Gus’s wife, Frances, because Frances had once, briefly, been married to my would-be correspondent’s father or uncle or some other kind of relative before being married to Gus. Fortunately, I had the sense to ask Gus before passing along his and Frances’s mailing address. Gus said Frances wanted to forget about the misbegotten marriage of her youth and didn’t want to hear from her previous husband of short duration or from any of his relatives. So I did nothing.
Before that exchange, I never knew Frances had been previously married. A wart that had escaped my gimlet-eyed research.
Not gimlet-eyed at all. In the book, I tell the story of Gordo, how the strip evolved, and I hit the high spots in Gus’s career—his initiation into cartooning by way of animation, how Gordo was invented and sold, and the agonies of producing a comic strip every day, day after day after day. And I trace the outlines of Gus’s life, his growing up in Florence, Arizona, moving to Los Angeles, then, after a stint in the army air corps, to La Jolla and Phoenix (where he dined once, by invitation, at Frank Lloyd Wright’s), and finally settling in Carmel, where he met his life-long friend and fellow cartoonist, Eldon Dedini, and they both became fixtures at Doc’s Lab, where Hank Ketcham and other habitues of the place met weekly to admire jazz and tell stories.
But a friendly and admiring biographer doesn’t probe much or very deeply. I found the “story” of Gus’s life and career and was content with that. I didn’t dig deep enough to find Frances’ first marriage (although how I might have found that I can’t say). Nor did I know about Pussy Willow.
I didn’t find out about Pussy Willow until I visited Gus for what turned out to be the last time, the summer of 2006. I usually stopped overnight in Carmel on my way back from the San Diego Comic-Con every year. And Gus took me to the Tuesday morning meeting of his coffee klatch with Dedini, Bates, sometimes Hank Ketcham, Dennis Renault, an editorial cartoonist who had retired to Monterey from the Sacramento Bee, and a couple others, artists and poets all.
I usually arrived in Carmel on Monday afternoon, and in the evenings, I took Gus and Frances out to dinner (saying it was for his birthday). On the way out of their house, Gus always paused at the hatstand near the front door to pick a hat. Several dangled on their hooks—a beret, a broad-brimmed Panama, and a couple others. Gus picked the head gear appropriate to the occasion. The Panama made him look like a Spanish grandee, and when going out in public in Carmel, he often more that. He was a well-known local dignitary, and he evidently felt that he had to play the part of the cartoonist who drew the most widely known comic strip about Mexico and Mexicans this side of the border.
Before we left for coffee on this Tuesday, Gus and I were upstairs in his studio, and he pulled out a flat oblong package and unwrapped it. “I don’t know if you’ve ever seen these,” he said, laying the contents of the package on the drawing board. Six comic strip originals. But they weren’t Gordo strips. No, I hadn’t seen them. I’d never seen them. Warts galore.
“I sent these to my syndicate,” Gus was saying, “but they weren’t interested.”
Confronted by these wholly unforeseen artifacts, I was so flabbergasted that I failed to ask any questions. So much for reportorial acumen and biographer’s compulsions. If Gus told me then when he did the strips, I’ve forgotten. Or I wasn’t listening. Too engaged in being flabbergasted.
I have the impression that he did these strips after he’d retired in 1985 from doing Gordo. As I reflect upon it, I’m a little amazed. Gus did not enjoy life with deadlines, the life of a daily comic strip cartoonist. Why, after he’d finally escaped that life, would he want to return to it?
Perhaps, despite the unrelenting pressure of the calendar’s clock, he missed doing a comic strip.
Or maybe my impression is wrong: maybe Gus conjured up this strip about a cat and its mistress before he retired from Gordo. That’s more likely.
One of the things that probably made doing Gordo tough in its last years was the presence in the strip of Gordo’s nephew, Pepito. Over the years, Pepito had become more and more a reflection of Gus’s son Carlin as the boy grew into adolescence and then young manhood. But Carlin had died of injuries received in an automobile accident in 1980. Gus couldn’t help but be reminded of Carlin every time he drew Pepito—even when he drew Gordo.
So maybe what Gus wanted to do by retiring from Gordo was to escape reminders of his deceased son. And maybe he couldn’t, right then, afford to retire, so he came up with another strip idea, something with no one like Pepito in it. And when that didn’t sell, he had to keep on with Gordo for another four or five years, until, at last, he thought he could afford to retire.
But I don’t actually know when, or why, the strip was created: I was too overwhelmed by the discovery of another wart—and by the beauty of the drawings in the strips—to ask the relevant questions.
“It’s called Pussy Willow,” Gus said, as he spread the strips out before me. “It’s about a cat.”
It was also about the cat’s mistress, Miss Willow, whose cat, the eponymous Pussy Willow, often called her “Willi.” A pleasingly plump single lady, she was, as you can tell, exactly the sort of person who owned and doted on a cat.
Gus was renowned for his ability to draw cats. Charles Schulz, who couldn’t draw a cat and therefore was forced to leave Snoopy’s feline nemesis forever off camera, once wrote at length about Gus and drawing cats:
“Cats are hard to draw. I would say that trying to draw a good cat is like trying to draw a good Christmas tree. You have to decide at the very beginning if you are going to draw every detail on the tree or if you are going to go for a broad design and draw only the outline like little kids do who are in the first grade. I never have been able completely to solve the problem and I once even had a cat in my own comic strip, but when I compared him with Gus’s cat, I knew I was in over my head. My admiration for the drawing that Gus puts into Gordo knows no bounds. Gus can draw anything. Better than that, Gus can cartoon anything, and there is a world of difference. I know that Gus can cartoon a good Christmas tree, and we certainly know that he has solved the problem of cartooning a good cat. Now drawing is only half the problem. A good cartoonist has to understand his subject, and you will quickly agree that Gus understands cats. He understands how you can love a cat, and he also understands how you can hate a cat. There are lots of things about cats that drive us crazy, and Gus understands these things.”
Some of Gus’s understanding of cats had been derived directly from personal experience of a cat named Smelly Dave. A member of the Arriola household for a time, Smelly Dave had been a rich source of gags.
The animal had showed up on their doorstep one day, a stray with fleas and an empty stomach and a heart-rending mew. They took him in and fed him and bathed him and named him. He was named after a whale.
They had been listening to a Bob and Ray radio sketch in which the low-keyed madcap comedy duo toured the country with a dead whale packed in ice. The whale’s name, naturally, was Smelly Dave. And now, with a logic that Bob and Ray would have enthusiastically endorsed, the name was applied to the cat.
Gus liked to remember how Smelly Dave had destroyed two myths about cats at once. Carlin had built a ramp at the window in his room so the cat could enter and leave the house at will. One night, they were all awakened by the sound of Smelly’s stumbling around in Carlin’s room. The cat had entered through the window but in walking across the darkened room to get to another room in the house, the cat had encountered Carlin’s big tennis shoes in the middle of the floor—and stumbled over them.
A cat stumbling! So much for the notion that cats are light on their feet.
And they can’t see in the dark either. Obviously.
Watching Smelly Dave had been a rewarding educational exercise for the cartoonist. The cat loved to get into Frances’ lap, for example. In fact, when the phone rang, the cat raced for the phone: Smelly knew Frances would sit on the chair next to the phone, and then there’d be a lap to get into.
Sometimes, Frances joked, Smelly was in her lap before she could answer the phone. This trait of their cat had been transposed directly into the strip when Gordo acquired a housekeeper. Gordo’s cat, Poosy Gato, headed for her lap anytime it was in evidence.
The same feline proclivity is in evidence in this batch of six strips that Gus’s syndicate wasn’t interested in and that have seen publication only once before (in The Comics Journal 301 in 2011). Here, Gus clearly planned to exploit his ability to draw—to cartoon—cats and his understanding of them.
Cat lovers are the poorer for not having Pussy Willow around in our newspapers, when we had newspapers with comics sections. Garfield is okay as a comic strip character, but he’s no cat. Not anymore. And Pussy Willow is all cat. And he will be that way, now, forever.
Let me conclude with two more pictures of Gus.
The first, on the left, pictures Gus in his heyday as Gordo’s creator; on the right, Gus as it was my privilege to know him in his last years.