1917 ~ 2008
CARMEL – Cartoonist Gus Arriola, 90, met his last deadline early
Saturday morning, February 2, 2008, succumbing to cancer after waging a battle with Parkinson's disease for many years. Mary Frances, his
beloved wife of 65 years, was at his side when he drew his last breath.
Best known as the creator of the comic strip Gordo, Gus was
recognized not only for his outstanding artistic skills, but for his
tongue-in-cheek humor which endeared him to adult readers as well as
Gus was the last of nine children, born July 23, 1917, in the small town of Florence, Arizona. Since Arizona had only recently joined the United States, and most of Florence's residents were of Mexican descent, Gus often joked that he was from “northern Mexico.”
The Arriola family moved to Los Angeles when Gus was eight years
old. Later, at Manual Arts High School, he honed his cartooning skills and within a few years was hired at Charles Mintz's studio, eventually working on Krazy Kat cartoons. From there he moved to MGM where he met Mary Frances Sevier, a petite and lovely brunette who worked in the “ink and paint” department.
Their “meeting” was notable – a sudden and fervent kiss under the
mistletoe at the studio's 1939 Christmas party, with Gus then simply
turning around and walking away.
“Who was that?” said the shocked Mary Frances.
She certainly couldn't have known that it was a man who would become
a famous cartoonist, syndicated in as many as 270 newspapers, but she
married him anyway, in 1943.
The “funny papers”, as newspaper comics were once called, had their
greatest years in the Thirties and Forties. As a fan of Dick Tracy,
Tarzan, Flash Gordon and L'il Abner, Gus couldn't help but visualize
himself among this pantheon of greats. But what kind of character would fill the bill? He considered a detective, a newspaper reporter –even a mad Russian scientist.
The main character began to form in Arriola's mind, a Mexican bandit
borrowed from a movie cartoon he'd worked on – “The Lonesome Stranger,” a spoof of “The Lone Ranger.” But bandits are not exactly fun-loving folk.
Then, like the proverbial light bulb flashing over a cartoon
character's head, he had the answer. He would draw (no Arriola pun
intended) upon his own background. With pen and ink the Mexican bandit morphed into a Mexican farmer – a bean farmer. A corpulent Mexican bean farmer named Gordo.
Yes, Gordo was fat, lazy, covered his eyes with a big sombrero while
he dozed against a cactus. Sure, it was funny, even funnier when
Arriola had his characters – Gordo, Pelon, Poet and Trini – speaking in incredibly broken English.
It was much later that Gus, now in syndication, realized he had
fallen into the trap of stereotyping a culture. With that realization, Gordo morphed again – this time into the more respectable (but still colorful) bus driver of La Cometa Haley. He retained his friends, and his pets Perro, Poosy Gato and a canary who reported the news from the bottom of his birdcage.
There also emerged a madcap millionairess named Mary Frances Sevier
who had a charming Southern accent, inspired by Guess Who. Meanwhile,
the humor grew more sophisticated and the art more beautiful.
The Arriolas, now with a young son named Carlin, moved to Carmel in
In 1960, Gus and France (as he called her) made their very first
trip into Mexico, and came back so enamored of the culture that they
opened a small shop specializing in Mexican imports. However, after
three years, they decided they were not cut out to be business people.
One might say it was “back to the drawing board,” but of course, Gus
had never left it. Initially, he had hired an assistant to help with
the strip, but for the last 37 years of his career, it was France who
inked in the solid blacks and, not incidentally, often suggested the
idea or gag that made the reader laugh out loud.
Few people realize how demanding are the deadlines for a daily and
Sunday comic strip. There is no blank space allowed on a page for a
cartoonist who wants to take a day off or a vacation. Thus, it was with a great sigh of relief that Gus retired in 1985.
During those 44 professional years, he earned many honors for his
work, and great respect from his peers. Last year he was awarded an
honorary doctorate from California State University at Monterey Bay.
This March he will be feted, posthumously as it has turned out, by
the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley with a special “Gordo Fest: A
Celebration of the Work of Gus Arriola.” The Bancroft has acquired a
significant collection of his works and correspondence. (The event will take place at 5 p.m., March 6, 2008 at the Morrison Library. Details available at the Bancroft Administration Office, (510) 642-3781.)
Half a century is a long time to live in one town, so it's no
surprise that Gus was always easily recognized, not only for his
well-trimmed goatee, but for his sartorial splendor. Even in blue
jeans, he was stylish, usually wearing a hat that complemented his
outfit, sometimes carrying a handsome cane.
Only months ago, he and France wandered one morning into the brand
new Wilkes Bashford store at Carmel Plaza. There, a clutch of female
sales associates stood chatting. Upon sighting Gus, one of the group
could not contain herself: “You are the most elegant gentleman to have come in that door!”
Frances would have put it differently: “He was a peacock!”
Gus was also a familiar figure at Bruno's and Nielsen's markets,
stopping to chat with the clerks, and bantering with the butchers about what cut of meat he wanted.
Gus greatly enjoyed the passing parade of the Carmel-by-the-Sea post
office, where he picked up the mail (and his Brooks Brothers catalogs).
No story of Gus Arriola would be complete without mention of his
love for the gang at Doc Rickett's Lab.
It seems to Frances it was less than 24 hours after arriving in
Carmel that friend and fellow cartoonist, Eldon Dedini, invited Gus to join “the boys at the lab.”
The “lab” had belonged to Doc Ricketts, the marine biologist
immortalized in John Steinbeck's Cannery Row. Ricketts was long gone,
but Harlan Watkins, a local English teacher, rented the lab, and
invited his friends to join him on Wednesday nights for a mix of jazz, conversation, dinner and a drink (or two).
Friends brought friends and the group evolved into an eclectic mix
of artists, doctors, lawyers, teachers and cartoonists. The latter
included Dedini (known for his voluptuous ladies in the New Yorker),
and Hank Ketcham (known for his mischievous Dennis the Menace).
When Watkins decided to get married, and the new wife was not keen
on living at the lab (next to all those deserted canneries), the gang
went into crisis mode, and bought the property. Among the lab's
members, Gus was always considered the gentleman's gentleman. He was
reserved, polite, but oh boy, could he tell a joke!
Occasionally, the lab would throw a party that honored the wives,
perhaps to smooth over any hard feelings about husbands coming home
late on Wednesday nights.
Today the City of Monterey owns Doc's Lab as a historic site.
Some of Gus's original cartoon strips can be seen at the Carmel Art
Association. A book, Accidental Ambassador Gordo, written by Robert C. Harvey with art and comments by Gus, was published in 2000.
Gus Arriola is survived by his wife, Mary Frances; his granddaughter, Ramona Arriola McNamara; and two great grandchildren, Gwen and Thomas.
His son pre-deceased him.
There will be no funeral service. Friends who wish to honor his
memory are invited to make a donation to a charity of their choice, or to the Carmel Foundation.