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Obituary: Pete Millar 1929-2003
posted March 30, 2003
 

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Peter Millar, a seminal figure in the history of non-mainstream comics publishing and a giant in the lively and sometimes forgotten world of automotive cartooning, died February 28 in his Palos Verdes Peninsula, California home. Millar was an editor, publisher and cartoonist best known for his automotive-related cartoons in CARtoons, the magazine he co-founded and edited during its initial, landmark issues.

Millar was born on December 14, 1929. Trained as an engineer, he harbored a secret dream of becoming a full-time cartoonist and book editor. In 1953 he moved from San Diego to Los Angeles, home of Hot Rod magazine and the "Stroker McGurk" feature. His work rejected by editor Tom Medley, Millar found a home with Quinn's Rod & Custom and editor Spencer Murray. When Trends Books purchased Quinn, Millar was offered the assignment of doing illustrations for the tech letters in Hot Rod. Eager to fulfill his dream and give up his engineering day job, Millar had a more ambitious project in mind.

Millar and Carl Kohler created CARtoons for Trends in 1959, based on Millar's idea for a complete cartoon book focused on cars. Trends would later become Peterson Publishing, a name that grew to be synonymous with automotive cartooning due in great part to the success of the formula shaped by Millar and subsequent editors. Millar and Kohler were given a $2500 contract by publisher Robert Peterson to put together a 64-page magazine in the smaller digest size at which Rod & Custom had been published. Kohler left after the first issue over a dispute with Peterson executive Ken Bayless about the arrival of the check, but Millar stayed with the magazine as an editor and contributor. He did four issues at home, and then worked on magazine-sized issues until the 11th, published in 1963. At this time, it was decided to take the publication in-house, and Millar was cut out of the editing job that had long been his dream. "When Peterson took it in-house, I was hoping to become the fulltime editor, but Dick Day got the job." Millar recently told racing writer Dave Wallace. "I told Bayless what he could do with CARtoons."

imageCARtoons was one of the most unlikely success stories in 20th Century magazine publishing, and by itself would have guaranteed initial editor Millar a place in comics history. CARtoons sold extremely well for years, offered a MAD-style outlet for talented West Coast cartoonists when nearly all comics publishing was based in New York, anchored a line of similarly conceived titles and underwent at least two radical content changes to make best advantage of various trends -- moves that would have killed less-sturdy publications. Kohler and Millar put into one place the various threads of automotive-related cartooning that developed in the post-war period to serve car-crazy youths, and instigated what would become an entire school of American cartooning. Almost from its first year in print, CARtoons set the standard for the humorous automotive cartoon, typified by an energetic drawing style reminiscent of hot rod art and contrasting sharply with adventure comics featuring cars and car culture. Peterson would remain a player in the comics magazine business for over three decades, with CARtoons as a bi-monthly, sometimes quarterly, and sometimes irregularly published flagship. Other Peterson titles included Hot Rod Cartoons, which ran from 1965-1974, CYCLEtoons, which was launched in 1968 and terminated in 1973, and even Go Kartoons, which ran for a single issue in 1960 (with Millar's name advertised on the cover). Various other publishers also dipped their toes into the automotive field, following Peterson's lead. CARtoons admirably changed with the times, capitalizing on satirical characters and recurring comedic features when MAD was selling well in the 1960s, and re-fashioning itself in the 1970s to play up its grotesque-art aspects when that vein of humor began to dominate. The Peterson magazines were also known for resisting over-advertising for a significant stretch in their history, and for offering such extras as iron-ons and full-color posters. Its letters pages in the late 1960s and early 1970s, filled with notes from soldiers in Vietnam and letter from fans one might guess weren't usually the letter-writing type, captured the mood of the times like few popular publications. Many of the titles struggled and faded with the major 1970s changes in magazine distribution. But the flagship CARtoons held on before ending its long, successful and improbable run in August 1991.

Millar was therefore not only an important mover for one magazine, but an entire sub-culture of comics expression. During its three decades and change as a publishing phenomenon, and additional years on either side of that period as a legitimate avenue for cartoon expression, automotive cartooning featured dozens of talented artists who loomed as large for their readers as the men and women working in any popular comics sub-genre. Working in that part of the field were cartoonists perhaps better known for their contributions to other kinds of comics, like Alex Toth, Robert Williams, and Rick Griffin, and several homegrown automotive cartooning superstars such as George Trosley, Nelson Dewey, George Lemmons, Willie Ito, Shawn Kerri and Renfrew Klang. None were any more important, or admired by fans, than Pete Millar.

Upon leaving editorial duties at Peterson, Millar moved into an area that more accurately reflected his primary interest in automotives, publishing and providing much of the material for his own Drag Cartoons. The first issue debuted in June 1963 after Millar secured a deal with a distributor to cover advance editorial costs and shipping. When the federal authorities took out his printer, Millar rescued 100,000 copies and their mailing labels and sent them to various parts of the country himself. Irregular distribution would be a troubling theme in Millar's career as a publisher.

In addition to Drag Cartoons, Millar Publications also produced four issues of the fondly remembered Big Daddy Roth Magazine. Millar told Wallace that Roth approached him with the idea of doing a magazine based on advertising support from the artist's various licensing partnerships. "Revell was gonna buy advertising and put a subscription form in every one of the models that went out; millions of them!" When Revell backed out, Millar was left extending himself in service of a national magazine with regional appeal. "It died in the Bible Belt," Millar reported. Millar canceled the title based on first issue sales, although those did not come in until the fourth issue had been released, compounding the publisher's financial difficulties.

In 1966, Millar published one of the seminal features of the underground era, picking up Tony Bell and Gilbert Shelton's "Wonder Wart-Hog" feature for a run in Drag Cartoons. "Wonder Wart-Hog" had previously run in the humor magazines Ranger and Help! As described by Gilbert Shelton to Frank Stack in 1997, Millar became an important connection between those magazines and underground comix. "In March 1966, Tony Bell and I started doing regular Wonder Wart-Hog stories in an automotive magazine published in Torrance, California, called Peter Millar's Drag Cartoons. Then Tony and I moved back to Austin and continued sending in the strips from there until Millar went out of business in 1968." Shelton offered up that one of the reasons for Millar's financial difficulties as a publisher may have been the release of two issues of Wonder Wart-Hog Quarterly, by Bell, Shelton and Joe Brown. But more likely it was the same distribution difficulties that occasionally plagued the automotive magazine. "Millar had had 140,000 copies of each printed, and he had to sell half of them to break even," Shelton said. "But the thing was too weird for the distributors and most of the copies stayed in the warehouses. Only 40,000 of each number were sold. I remember looking and looking for a copy on sale at various newsstands around Austin, and I never found one anywhere."

In price and format, Wonder Wart-Hog Quarterly was modeled after the popular Warren newsstand magazines such as Creepy. The second and final issue of WWHQ featured what became one of the most famous instances of '60s cartoon humor -- a grotesque parody of a rejected Lyndon Johnson portrait bearing the title "The Second Ugliest Thing in the World." Neither satirical magazine nor underground comix proper, Wonder Wart-Hog Quarterly holds a place alongside publications such as Jack Jackson's 1964 God Nose as an important precursor to the larger comics movement to come. But at the time, together with the failure of Big Daddy Roth Magazine, it cast a financial pall over its publisher.

Due to the popularity of the subject matter and the acknowledged role of cartoon magazines with the culture, Millar enjoyed a certain amount of wider celebrity largely denied artists and editors working within fantasy comics. Millar was a part of the industry he covered above and beyond his publishing efforts, as a vital figure in the early Southern California racing scene. Millar at one point even owned a drag racing car funded in part by donations from his Drag Cartoons readership, with a stylish shell calling attention to the magazine's artistic foundation. Photos of the car in action at mid-1960s events, and of Millar with celebrities in attendance Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, wink at readers from a page on Millar's "Laff Yer Asphalt" web site. Involvement in drag racing gave Millar's cartoons a sharper edge and added credibility to his pen and ink inquiries -- as someone with engineering experience, Millar could draw a engine blowing it up as it actually, technically occurred. Millar remained involved in the sport on a serious level into the 1970s.

With the 48th issue of his magazine, with a press run around 150,000, Millar sold the title to his printer to absolve himself of debts incurred by the Roth and Wonder Wart-Hog efforts. He took his wife and three daughters to Sweden. Returning to California three years later, Millar produced annual editions of a full-color newspaper tabloid called Drag Comics from 1971-1973. Taking his cue from a freelance job for an attorney representing a driver who had lost his legs in a racing accident, Millar embarked on a lucrative career as an illustrator specializing in preparing evidence to be used in trial cases. He would not return to the racing fold in significant fashion until 1993, although some remember the 1980s Millar efforts in magazines like Autobuff.

With his work as an editor and cartoonist on Drag Cartoons and Drag Comics, Millar became known by his peers and the occasional savvy outside observer as one of the best draftsman working in an increasingly crowded field and as an artist who would occasionally leave the low-minded hi-jinks or jaunty, character-based humor to one side in favor of commentary on practices and excesses to be found in that highly competitive sporting milieu. When Millar had worked for Peterson, a close partnership with the National Hot Rod Association had led to an occasionally stifling atmosphere for significant commentary on the hot rod racing milieu. Policy-driven splits in the racing world led to certain races and personalities not being covered at all. The NHRA was so careful to protect its image as the sport surged in popularity that for a time cartoon characters were scanned for adherence to dress standards. None of this squared itself with Millar's first-person view of the racing world. The cartoonist found places to express his voice where he could -- Millar enjoyed showcasing the dirt that riders and mechanics collected on their person by adding a few flies in proximity.

As a publisher in control of his own content, Millar was one of the few voices in automotive cartoons that could safely express critical views and generally satisfy journalistic expectations. Millar portrayed personalities right down to their idiosyncratic mannerisms and details on their uniforms. Sanctioning bodies were lampooned if Millar thought they deserved lampooning, while certain policies and practices could be cruelly and hilariously mocked. Wallace called Millar in his heyday "one of the most-respected and most-powerful media figures in an era overflowing with journalistic talent." No American sub-culture has since invested so much fourth estate power in a single artist.

Millar was much liked by those who worked with him, and upon his death the tributes from fellow professionals flowed into the Millar family home at an astounding rate. The influence of Millar's work pops up in unexpected places. One admirer is Peter Bagge, who for many readers embodies several of the same artistic values and energetic approach to cartooning as Millar and his peers. Bagge came to the cartoonist's work late. "I missed out on the opportunity to be an adolescent Pete Millar fan, simply because I never saw a single copy of CARtoons Magazine on the stands while in my hometown of Peekskill, NY (which isn't much of a 'hot rod' town, apparently)! It wasn't until I found copies of it in second-hand stores years later that I saw what I had missed, and felt very deprived. Millar's work was clearly influenced by and representative of all the elements that make up what I always considered Good Comics. It also expressed this very unadorned, American working-class worldview that I always found very appealing -- comforting, even! -- and still do."

In 1993, Millar re-appeared on the racing scene by attending that year's NHRA California Hot Rod Reunion. Enjoying the experience, he began to sample several such racing events, including maintaining a booth at some events. In recent years Millar also attended the Comic-Con International held in San Diego, where he was able to meet several of his admirers despite not receiving the general laudatory attention that event usually heaps on cartoonists with Millar's displayed skill and massive lifetime readership. Millar kept busy until the end. He contributed an introduction to the book collection of Alex Toth's automotive work, One for the Road, and had assembled several of his own work into stand-alone books sold through his web site under the promising slogan, "Comic Books Are Back." The Internet and its ability to provide a viable, low-cost publishing platform for a scattered audience has served as a friendly home to many previously published Millar cartoons. On various web sites, including his own, Millar became a friendly and authoritative voice speaking to the significance and skill of automotive comics. According to Scott Shaw!, a hoped-for traveling show featuring the greatest achievements in automotive art remained an unfulfilled ambition. Six CD-ROMs advertised on Millar's web site under the "It's All a Bunch of Millarkey" imprint contain hundreds of pages of his comics magazine art broken down by theme and publisher, an impressive cartoon legacy to be relished by older fans and discovered by newer ones. The family plans on keeping his web site going for another five years in memory of their patriarch.

In testament to his place within the larger field he covered and enjoyed -- he was described in a year 2000 race-related press release as "drag racing's most revered cartoonist" -- a few samples of Millar's one-of-a-kind art remain on display at the Hot Rod Museum outside of Ontario, California.

Millar is survived by his widow, Orah Mae Millar, three daughters (Robin, Debra, April), and seven grandchildren. Services were held on March 7 and ashes were scattered at Green Hills in Palos Verdes. Additional family and professional tributes are expected for the 2003 California Hot Rod Reunion in Bakersfield, where Millar had become a fixture. A memorial fund is in the early planning stages.

Originally appeared in The Comics Journal #252

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