Making the World Safe for Insanity
The cartoonist who signs his work "Vip"—which is not his name; nor are they his initials, as we might suppose—got into the funny pictures racket because he wanted to make a living sitting down. Or so it is alleged. Nearly six feet tall and weighing about 200 pounds, he could take a lot of sitting down. He eventually made a living at it—a very good living from time to time—but it was not without a high cost to his psyche. Almost as soon as he started making the living he was hoping for, he started worrying, too. Vip (the orthography I prefer) was a champion worrier. His sense of foreboding was doubtless fostered by the many rejection slips that he endured when he was first starting out. According to his friend, newspaperman Phil Porter, "He got used to rejections because there used to be so many magazines, but now that several have folded, he worries even more. He even worries that the postal employees may go on strike while he has some cartoons in the mail, ostensibly en route to magazines."
Vip told Porter: "I can't stop worrying. I invent worries. Even after 30 years of making a living at this business, I feel my career is precarious. I can always find dark clouds even though the sun is shining. But I have a plan," he continued, "to consolidate my worries. I'm going to try to find a shrink who can talk all my worries from my head down to my arm, then to my hand, then finally down to one long finger nail. Then—wham! —all I have to do is clip the finger nail, and all my worries will be gone."
The logic is, like most of Vip's logic, irrefutable. Nor are any of the facts of his earliest form of life refutable. He was born Virgil Franklin Partch II on October 17, 1916 on St. Paul Island, one of the Pribilof Islands (as he was fond of saying, probably because Pribilof is a word no one has ever heard of) near Alaska, the son of Paul Chester Partch, an electrician in the U.S. Navy, and Anna Pavaloff, housewife, who was one of 17 children, all born in the Russian community on Woody Island just off the coast of Kodiak. When Anna was 14, a volcano 90 miles northwest of the island erupted and deposited 18 inches of ash all over the Woody Russians, damaging the naval radio station and creating the cosmic breech that permitted the Pavaloffs and the Partches to coincide. Paul Partch was born in Ning Po, China, where his parents (his father is Vip's namesake) were Presbyterian missionaries, part of a 19th century American evangelical enthusiasm for making good Christians of the Chinese. The Partches returned to the U.S. shortly after the notorious Boxer Uprising in 1900, when Paul was about ten. As he grew up, he traveled around the West, attempting, briefly, a career as a prizefighter before enlisting in the Navy at the age of 19 and pursuing an interest in the new technology of radio. In 1915, he and the crew of the USS Prometheus put in at Woody Island to repair the radio station. Paul met Anna, they married, moved to the navy base on St. Paul Island, and had Virgil, named for his grandfather and denominated "the second" in blatant disregard, typical of Vip, for the conventions of dynastic succession, which usually did not skip generations but kept to a strict numerical order.
In accordance with petty office Partch's orders, the family moved often to a succession of naval radio stations in Kodiak, Sitka, Dutch Harbor, and Puget Sound. Anna contracted tuberculosis which worsened with the severity of the northern climate, and as a result, Partch was able to secure orders to warmer naval bases in San Francisco and San Diego. The young Vip reportedly attended a number of one-room schools, about which he said: "I was always the new boy who was a stranger, ripe for getting beat up. I wasn't big enough to fight, so I began to tell jokes to make the other kids laugh so they wouldn't slug me. By the time my father put in his twenty years in the Navy and retired, I was the fastest kid in school with a one-liner." He also drew pictures and played football. When Partch pere retired from the Navy in 1929, the family moved to Tucson, Arizona, where Virgil enrolled in Roskruge Junior High School and developed, entirely by accident, his famous nom de plume. He signed his drawings with his initials, but, as he explained, "my writing wasn't so hot and the initials looked like V-I-P to my classmates." Shyly, Virgil declined to correct their misapprehension and was Vip ever after.
Home life was rendered somewhat picturesque by Virgil's father, who did the cooking. A bookish man, his dietary notions were influenced by whatever he happened to be reading at the time. According to Newsweek: "If it was Roman history, the family dined on tough-fibered meats, rabbits, and a concoction made of rabbits' eyes. Vip claims that chicken feed was a regular on the breakfast menu." The family lived in an apartment for several years, then the elder Partch, with Virgil's help, build an adobe house in Halcyon Road. It had two bedrooms and wood floors throughout except in the bedroom shared by Virgil and his younger brother James ("Bud"), where the boys trod concrete.
Attending Tucson High School, Virgil drew cartoons for the school newspaper, the Cactus Chronicle, and played football and basketball. He entered the University of Arizona in the fall of 1936 as an art major and worked on the campus humor magazine, the Kitty Kat, producing one cartoon that achieved vast circulation: depicting a sailor and an admiral in a somewhat off-color joke, the drawing was reprinted in other magazines and eventually turned up as a comic postcard. Upon completing his freshman year, Partch left Arizona for Los Angeles to attend the Chouinard Art Institute, which, he knew, functioned as a training school for the Disney Studios, his ultimate destination. While matriculating, he subsisted, according to his own report, on ten cents a day for food (beans and bananas) and $3.34 a month for rent. After six months and a total investment of $38.04, he took the Disney qualifying test but failed; he was subsequently hired in December 1937 as a messenger boy.
"Traffic boys were called the flat-foot flyers," Partch later said; "they delivered anything from coffee and doughnuts to pianos. Film cans usually served as carrying trays." He arrived as the considerable popularity of Disney's first feature-length cartoon, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," was cresting. When Mickey Mouse debuted in 1928, the Studio staff numbered about 25; by late 1937, the number was close to 800, and employees progressed in a somewhat orderly fashion up a talent hierarchy as their skills developed. Partch soon graduated from running errands to in-betweening, drawing the scores of incremental pictures that traced the movement of a figure from one key position to the next in an animated sequence. Then he became an assistant animator, working with one of Disney's famed "Nine Old Men," Ollie Johnston, on "Bambi." He also worked in the story department for a time. Even by May 1938, however, Partch felt secure enough as a breadwinner to marry an 18-year-old art student, Helen Marie Aldridge, whom he had met at a party a month before. She took up sculpture, and they had three children, two boys and a girl, despite several intervals of separation that dotted their 46-year marriage.
Like all of his animation colleagues, Partch doodled comic drawings in his spare time, caricaturing his fellow workers, lampooning their efforts, and commemorating comically incidents that might have transpired in their work cubicles or on the volley-ball court during lunch hour. Animation is essentially factory work, and Partch may not have felt entirely comfortable in the medium. As famed animator Chuck Jones once said: "The basic difference between animation and still cartoons is that the animated character is not basically funny to look at. But Vip was so good at drawing funny characters he found animation really inhibiting." What's more, in drawing funny pictures—gag cartoons—the cartoonist flies solo, soaring or crashing as his talent determines. His work is all his: it isn't a part of everyone else's. Many of Partch's "classmates" at the Disney Academy doubtless felt the same and left animation for success and fame in magazine cartooning—Sam Cobean, Claude Smith, Hank Syverson, and Eldon Dedini, to name a few—and some graduated to syndicated fame in newspapers—Walt Kelly (Pogo), Hank Ketcham (Dennis the Menace), Dan Tobin (The Little Woman), and George Baker (Sad Sack). But Partch's career at Disney was cut short by external factors rather than personal volition.
Union organizers had been pressuring Disney for months to unionize his shop, and matters came to a head on May 29, 1941, when a picket line formed in front of the gate to the new studio in Burbank. Many of Disney's employees crossed the picket line, but Partch did not. And he never returned to the Mouse Factory. The strike lasted nine weeks; government negotiators arranged a settlement, and by August, everyone was back at work. But not Partch. Partch's version of his career at Disney is cryptic. "I was a messenger boy longer than anyone else there ever was," he once said. "Finally they sent me upstairs to the art department, where I worked on 'Pinocchio,' 'Bambi,' 'Fantasia' and others. I specialized in fawns, girls and little children. Then one day in 1941, they didn't want any more of these, and I was out." Newsweek asserts that Partch was fired in the aftermath of the strike, but that, like much of Vip's autobiographical insight, isn't likely: under the terms of the union settlement, Disney was required to take back all strikers. More likely—Partch took the opportunity the strike afforded him to leave animation and take up magazine cartooning.
He had sold a few gags to The New Yorker before that fated year. It seemed, perhaps, that the field of magazine cartooning was beckoning him. He was drawing an unemployment check of $18 and felt hopeful. For many previous months, Partch and two other Disney cartoonists, Hank Ketcham and Dick Shaw, had been meeting regularly in their off hours to brainstorm gags for magazine cartoons. They kept on meeting through the strike and afterwards. It was deadly stuff, said Partch: "We would arrive with blank paper and get our coffee set up, and this was very serious business. You'd hardly find any laughing at all during a conference in which we were doping out what we thought was hilarious."
Ketcham, describing their sessions in his autobiography, The Merchant of Dennis, said one of the trio would come up with a concept, and then the other two would supply a comic twist. Partch, said Ketcham, always topped them with the best twist, but according to Ketcham, Partch entered the magazine cartooning field almost against his will. Partch was terribly shy and usually threw all his "masterful thumbnail sketches" into the wastebasket at the end of the session. "Shaw and I couldn't stand it," Ketcham went on, "so we recovered the bits and pieces and Shaw's wife Katie ironed them back into shape. Dick then sent the batch to Gurney Williams, cartoon editor at Collier's, and the rest is history."
Williams himself once recounted the history in the introduction to a 1954 collection of Partch cartoons, The Dead Game Sportsmen. "In every quarter of the globe, I am referred to as the Collier's editor who 'discovered' Partch. Faugh! The boy who first knew that Partch was needed in the magazine and book publishing business was cartoonist Dick Shaw, bosom Partch pal. ... Back in 1942, he (Shaw) beat Virgil over the head at increasingly frequent intervals until our subject mailed four drawings to my office. Not being a moronic baboon at the time, I bought all four. The following week, I received more Partch drawings, ... and I bought them all. This proves I'm a brilliant editor. It is to laugh, son. ... I am partial to Partch because, despite the incomparable quality of his pleasingly grotesque work, he has never consulted a psychiatrist. Half a dozen harried psychiatrists, however, have dropped in on Partch and have gone away in a more cheerful frame of mind." The first published Vip cartoon appeared in Collier's for February 14, 1942; the celebrated Vip signature, fashioned, as Joel Goldstein put it so admirably, "through the alchemy of mistaken identity," didn't appear in Collier's until that year's July 4 issue.
Partch's success with Collier's was followed in short order with similar reception at the Saturday Evening Post, Liberty, This Week, and numerous others, including, eventually, True, a magazine purporting to be for men. True was admirably suited for hosting Vip's cartoons: its editors were nearly as lunatic as the cartoonist, as we can tell from this description of their first encounters with Vip's reputed genius. "Back in 1945, we were looking around for a cartoonist with a style zany enough to illustrate the 'Truly Yours' [letter] column. None seemed at liberty; then an associate editor suffering from jug bite suggested Partch. A letter was dispatched, after considerable digging to learn where he lived, detailing at pontifical length just what was wanted. Partch was then in the Army, attached in some vague manner to the Fort Ord Panorama, and his wife acted as go-between. There is nothing to the rumor that his sketches had to be smuggled past censors. Private Partch (later made corporal) seemingly ignored the pontifical letter, said, 'Will do,' and turned out just what we were vainly trying to outline in the first place. His first 'Truly Yours' work appeared in October 1945. After that we made timid suggestions on ideas and size—most of them blithely ignored—and finally just bundled up some of the best letters each month and sent them out to California and said draw something. We don't consider this temperament; it's a man who knows his job. Once or twice Vip sent in a cartoon that gave us a few bad moments matching it up with a letter that made sense, but otherwise he bats out his work fast (often with alternate cartoons just to flatter the editor), makes little or no comment, meets all deadlines unless you ask for something yesterday, and cooperates smoothly from across the continent unless we forget to mail his check."
True's cartoon editors—a succession including Will Lieberson, Burtt Evans, and Clyde Carley at least—were infected with a sense of humor almost as bizarre as Partch's, inspiring issues' full of wonderfully zany cartoons. At True, Partch became a fixture of the magazine, embellishing the letters column and other miscellaneous departments with antic spot drawings (a few of which we've included in the gallery at the end of this exegesis), and he was often the subject of articles and was invariably referred to, with vague menace, as "the Vipper." Ralph Stein was another True regular and was described by the editors with the same carefree disregard for the facts.
Almost at once, wherever his cartoons appeared, Partch's manic artwork inspired alarm because of his nonchalance about ordinary anatomy. He may have been among the first to discard such niceties almost entirely, striving instead for approximations of the human figure that served his comedic purposes and no other. In his early cartoons, drawn with a supple brush stroke, bodies are drawn in simple outline, lumpish shapes without modeling or anatomical detail, and they stand rigidly, feet braced far apart, arms dangling meaninglessly at their sides. Heads are all nose and chin: noses, all of the large pointed variety, start at the top of the skull without bothering about foreheads and are punctuated on either side by tiny pop-eyes. Mouths bristle with bared horse teeth. As repeated executions of this desecration of the human form took place, the rough edges wore off: noses got larger, eyeballs bulged more, and anatomy became more angular all over—heads rectangular, jaws ponderously lantern. And Partch's line took a sharp turn to brittle whimsicality by means of a pen instead of a brush.
"Some people dislike my distortions," he once said. "The strange part is, I rather prided myself in my anatomical studies while in school. Such academicians as Rico LeBrun smiled on me and patted my hair for my ability at putting the old muscles and bones together. But why does a gag drawing need muscles and bones?"
A frequent objection was made to his unabashed disregard of the number of fingers that are customarily issued with each human hand. With the giddy abandon of footloose youth, Vip produced hands with fistfuls of fingers—five, six, seven, however many fell, uncounted, from his pen or brush. To those who carped about his anatomical irresponsibility, Partch reposited patiently: "I draw a stock hand when it is doing something, such as pointing, but when the hand is hanging by some guy's side, those old fingers go in by the dozens. And why not? At Disney's studio, I spent four years drawing three fingers and a thumb. I'm just making up for that anatomical crime."
The extravagance of his graphic inventions inspired similar excess among those who attempted to describe what they saw going on in front of them. In Newsweek: "The line drawings of Partch's angular and rectangular characters have something in common with the tragic figures of Picasso's Spanish War 'Guernica' ... But Partch's men, with their bushy or bald heads, pop eyes, bird-beak noses and cavernous mouths have their own particular brand of frenzied insanity, which makes them funny in almost any situation." Partch's cartoons, said Goldstein, "made a style of drawing and thinking, with roots in cubism, surrealism and dada, part of America's daily life." And Collier's movie scribe Kyle Crichton thought Partch's work "revealed plain signs of a pathological condition." The anonymous author of the Partch entry in Current Biography (1946) noted that "a Vip character sometimes wears an expression of dazed or wondering imbecility, but more often is glaring at some person or thing with fanatic intensity. ... One Partch admirer has said, 'the cartoons are funny if you enjoy remembering your nightmares.'" But it is not recommended, according to another critic, that Partch's cartoons "be probed and examined for deep hidden meanings."
Partch's sense of humor was as wildly distorted as his rendition of human anatomy. "Vip's gags," Goldstein said, "while seeming to take place in the mundane world, subvert all the trappings of realism and the familiar, taking us to a place where the extreme meets the literal." That first Collier's cartoon depicts a cluster of surgeons around a patient on the operating table, all seriously at work; the patient's arm extends out from under the sheet, his hand being ministered to by an attending manicurist. In another specimen, a man walking along is soaked to the skin because it is raining only under the umbrella he's carrying. Here's a man exercising on a rowing machine who is startled to see shark fins protruding from the floor all around him. Two fliers have crashed in the desert, and one is busily pumping up an inflatable rubber camel while the other says, "What if we had cracked up at sea?" One of my favorites: a couple is standing before a funhouse mirror, and she is smiling at her distorted reflection that we, too, see in the mirror; we don't see her companion whose hand she is holding while standing next to him, but we see his reflection, and it is of an entirely normal human male. In another mirror gag, a man looking at his reflection sees only the back of his head.
Many of Vip's cartoons give a literal interpretation to a common expression. A man says of his pet, who is depicted with the head and front paws of a dog and, at the other end, the legs and buttocks of a human baby, "He's almost human." During World War II, two soldiers are seated at a bar, and one turns to another man, naked, on the next barstool and says, "We've been wondering why you're not in uniform." A man walking along looks back over his shoulder at a woman whom he and his male friend have just passed, saying, "Boy! If looks could kill, eh, Steve?" Steve does not react; he sprawls dead on the sidewalk beside the speaker. A bartender is filling a glass and the whiskey pours in a zigzag pattern; the thirsty patron watches angrily and says, "I ordered straight whiskey." Gags of this breed offer a vivid demonstration of how the verbal and the visual blend in the classic gag cartoon manner in which neither the words nor the pictures achieve a comedic meaning alone without the other.
Partch was drafted shortly after becoming famous (or, perhaps, while becoming famous).
Inducted September 23, 1944, he found himself at Fort Ord, California, where he became the unintended victim of military boondoggle on a grand scale. As Vip later described it: "I was in the infantry and orders had been cut to send me from Fort Ord to somewhere in the Pacific. But a guy who saw my name on the shipping list called Mrs. Stilwell, wife of the commanding general—Joseph W., known as Vinegar Joe, who later became commander of the whole China-Burma-India shebang—and said, 'Do you think the general would be interested in a cartoonist for the Fort Ord Panorama?' My orders were changed and I was on the staff of Panorama, as cartoonist, business manager, circulation director and art director. It was a wonderful way to fight the war. I lived off the base and had a beautiful blonde lady chauffeur. I had to put in at least an hour a day. Never more than six hours a week."
A series of Partch's military-themed cartoons called "Vip's War" reportedly appeared in one of the magazines that regularly bought his work (Collier's perhaps; dunno—I couldn't find any under that heading, although, truth to tell, my search was scarcely exhaustive). The first book collection of his Collier's cartoons, It's Hot in Here, was published in 1944, to be followed by about sixteen more. Meanwhile, Partch, while still in the service, continued to freelance cartoons to magazines with sufficient time left over to increase his income by illustrating ads for such products as Wheaties cereal, Smith Brothers cough drops, Briggs pipe tobacco, and Squirt soda. He also illustrated Morton Thompson's humorous novel, Joe the Wounded Tennis Player (1945). After his discharge on July 1, 1946, Partch illustrated a strangely disproportionate number of tomes having to do with adult beverages. From the first of these, Bottle Fatigue (1950), we derive the following insight into the man:
"Flinging himself into the study of this challenging matter, Vip left no glass unturned, no drink unbottled, no bottle undrunk, etc. Leaving statistics to the statisticians, analysis to the analysts, facts to the factories, data to the dataist, Vip went straight to the sources. Often he worked until the wee small hours of the night, crawling home exhausted from his studies, numb with the impact of startling discoveries, quivering and all but incoherent with surmise. ..." You get the idea.
Partch illustrated several bar guides and these, together with six thematic volumes he produced for Duell, Sloan & Pearce, established Vip as the comic expert on booze and babes, exactly the cartoonist that Hugh Hefner chose to share the cover of the inaugural issue of Playboy with Marilyn Monroe. Vip's drawing, of a cavorting naked lady, appears very small, compared to Marilyn, under the heading "Vip on Sex." About his Playboy work, Vip saith: "Mine is the only clean stuff because I can't draw nipples." But, adds Phil Porter, "He's very good at drawing cleavage. I can testify to that: some years ago, he sent my wife and me a cartoon showing a woman with three breasts. The caption said, 'It's that little something extra that counts.'"
In 1950, Partch moved from North Hollywood to Balboa Island where he took up boating and joined the Balboa Island Sculling and Punting Club. "Inasmuch as half the members are very wealthy people and the other half are bums," Partch wrote, "we call our first boat the Number One Boat and the last boat the Bum Boat. I'm number three sweep in the Bum Boat." (We have a self-caricature of the Vipper in full bumboat regalia in our gallery.) Late in the decade, the Partches moved again, this time to Corona Del Mar, where they built a house overlooking the ocean.
Partch began a typical day at 5 a.m., seated at a light table, doodling and occasionally giggling. "That's one of the advantages of working at home," he said. "You can giggle at your own work. If you were in an office and did it, your colleagues would figure you were ready for the funny farm." Usually, he'd finished his day's work by noon, which was when his friends and drinking companions, mostly night people, arose and started phoning him. Partch enjoyed bars but not for the booze as much as the conversation. "You here a lot of talk in bars," he explained, "—more than you'd hear in a public library. A bar is a good idea place."
In 1960, Partch started a syndicated feature called Big George. And in 1977, he launched another syndicated strip, The Captain's Gig. Neither feature, according to Ketcham, was vintage Vip. "The syndicate officials should have had the confidence to give Partch his head and let him run, maybe even calling the feature 'Vip,' but they didn't. They chickened out and told him to design a character, something they could merchandise, someone to whom the readers could relate. Virgil then came up with Big George and grudgingly produced it, with a bunch of pussyfooting editors looking over his shoulder. They surely did not get their money's worth, and the multitude of Partch fans felt cheated."
The character of Big George was distinctly not Vippish. Just a typical loud-mouthed irascible husband and father, a little heavyset with a pointy nose and a moustache—in short, an entirely conventional newspaper comic character. He appeared in panel cartoons during the week; in a strip on Sundays. Here he is, buying a hot dog from street vendor's cart; the vendor holds up a card for George to read, and George says,"No, I'm not interested in seeing your wine list." We see George through the window of his house, yelling, "Helen! The dog wants in." And the dog is on its hind legs, pounding on the front door. George, his coat, tie and shirt draped over his arm, is walking down the street with his doctor, who says, "Blast it, George, you'll make an office appointment like all my other patients, see?" Scarcely any evidence of the maniacal muse that animated Vip's magazine cartoons for two decades. Partch even eliminated the superfluous fingers that had always festooned his people before.
Vip's eyesight, always marginal, began to fade but only, apparently, in the real world. He gave up driving, leaving that to his wife. At the drawingboard, he could see well enough to continue producing his cartoons albeit at a larger size than earlier in his career. He was diagnosed with tuberculosis and cataracts at about the same time, 1971. Writing to a newspaper friend, Phil Porter, Partch said he discovered the cataracts while in the TB ward, where he was trying to catch up to his deadlines. "A couple papers ditched me because I was a hair late," he wrote, and he resolved to get far enough ahead that he'd never have to worry about an immediately looming deadline again. Then came the alarm. "I discovered one morning that I couldn't see to draw—couldn't even draw a margin," he exclaimed. "The eye freaks gave me drops which dilated the pupil, thus allowing me to see around the faulty spot in my lens. So with that stroke of luck, I immediately set up a work schedule to get six weeks ahead of my deadlines in order to have the eye operation. It was easy to do two days work every day since in the hospital I couldn't spend long lunches in bars."
Despite continuing eyesight problems (macular degeneration this time), Partch adhered to his regimen faithfully, eventually resorting to a vision-enhancing apparatus that engravers and watch repairmen use (pictured on his cranium in one of the self-portraits we've included above). He was two years ahead of his deadline on Big George when he and his wife, who, as usual, was driving, were killed in an auto accident shortly after noon on August 10, 1984. Their Chevy sedan smashed into the rear end of a slower moving pickup truck on Interstate Highway 5 just north of Los Angeles. The driver of the pickup told the highway police that he had been driving about 50 miles an hour when the Partches rear-ended his truck. At 68, Vip was too young to die, and so his death was untimely and tragic. But it was also, somehow, a fitting conclusion to a cartooning career distinguished by absurdity. Here's a too short gallery of his work, including a tiny smattering of the sport illos he produced for True's letter column as well as cartoons.
Bibliography. A little of Partch's biography can been pieced together from the dust jackets of his books. The most extensive treatment of his life and career until 1949 is by Joel Goldstein, "Inspired Idiocy: The Early Life and Work of Virgil Partch," in Comic Art, No. 6, Spring 2004. Philip W. Porter wrote a memoir about his friend in Cartoonist PROfiles, No. 31, September 1976. Partch's books, in order of publication, are: It's Hot in Here (1944), Water on the Brain (1945), Joe, the Wounded Tennis Player (illustrations), Bottle Fatigue (1950), Here We Go Again (1951), The Wild, Wild Women (1951), Man the Beast (1953), The Dead Game Sportsman (1954), Hanging Way Over (1955), Crazy Cartoons (1956), The Executive (1959), New Faces on the Barroom Floor (1961), Cartoons Out of My Head (1964), Relations in Strange Locations (1978), Vip's Quips (1975), Big George (1962). An obituary appears in The New York Times, August 12, 1984.