The Gus Arriola Interview
(Editor’s note: This interview was originally published in Hogan’s Alley #6)
While Gus Arriola’s Gordo could never claim the prize as Most Misunderstood Comic Strip of its day (that dubious honor must certainly be reserved for Krazy Kat), Gordo remains an impressive contender for runner-up. During those pre-NAFTA days, when most Anglo-Americans envisioned Mexico as a strange and far-off land peopled by inhabitants preoccupied with siestas and banditry, comic-strip readers found Gordo a strange bird indeed. To an audience whose exposure to Mexican culture was largely Cisco Kid films, compared to such WASPy strips as Blondie, Little Orphan Annie and Steve Canyon, Gordo must have seemed unintelligible to the average reader, what with its dialect and exotic locales, and later even more so when it delved into pop-art graphics illustrating Mexican culture and traditions. When Arriola’s love of puns and wordplay appeared (strips were often signed with comical pen names such as “Alla Twitter” and “Bea Aware”), the result was a comic strip teeming with personalized whimsy, poetry and graphic expression unseen since George Herriman and, unfortunately for Arriola, almost as unappreciated by the garden-variety newspaper editor. The sentiment is echoed by an anonymous colleague of Gus’ from his animation days at MGM who recently said, “I admired Gus’ work on Gordo a great deal. He worked his tail end off, but the strip never had mass appeal. I always had the feeling I was seeing something created for Gus and a small group of intimates.” Dennis the Menace creator Hank Ketcham more succinctly analyzed Gordo by commenting, “Gus was like Adlai Stevenson. He was the right man for the job, but at the wrong time. Today, the strip would be a big hit.”
As the Joanie Mitchell tune goes, it would appear we didn’t realize what we had until it was gone, and even dedicated comic-strip aficionados systematically underappraise Gordo to the point that it merits the slightest of references in strip histories. The 44-year odyssey of Arriola’s stereotypical Mexican bean farmer turned suave romantic taxi driver/poet remains in dire need of reanalysis and, certainly, archival reprinting. Many focus on Arriola’s last period during the 1960s and 1970s, which featured highly imaginative graphics heavily laden with vignettes of Mexican and Aztec cultures. Actually, this phase was the last of four quarters forming the entirety of the strip’s development. From its debut months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 to the end of the decade, Arriola’s animation background is extremely evident in the layout, plots and design of the characters. From the late 1940s to the early 1950s, Gordo was actually something of an adventure strip with humorous interludes. The Sunday pages of the 1950s feature far more lithely rendered characters and showcase the children of the strip, almost a Mexican version of Peanuts or Miss Peach. Finally, the aforementioned pop-art period from the late 1960s to the strip’s demise in 1985 when Arriola drew the curtain by having Gordo, the ladies’ man, propose on bended knee to the widow Gonzales and her agreeing to be his wife.
Today, Gus and his wife, Frances (a former MGM ink-and-paint girl), live quietly on California’s Monterey peninsula and are central to Carmel’s artistic community. As Arriola’s post-Gordo artistic stature continues to increase, the strip is only now in some quarters being recognized for its attempts to open the comic strip’s window to the south and for Arriola’s gift in capturing the artistic and poetic essence of the human experience using the comic-strip format. In 1993 a 1970 Gordo hand-colored original Sunday page created to honor Silent Spring author Rachel Carson went on permanent display at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington. Occasional discussions regarding proposed Gordo animated, stage and film renditions continue to ebb and flow in true Hollywood fashion. For a dead comic strip, Gordo has a pretty lively corpse. After five decades of a daily comic feature that never topped 250 newspapers, and nearly 15 years after it ended, Gordo remains in the process of being rediscovered as a delightfully perfected blend of language and artistry. Newcomers who seek out Gordo may anticipate a feast for not only eyes and ears, but for the mind as well—with a dash of salsa for flavor, of course!
John Province: Are you from Los Angeles originally?
Gus Arriola: I was born in Arizona but grew up in Los Angeles. We moved out here in 1925 when I was 8 years old. I went to school mostly in Los Angeles and graduated from Manual Arts High School after taking a lot of art courses. I took four or five courses including stage art, design and life drawing. I had a great teacher at Manual Arts, and it was through his influence that we had the only semi-nude models in L.A. Every kid in school was trying to get into his class [laughter]. So that was most of my art training, in high school. I didn’t have any after that because of the economic conditions of the Depression. I was lucky enough to get a job in the animation business right away. Charles Mintz Studio was hiring. I graduated in ’35 and in ’36 went to work for Mintz Columbia–Screen Gems.
Province: What were some of the comic strips you liked as a youngster?
Arriola: Well, I remember in my early years being fascinated by the Sunday color comics. Things like the Katzenjammer Kids, Happy Hooligan, Rube Goldberg’s Boob McNutt, George Herriman’s classic Krazy Kat, of course, and Cliff Sterrett’s dazzling designs in Polly and Her Pals, Jimmy Swinnerton’s Canyon Kiddies, George McManus’ Bringing Up Father. I just pored over those interiors: his furniture, his wonderful architectural design. Tillie the Toiler, Harold Teen by Carl Ed. A little later, on when I was a little older, the wonderful storytelling of E.C. Segar with his Thimble Theater troupe: Popeye and the Sea Hag. Harold Gray’s Orphan Annie, and the great narratives of Roy Crane’s Wash Tubbs, and of course the giant, Milt Caniff with Terry. Those were wonderful combinations of great art and storytelling, which after all is what the early strips were. They were designed to make the reader want to buy the next edition of the paper; they were cliffhangers. So when it came time for me to decide to try to do a comic strip, naturally I gravitated towards storytelling with humorous gags, if possible, every day along with the sort of exaggerated action that I picked up in the animation business.
Province: Later when you were doing Gordo, did you have a chance to meet any of your old idols?
Arriola: Yes, I did. In 1948 I was lucky enough during a government bond tour to meet George McManus, who was then in his mid-60s and still drawing Maggie and Jiggs. As a matter of fact, he kind of looked liked Jiggs with the cigar in his mouth. I met him while he was drawing. Zeke Zekely, his assistant at the time, took me over to meet him. He was sitting at his drawing board with his stomach hanging over the board with his cigar, looking just like Jiggs. He looked up at me and said, “How ya doin’, kid?” Zeke told him what I was drawing and without looking up he said, “Well, good luck!” [laughter] On that same tour I met Jimmy Swinnerton, who was then producing his wonderful Western oil paintings. Frank Willard, who did Moon Mullins. Later on, when I was in New York, I was lucky enough to meet Milt Caniff. When I first started in the business I was introduced to Al Capp whom I consider one of the giants of the industry with his audacious humor and naming of his characters, his storytelling and social comment; he drew one of the funniest strips of all time. He was one of my inspirations as a kid in school and the things he got away with were very funny.
Province: Some of your Gordos from the 1960s remind me of Cliff Sterrett a great deal. Was Sterrett’s work an influence on Gordo?
Arriola: He was certainly an influence; so were John Held Jr., Russell Patterson and the great art-deco artists.
Province: You have a King Aroo original framed here in your studio. Were you friends with Jack Kent?
Arriola: I clipped daily and Sunday King Aroos for years. In 1964, when my wife, Frances, and my son Carlin and I were traveling through Mexico, we had been to San Cristobal in Chiapas, just about as far into the jungle as you can get. On our way back we spent the night in Tehuantepec, down in the isthmus where Mexico gets real skinny. We came in late in the evening and it was hot, and before dinner we thought we would take a dip in the pool. My son and I noticed down at the other end of the pool in the deep end a couple of little heads bobbing around. We sort of gravitated towards each other and the big head looked at me and said, “Aren’t you Gus Arriola?” and I looked at him and said, “Jack Kent?” Jack and his son Jack Jr. were in the pool at Tehuantepec, and that’s where we met. We had quite a laugh over that. After that meeting we corresponded and traded originals. I proudly display the King Aroo original he hand-colored for me. As you know, Jack went on after he dropped King Aroo to illustrate and write some wonderful children’s books.
Province: Besides yourself, Mintz Studios was an incubator for quite a number of developing talents. Jules Engel and Virgil Ross are two that come to mind.
Arriola: There were some famous names there at the time: Irv Spence, Emery Hawkins—of course, one of the greatest of all animators. I don’t remember Jules at Mintz. I didn’t run into him until our experiences in World War II. In 1936 Mintz was producing Scrappy and Krazy Kat, and they were doing a lot of Silly Symphony-type musicals, but I was only there a year.
Province: How did you gravitate to MGM’s cartoon studio?
Arriola: Word had gone out that MGM was forming a cartoon unit to do The Captain and the Kids, among other things, and that they were hiring artists and writers from all over the country. Eddie Barge, who went on to become one of the great animators of the Tom & Jerry series, was working at Mintz. The whole inbetween department went over there en masse, and about five of us applied for employment at MGM. We were all hired in 1937. I think it was in September that we all went over to MGM.
Province: Friz Freleng briefly left Warner Bros. for MGM to work on The Captain and the Kids, which as an animated cartoon did not go over well.
Arriola: I knew Friz at MGM. I never worked with him, but he was a very funny fellow. I knew Milt Gross there as well. He was a crazy New Yorker.
Province: His tenure in animation was brief.
Arriola: Very brief. He tried to do what was just a carry-over of his newspaper style, which just didn’t make it. The studio was looking for something new and different, some new discovery. They were trying to bring in new people. They tried Harry Hershfield, who lasted just a few months. They hired Bill [Hanna] and Joe [Barbera], which was probably the best thing they ever did.
Province: You were an inbetweener at Mintz. What did you do at MGM?
Arriola: I inbetweened for about a year, but I really wanted to work on stories. I started to submit material and became an assistant animator to Jack Zander, Dick Bickenbach, Irv Spence—all top animators at the time. I was a floating assistant animator while all the time contributing material to the story department. After the union came in I was promoted from assistant animator to story-man and worked with Hugh Harman’s unit and with Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera’s unit on the Tom & Jerry things for a couple of months. I only worked on the first one or two. They had just started Tom & Jerry, as a matter of fact, and Joe did most of his own story-sketching. He would lay out the main positions of the characters for the animation, so he really didn’t need a story-sketch man. He was it. I wound up in Rudy Ising’s unit working with one of his directors, Jerry Brewer, and his background man, Joseph Smith, a great painter. The three of us had a unit and made several shorts. We had Mary Blair with us for a time. She was a fantastic watercolorist. She could sit down and just do these wonderfully juicy paintings. We made Bats in the Belfry, The First Swallow, which was about the swallows’ return to Capistrano, The Dance of the Weed, which was sort of a Disney/Silly Symphony type of thing.
Province: Was The First Swallow your concept? Set in Mexican California, was this the beginning of your interest in Latin themes?
Arriola: Not entirely. I designed the swallow and the storyboards, but it was a joint effort by Rudy Ising, Jerry Brewer and myself.
Province: The Harman-Ising films of the late ’30s had traces of sophistication quite unlike anything being done at the time.
Arriola: Rudy was a very nice man and commanded respect from everyone. His approach to humor was gentle and very slow. His gags were a little bit more genteel. Hugh Harman was entirely different; at least Rudy could draw a little bit. I always had a hard time understanding how Harman even got into the business. They’d both come from Kansas City at the same time after working with Disney.
Province: You also met your future wife, Frances, at MGM?
Arriola: Oh yeah, she worked in ink and paint, and I chased her all over the back lot! The cartoon department was on lot two, and during lunch we used to walk around and look at the sets.
Frances Arriola: They used to cover them with tarps for night scenes, and we weren’t supposed to go in there. I went into one, though, and there wasn’t anyone around, but I saw a little light underneath. So I pulled it up and took a look in and there were the Marx Brothers playing cards!
Province: Did Harpo chase you honking his horn?
Arriola: They reacted just the way you would expect them to! [laughter] Yes!
Province: Was Fred Quimby at MGM while you were there?
Arriola: Oh, sure. [laughter]
Province: Why is it whenever I mention him, people laugh?
Arriola: He had an upper plate that was a little loose, and Joe Barbera used to imitate him just mercilessly. Actually, Quimby was very nice to me. I lied to him about how I needed time off to take my father to Mexico or some such thing, and I was really going to New York to try and sell Gordo. By golly, he found out about it and called me into the office and said, “I heard you’re going to New York to try and sell a strip.” I apologized and said that I really shouldn’t have done that. Quimby said, “Is it any good?” He said he had a friend who was a west coast representative for United Feature Syndicate who could take a look at it. So he did, and the guy looked in over in Los Angeles. He was a salesman, about as old as Quimby and about as dumb. Quimby called me into his office again and said, “My friend looked at your strip and he doesn’t think it’s any good!” I told him I would still like to try it out, and he let me go and I sold it to the same syndicate, United Feature on the east coast. That salesman was looking out for his own job because he didn’t think he could sell it.
Province: How did the original Gordo character come about?
Arriola: While I was designing model sheets at MGM in the story department for Hugh Harman, I was asked to design some characters for a movie short he was making, and I’m not too proud of this, “The Lonesome Stranger”—one of the worst short subjects I think I’ve ever seen [laughter]. He wanted me to design some Mexican bandits. In those days, the terrible stereotyping of characters were always Orientals or Mexicans, Arabs or something. So I designed this bad-looking, big, fat Mexican bandit with a black beard, and like I said I’m not too proud of it. But I kept playing with that character, and later on I cleaned him up and thought maybe I could make him a poor bean farmer and see where that leads me. I remembered stories as a kid about my grandfather and his experiences at his hacienda in Sonora, Mexico. So I thought, why not try a strip about a Mexican farmer? There was nothing like it. So that’s where the original thinking started. A couple of years after that I started seriously redesigning Gordo.
Province: When did you leave MGM to start work on Gordo?
Arriola: It was while I was in Rudy’s unit in 1941 that I sold Gordo and left the studio in July to start up a backlog of strips. It was a frightening experience because I was alone. When you’re working at a studio, there are people are all around and you’re a coworker. Suddenly you’re producing a strip on your own, drawing and writing it. There are no story sessions with fellow writers! It’s a terrifying experience, but I was determined to do it. Gordo was launched October 16, 1941, if I remember correctly, and you know what happened on December 7, 1941. After just two months of gracing the comic pages, Japan visited us and for the next 10 months we struggled along trying to keep 18 or 19 papers on our list before I went in the service. After Pearl Harbor, they kept us on, but interest was just lost, people weren’t looking at the comics. While I was in the Air Force, I got permission from Special Services to do a Sunday page only. So for three and a half years I did a Gordo Sunday page that kept it alive with just enough papers to keep it going. I kept in practice doing single gags, not continuity like I was accustomed to doing.
Province: You’ve spoken quite highly of Bob Allen, who was an animator at MGM while you were there. Did you admire his work?
Arriola: Oh, my gosh, yes. He was our idol. He was a great artist. He designed the model sheets and characters and was just a marvelous man. I talked with him on the phone recently and sent him some things. It was very nice and the first time we’d spoken in 60 years. He later went into advertising with Mel Shaw from Disney.
Province: And he designed Howdy Doody.
Province: During World War II you served in the First Motion Picture Unit in Hollywood. How did you get that assignment?
Arriola: The “Fum-Pooh” is what we called it. Thank goodness Frances was still working at MGM in the ink-and-paint department and overheard that Rudy Ising had received a commission to form an animation training film unit. The draft was breathing down my neck and I was 1-A. She suggested I go talk to Rudy, so I went. He suggested rather than be drafted, I enlist, and he would try to get me assigned to his unit. That was pretty risky in those days because things were very iffy. But I did, and in October of 1942 I and Ralph Tiller, who was an assistant animator, enlisted and were sent up here to the Presidio in Monterey to be processed where we waited nervously for about a week. Sure enough, orders came through from Washington that we were to be assigned to Major Rudolf Ising’s First Motion Picture Unit in Culver City where we reported for duty in late 1942, and that’s where we spent the war.
Province: What type of work were you involved in there?