andrewfarago (andrewfarago) wrote,
andrewfarago
andrewfarago

Remembering Phil Frank

I meant to post this last week, following the Phil Frank memorial at San Francisco's Washington Square Park on Monday, September 24, but it took a while to write this, and to really sum up what I was feeling about Phil's passing.

Anyway, if you weren't familiar with Phil Frank's work, there's quite a lot of it to be seen at his official website. Please give it a look--there are a lot of gems to be found there.

Remembering Phil Frank

by Shaenon K. Garrity & Andrew Farago


The public memorial service for Phil Frank (1943-2007) opened with testimonials from a ventriloquist police officer and Wavy Gravy. It closed with drag queen Steve Silver of Beach Blanket Babylon taking the stage in a red sequined dress and an enormous hat shaped like the city skyline, leading the crowd in a heartfelt rendition of “San Francisco (Open Your Golden Gate).” Mounted park rangers led a procession around Washington Square Park. People showed up in costume as Farley, Phil’s comic-strip alter ego, or as Yosemite bears. People brought their pets.

It felt right. Of all of Phil Frank’s gifts as a cartoonist, one of the most remarkable was his ability to make the things that happen in San Francisco seem normal. He was the wry eye of reason at the heart of the tornado. Not for nothing did one of the speakers compare him to Lewis Carroll: he made the illogical logical. “Phil Frank lived the life of a true San Franciscan in every way,” said the final speaker, former mayor Willie Brown. “He was the personification of what we are all about.”

Phil’s career was no less iconoclastic; for over two decades, his comic strip Farley was the only daily comic strip drawn for a single newspaper. The strip began life in 1975 as the nationally syndicated Travels with Farley. After moving to San Francisco, Phil dropped the “Travels,” focused on local issues, and reduced his venue to a single newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle. Farley remained exclusive to the Chronicle for 22 years. In 2004, Phil started a syndicated strip, The Elderberries, which will be continued after his death by Corey Pandolph.

In the Chronicle, Farley blossomed into a warm satire of San Francisco life and politics, with a sprawling human and animal cast as familiar to locals as the secret menu at In-N-Out Burger. When activists protested the war in Iraq by stripping naked and forming peace messages with their bodies, the feral cats in Farley organized a similar protest, removing their flea collars. The 1995 mayoral election inspired an elaborate cartoon opera running for several weeks of strips. When the flamboyant, arrogant, outspoken Willie Brown was elected mayor, Phil drew him as an ermine-draped monarch who consulted a magic mirror for advice. Recalling the tenacity of Phil’s depiction, the real Brown groused, “Unlike the people who work for [current mayor Gavin] Newsom, the mirror didn’t resign.”

The Pittsburgh-born cartoonist’s love for his adoptive city radiated from every squiggly line of his strip. But Phil reserved a special place in his heart for local issues involving animal rights and wildlife preservation. When not working as a journalist, his protagonist Farley was a part-time park ranger at Yosemite, which allowed Phil to build storylines around California wildlife (especially the bears) and weigh in on environmental issues. For years, he contributed his time and talent to the national park system, illustrating four guidebooks written by his wife, Susan Frank, and producing other illustration work for the parks. He was a member of the board of Yosemite National Park and an honorary California State Park Ranger. Through Farley, he raised public awareness of issues ranging from cuts in park funding to the plight of the endangered delta smelt—which, a marine biologist at the memorial was happy to announce, is now under new legal protection, thanks in no small part to Phil’s strips about the tiny, lovelorn fish.

He was also active in the ASPCA and local animal rights organizations. We first met Phil in the summer of 2001, at Pet Pride Day in Golden Gate Park. Somehow, someone had convinced the Cartoon Art Museum that a table set up amidst flea-collar manufacturers and dog-food companies would be the perfect venue to promote the new edition of The Great Comic Cats, edited by museum founder Malcolm Whyte and comic-strip archivist Bill Blackbeard. Phil agreed to help us out and spent a full day manning the table, signing books and fielding countless bizarre questions from the folks who’d turned out for Pet Pride Day.

The most common comment we heard that day was, “I hate cats…do you have any books about dogs? I’d buy a book about dogs.” No matter how many weird questions he heard, no matter how strange the question-askers were, Phil kept smiling, and he treated the most antagonistic dog lover like an old friend.

That generosity and kindness expressed itself in many times and many ways over the years. If the Cartoon Art Museum needed artwork for a fundraiser, Phil would hand-deliver a stack of original art and signed books. If attendance was down, Phil would call in a favor or two and get us a favorable mention in the Chronicle. If there was a gap in the exhibition schedule, we’d give Phil a call, and within a week he’d haul in a stack of already-framed artwork along with all of the necessary gallery text labels. The Cartoon Art Museum was just one of many community organizations that Phil supported, and, despite the unrelenting, inflexible daily grind at the San Francisco Chronicle, Phil was never too busy to help a friend in need.

Even Phil’s “enemies” loved him. Willie Brown inspired hundreds of strips over the years (collected in the out-of-print Don’t Parade on My Reign), most of which depicted him as a vain, self-absorbed egomaniac…and I doubt Brown hesitated for a second when asked to put in an appearance at Monday’s tribute. At the memorial, Brown recalled calling Phil to beg for leniency after a particularly biting installment of Farley, only to cut his plea short when a business call came through on Brown’s cell phone. Soon afterward, a Farley strip depicted Da Mayor (a.k.a. “His Williness”) on his knees, asking the Lord for forgiveness, only to interrupt the conversation with his Creator when he received an important call on his cell phone.

Any other cartoonist, depicting himself as an angry God with the mayor of San Francisco dancing in his palm, might have looked a tad arrogant. But Phil never seemed to have an ounce of ego. He did nothing but give: to the parks, to the animals, to a plethora of local historical organizations and museums, to San Francisco, to thousands of readers who regarded him as their own private treasure. Even Willie Brown reaped the rewards of Phil’s attention: he was reelected.

After the singalong, Phil’s memorial ended. As the costumed crowd dispersed and the Green Street Mortuary Band struck up a brassy farewell, a flock of San Francisco’s famous wild parrots zipped across the uncharacteristically blue sky and settled in a tree at the edge of the park, chattering like old friends. It was like the city’s bright final farewell to the man who loved it and labored for it and, for 22 years, almost made sense of it.

Photos of the memorial service:



Farley fans in costume:



The parade makes its way through Washington Square:



Yosemite Park Rangers:



The Green Street Mortuary Band:



"His Williness," Willie Brown, takes the stage:



Steve Silver's stirring rendition of “San Francisco (Open Your Golden Gate)”:



One of Phil Frank's hobbies including restoring classic cars. Here are some gems from his collection:



A shot of the stage:



Tags: cartoon, cartoon art, cartoon art museum, comics, farley, phil frank, san francisco, san francisco chronicle, willie brown, yosemite
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