Thursday, September 13, 2007

Farley's last travel

I was deeply saddened — though not surprised — to read this morning about the death of longtime San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist Phil Frank, creator of the comic strips Farley and Elderberries.

Frank had been seriously ill for several months (the Chronicle published reruns of his strips in the interim), and only a few days ago issued a public announcement of his retirement from cartooning. It was the kind of announcement that you just knew would soon be followed by an obituary.

According to the newspaper, Frank was 64, and died from the effects of a brain tumor.

Farley was always one of the best reasons to read the Chronicle, especially since the passing of veteran columnist Herb Caen. The only strictly local comic strip in the country, Farley offered a daily dose of Bay Area flavor — often political, but even more often, merely whimsical — in Frank's inimitable, warmly humorous style.

When it debuted in the mid-'70s, Frank's strip was entitled Travels With Farley, and featured its mustachioed protagonist (a self-caricature of the artist) journeying the American countryside, often employed as a park ranger. A decade later, Frank changed the focus of the strip to San Francisco and its environs, and Farley continued to grace the Chronicle's pages daily (under its truncated title, and with its lead character now working as a newspaper reporter) for another 22 years.

Although Farley wasn't specifically a political cartoon, Frank enjoyed using the strip to tweak the foibles of local politicians. One of his favorite targets was former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, as seen in this strip from August 2003 (click the image to see the strip full size):

A dedicated student of regional lore, Frank served as a local historian for his home town of Sausalito as well as western Marin County for many years. He was active in environmental causes, and often donated his original cartoons to conservationist charities, such as the Marine Mammal Center.

Phil Frank is survived by his wife, two adult children, and the legion of characters he made an indelible part of Bay Area culture. I, along with his many other fans, will miss him — and Farley — greatly.

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