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Dear Readers,

This is one of the stories from my book StarWords. Be sure to read clear to the end for Extra! Inspiration!

Gus Arriola and his magic Cartoon Characters

For 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 Charles Schulz.

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 unthinkable.”

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.

Q: 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 about 300.

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 plans?
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.

Extra! Inspiration

I took 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 decades.



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