This is one of the stories from my book StarWords. Be sure to
read clear to the end for Extra! Inspiration!
Arriola and his magic Cartoon Characters
four decades Gus Arriola told it like it was in his comic strip,
“Gordo,” a strip that won the love of his fellow Americans. His
high-flying insects, animals and Mexican family made bold social
and environmental statements and tweaked our gray matter daily.
I was jazzed about interviewing Arriola. I had met him once
before at a fundraiser for our local senior center, where he
chummed around with his compadres: Hank Ketcham, Eldon Dedini,
Alex Anderson and Bill Bates. At that time I was a society
writer and I had to get titillating tidbits from stars while
standing. This time I would be granted a full, sit down yak . .
I arrived at the Arriola’s modest (by Carmel standards) condo
where Gus and his wife/business partner, Mary Frances, came to
the door. They looked younger than their ages and silver hair –
Gus the artiste with his pointy goatee. Clearly still in love
after 57 years of marriage, they were quick to divulge that they
met and began courting on MGM’s lot.
Gus was eager to show me his studio, up two flights of stairs. A
prismatic array of his drawings and paintings emblazoned the
walls. There were plaques and awards, the highest given in his
profession, and lots of work from amigos Dedini, Ketcham and
He waxed poetic about his bird’s nest/office on the second floor
and said something about the visions that come to him while
sitting at his drawing table, looking out at the mist that plays
in the Monterey pines. The room was remarkably similar to
Ketcham’s: upstairs and cozy, with pens, pencils and color
markers neatly ordered beside other tools of the trade.
After we’d concluded the interview, this gentle, trusting man
loaned me the last copy of his book “Gordo’s Critters,” with the
promise that I would return it. Its introduction by the late
columnist and fast friend, Herb Caen, said of the strip’s
characters, “ . . . Breakfast without them would be
The strips featured: Gordo putting on bullfighter duds only to
go disco dancing; a pig talking of “ethnic slurs”; and a chicken
parroting Omar Khayyam.
Born in 1917 in Arizona, “a scant 20 years after stagecoach
robberies,” Arriola’s Hispanic parents owned a general store.
There was no money for college, so, as with many creative
geniuses, he learned by doing.
After high school, he went straight to work at Screen Gems on
“Krazy Kat,” then to the MGM animation department where he did
story sketches for “Tom and Jerry.” A few years later, in 1941,
United Features Syndicate bought his “Gordo” column.
What has been your crucible?
A: Thinking up material for this strip. It’s a monastic
life. I’d sit up in this room and stare out the window and
wonder how I’d meet my next deadline. Somehow something would
happen. It’s kind of magic. You have to woo it. It’s
contemplation, reflection, a form of prayer.
Q: How much of the strip was based on your experiences?
A: The strip was unique in that it was based on people in
Mexico, not in this country. I realized it was the only thing
like that in comic papers.
Q: Compare the Hollywood stereotyped strip with the more
politically correct strip.
A: Gordo was a fat and lazy bean farmer. It was a terrible
thing. I was a victim of stereotyping . . . Later I felt
pressure I had to be a little documentary. So I did a lot of
research on Mexican culture and art and was fascinated, so I
started to use it in story plots. We went to Mexico almost every
year and met rascal tourist guides . . . That’s when I got the
idea to make Gordo a tourist guide.
Q: What character would you be in the strip?
A: A little bit of all of them, but I guess the poet. He was one
that sort of knew what was going on.
Q: Are all of your characters based on real friends and pets?
A: Our son Carlin was a model in his teens. He died in ’80 . . .
The fact that Gordo lived on a farm called for animals. The only
real character is Poosy Gato. We had a cat that acted very much
the same way. It was a very sweet cat that lived to 12 years.
Also my wife was an occasional character.
Q: Situations that can get you to belly laugh?
A: Oh, lordy! Certainly not any pratfalls. More that a situation
is a pun on words. I enjoy conversational humor.
Q: Were you ever accused of being a beatnik?
A: When I first got out of the army in 1947, where I did
animation for training films, I was so tired of shaving. But the
goatee got to be a detriment. I couldn’t rent an apartment. I
did it to hide a weak chin.
Q: And how about your beatnik comic spider Bug Rogers?
A: He spun nonconformist webs. He was very Mondrian.
Q: What do you do to further a green planet?
A: I had all sorts of insect characters in the strip . . . I did
a cartoon page for (environmentalist) Rachel Carson’s death, the
woman who wrote “Silent Spring,” and it’s in the Smithsonian
Institution in a permanent display of her contributions.
Q: When were you last derelict about the environment? Didn’t
separate your glasses and plastic? Squash your boxes?
A: Never. Even when it wasn’t required we took refuse to
different recycling centers in town. We do have a conscience.
Q: Remaining misnomers about the Mexican culture?
A: They’re changing so fast down there. A middle class is being
formed that hadn’t existed before. With a new president I hope
that it will continue . . .
Q: Are Mexicans happier and less neurotic than English?
A: That’s a loaded question. I think they’re just as neurotic as
anyone else, down there with their dictatorial government.
They’re just more colorful . . .
Q: What do people assume about you that isn’t true?
A: That I’m rich. Charles Schulz had over 2,500 papers. I had
Q: What does Dedini mean to you?
A: I consider him my best friend and inspiration. I use him
instead of Encyclopedia Britannica.
Q: Why have so many prominent cartoonists settled here? Is
there something funny about the Peninsula?
A: It’s a perfect climate year-round for work. Also, the
stimulation of people types here.
Q: What do cartoonists have in common?
A: A sense of off-the-wall humor.
Q: How about the book coming out this month, “Accidental
Ambassador Gordo,” by comics historian Robert Harvey?
A: I was approached by this guy who was hooked on “Gordo” . . .
It was a time trip. He asked me questions about people, most of
them gone. The strip ended in ’85.
Q: What’s your religion?
A: Life. The love of beauty and nature. I guess I’m a Pantheist.
Q: Are you ready to let this world go or do you have big
A: It doesn’t matter what I plan. I’m gonna go. I just hope the
admission officer where I’m going was a “Gordo” fan.
an immediate liking to this gentle and modest man. Arriola’s
reverence for nature shows not only in his art, but in his
lifestyle of living in and appreciating the forest. And his
story is one of the more inspirational I have heard: There was
no money for college, but a lack of formal education didn’t
deter him from his dream. Existential terror, loneliness and
financial insecurity aside, he ventured into the unknown.
Eventually, the self-taught comic strip genius brought the
brilliance and humor of Mexican culture, and the love of all
critters, great and small, into our homes and hearts for