John Cullen Murphy wanted to be a baseball player when he was a child, but he also had a rare talent to draw. So to the enjoyment of his many fans, he ended up becoming a world famous illustrator and cartoonist.

Studying under the supervision of artists like Norman Rockwell, Franklin Booth, George Bridgman, and Charles Chapman helped Murphy develop into a professional comfortable in any medium. Cartoon as well as portrait and magazine illustration were equally crafted with the skill and precision taught to him by his distinguished mentors.


Never neglecting his interest in sports, Murphy got the attention of Rockwell who saw him playing baseball and asked the youth to pose for some magazine ads. After Rockwell had done a few illustrations he soon discovered Murphy's keen interest in art. With a lot of encouragement from Rockwell, Murphy received his formal art training from the above instructors at the Phoenix Art Institute, the Grand Central Art School, and the Art Student's League.

                              "Starstruck"            
      Saturday Evening Post- September 22, 1934


At seventeen, Murphy's first professional work was producing boxing cartoons for the Madison Square Garden publicity department. He also had various Chicago sports magazines publish, on average, two of his drawings a week

When serving in World War Two, he further pursued his art career drawing "on the spot" illustrations for the Chicago Tribune. Murphy also painted portraits of famous military personnel including General Douglas MacArthur, while still meeting deadlines for magazine covers and other art assignments.

Upon his return from the Pacific,
Murphy's watercolor boxing paintings in Collier's magazine got the attention of writer Elliot Caplin., He quickly contacted the artist to see if he would be interested in collaborating on a boxing comic strip. Murphy did two weeks of samples which Caplin sold to King Features when William Randolph Hearst himself bought the strip. The resulting feature titled Big Ben Bolt debuted as a daily on February 20,1950 and a Sunday page followed on May 25, 1952.


Bolt was not your average sports character. A New Englander who graduated from Harvard he was educated and refined, even in the brutalizing and corrupt world of professional boxing. The character had a kindness, integrity, and generosity that made the strip highly believable as well as entertaining. With his trusted fight manager Spider Haines, Bolt would win the world's heavyweight crown, only to lose and regain it again as the strip progressed. With an eye injury in the mid- fifties, Ben Bolt became a sportscaster and journalist which lead him to new tales of adventure, mystery, and danger. Always a beautiful woman on his arm, he later dealt with topics like social reforms, conservation, and the troubled youth of America.

Murphy's strong interest in sports and his boxing illustration background made the feature a real knockout with his fans. His vast experience as an illustrator and cinematic approach made any situation or locale seem realistic and effective.

In 1970, Murphy was honored by Harold Foster's offer to take over the artistic chores of Prince Valiant: the saga of a young Norse prince who becomes a knight of King Arthur's Round Table at Camelot. It is viewed by many as the premier adventure strip of our time with over half a century of classic stories and art.

Murphy gladly accepted the new feature while his assistants remained on Big Ben Bolt until its demise in 1978 with the death of the character. Many fine artists worked on the feature during its twenty-eight year run including Al Williamson, Angelo Torres, George Raymond, Carlos Garzon, Neal Adams, and Gray Morrow.

John Cullen Murphy had approached Foster with a few samples two years earlier to inquire if he needed any help on the strip. When Foster later started to think about a possible replacement, three names came to mind, but Murphy's formal art training and experience made him the perfect choice.

From the fall of 1971 until early 1980 Foster would give a nicely penciled layout for Murphy to complete and be published. When Murphy's oldest son Cullen graduated college in 1975, he would often provide story ideas and outlines to Foster. His degree in medieval history eventually persuaded Valiant's creator to use Cullen as the future writer of the Sunday. Bill Crouch also contributed six stories over the next four years to the historic strip.

After forty-three years of guiding his creation, Hal Foster retired from Prince Valiant, with his last pencil layout for February 10, 1980. Foster had at first debated ending his epic tale but later reconsidered. He sold the property to King Features recommending that John and Cullen continue Prince Valiant's adventures. Murphy's daughter Meg Nash also joined the group, providing both lettering and coloring fro the page.

Murphy and his family have been working on Val's adventures for the past thirty-one years. The quality of this unique adventure strip still survives even thought the size of the page has greatly diminished over the years. Murphy never tried to copy Fosters distinctive style. His preference for a harder pen line rather than a softer brush look helped give the strip a more angular feel than its original creator's version.

Recently, Murphy has been assisted by artist Frank Bolle in layouts and research, but John's detailed pen work can still be seen in all the finished pages. Murphy's superior illustrative skill is highlighted by the expressions on the characters face being confirmed in their hand placement and use in conveying the story. His enormous library of books and reference materials given by Foster, always makes the strip fresh with many historical characters and places.

Little is known about the time frame of Prince Valiant, the Fifth century after the fall of the Roman Empire. Because of this Murphy and his staff can take creative license and make a rich visual tapestry of castles and palaces with elaborate and ornate surroundings. 

John Cullen Murphy's talent and professionalism has helped maintain Prince Valiant's worldwide popularity. He has won numerous awards, including the National Cartoonist Society's Best Story Strip more than any other syndicated cartoonist.

We are all fortunate that this young boy gave up his sports ambitions to become one of our most respected and beloved artists in America today.

©2002
by Dave Karlen

About the author:

Dave Karlen once again fights the good fight for comic strip art as he champions the career of John Cullen Murphy. Dave can be contacted at his email address:

DaveKarlen@aol.com

or through his website:

Dave Karlen Original Art

and special thanks to Ruben Espinosa for the additional Murphy artwork images.