The girl who helped Russell Myers secure his dream job is a witch.
Name? Broom Hilda.
Myers is the cartoonist behind the Broom Hilda comic strip. On April 20, the strip will celebrate a 50th anniversary. It’s a success story worth celebrating, and it’s a Tulsa story.
Myers’ desire to see you in the funny pages took root in Tulsa, where his family moved when he was 7. TV wasn’t an entertainment option in Myers’ home when he was a kid in the 1940s. Instead, the thing that captured his eyeballs was the sprawling, colorful comic section in the Sunday newspaper.
“I thought I had never seen anything so beautiful,” he said in a recent phone interview.
Myers was obsessed with comics as a kid. He said there was a downtown newsstand that carried newspapers from cities all over the country.
“A good day for me, I would get on the bus when I was a kid, like 13 or 14 years old,” he said. “You could do that back then and come home alive. And I would go downtown and I would hit the used bookstores (to buy comic books) and then I would go to this newsstand and buy a bunch of these out-of-town newspapers so I could see every comic strip being done and I would take them home and cut them out. We had a room up over the garage and I had them all stuck up on the wall, and I would look at them and study them.”
Panel by panel, Myers’ fate was sealed.
“It’s kind of a cliche, but I guess you can say you were born to do something.”
Growing up in Tulsa
Educated in Tulsa, Myers attended Lanier Elementary School, Wilson Middle School, Rogers High School and the University of Tulsa, where his father was part of the faculty.
Myers said his father walked to and from TU because their home was nearby at 3935 E. Fourth St. His parents built a home there at the dawn of the 1950s after first living at 1243 S. Jamestown. If you reside at either one of those addresses now, you’re connected to Broom Hilda history.
From ages 12-16, Myers had a paper route and delivered the Tulsa Tribune. He said a dog walked with him every day as he threw papers from Fourth Place to 11th Street on Oswego, Pittsburg and Quebec.
“I bet I could walk that route today and still get three-fourths of those houses just because you did it every day and it became automatic and unconscious,” he said.
The paper route paid a dollar a day. Myers described it as “pretty good junior high money,” especially if you adjust for inflation. In those days, a buck could get you 10 new comic books — 20 if you knew where to scrounge for second-hand comics.
“There used to be a used book store downtown. There were two of them. One of them was named Miller’s. The other I can’t remember, but it was the good one,” Myers said. “Two old ladies ran it and they had all kinds of used comic books and I would go in there and hunt for those comic books and root through the piles. It was like a treasure hunt.”
At 16, Myers made his first attempt at graduating from reader to pro. He submitted a comic strip about a little policeman to a syndicate. “It was terrible,” he said. “Of course it was rejected, justifiably so.”
Myers (class of 1956) attended Will Rogers High School during a period when the school’s hallways were a garden for the arts. Future Marvel Comics editor in chief Archie Goodwin graduated the year before Myers. David Gates, Anita Bryant and Leon Russell were a tad younger.
Myers shared what he called his “big bragging story” from that era: “In high school we had to write the dreaded junior theme. We were supposed to spend a year doing that theme and list all our notes and footnotes and so forth. Well, I waited until a week before it was due and wrote 40 pages on comics and cartoons out of my head and I got an A-plus and a commendation from the teacher because it was so good.”
Myers (he’s in the Will Rogers High School Hall of Fame) studied art at TU and, after picking up a degree, took the only job offered to him. He began creating greeting cards for Hallmark in Kansas City. He made a nice living.
Problem: It wasn’t what he wanted to do.
“I wanted to do this comic strip thing.”
Myers worked for Hallmark for 10 years — five years inside the building and five as a freelancer. In the meanwhile, he kept pitching comic strips. He said he perfected failure.
“I could get on the plane in Kansas City in the morning and get to New York at noon and go to all the six major syndicates and get rejected and get back home at midnight,” he said. “That was an annual trip.”
Asked about rejected ideas for strips, Myers said he wiped them from his memory. He said they, like the strip he submitted as a teenager, were justifiably declined. But rejection is still rejection and this was salt in the wound:
While at Hallmark, a compadre named Charles Barsotti decided he wanted to do a comic strip. Myers showed him the ropes.
“Well, he went to New York and sold it!” Myers said “I was supposed to be the ‘expert’ and I didn’t know whether to kill him or myself.”
Barsotti’s strip, Sally Bananas, launched in 1969 and continued until 1973. Barsotti is more famous for being a cartoonist for The New Yorker for more than four decades — and he repaid Myers by recommending him to the right person.
Elliot Caplin worked in the comic industry just like his brother, Li’l Abner creator Al Capp. Caplin came up with the idea for a strip about a witch whose name was Broom Hilda. Harvey Kurtzman, a legendary EC Comics and Mad magazine artist, illustrated some Broom Hilda samples, but the strip didn’t sell.
Caplin met Barsotti at a party and asked if he knew another artist who might be interested in taking a strip for a test drive. Barsotti suggested Myers, who recalled getting a phone call from Caplin on a Friday: “He said ‘I’ve got this idea for a witch named Broom Hilda and that’s really all I have. Can you send me samples of your greeting cards?’”
Myers said he was caught off base by the request.
“So I sat down over the weekend and, just off the top of my head, did the first six Broom Hilda strips and sent them,” he said.
“(Caplin) called me back and said, ‘Oh my god, I love them.’ And he ran down the street and sold them. You know the old story of being an overnight success after trying all your life? That’s what it was.”
Myers and Caplin struck up a business partnership that lasted 30 years. Myers handled the creative aspects of Broom Hilda and Caplin, who died in 2000, took care of negotiations and the business side of the strip.
Broom Hilda beat the odds just to see print. The fact that she and strip-mates like Gaylord Buzzard and Irwin Troll have remained in circulation for a half century is witchcraft-level magic.
Myers can’t vouch for the accuracy of this, but he said he heard a stat years ago that out of every 1,000 strip submissions a syndicate receives, one is approved — and the majority of the approvals fail.
“And lately I heard the ratio was even worse,” he said. “It was one out of 3,000 or 4,000. I don’t know if that’s true, but that’s what I heard. I don’t doubt it.”
Broom Hilda has always populated the funny pages in Myers’ hometown. The Tulsa Tribune immediately began carrying Broom Hilda in 1970 and it was named the National Cartoonists Society’s top humor strip midway through the decade. The Tulsa World picked up the strip after the Tribune ceased publication in 1992.
Some strips get passed from one creator to another over time. Myers has piloted Broom Hilda all 50 years. He said he wanted to free up time to do other things about 30 years ago, so he experimented with purchasing ideas for the strip. He bought 30 or 35, but it wasn’t a time-saver because he still had to sort and modify and rewrite the ideas. Buying ideas wasn’t worth the cost or the hassle, so he returned to going solo. (His wife, Marina, handled lettering chores for a few years because “she is better than I am.”)
When Broom Hilda debuted, her age was listed as 1,500 years old. Asked about Broom Hilda’s publication longevity and why she hit a sweet spot with readers, Myers said, “The only answer I have sounds kind of dumb, but I guess they like to read it. That’s all I can think of. You live or die based on how you are accepted by the public. The public has accepted it so far for 50 years. God bless them.”
What has Myers done to keep them reading?
“I hope I have just made them laugh,” he said. “I don’t have any agenda. I have my own personal political viewpoints, but I don’t put them into the comic strip. I am not trying to teach anybody anything. If people can look at it every day and just kind of snort through their nose and smile, then I have been successful.”
This isn’t political, but Myers made a statement when he had Broom Hilda give up cigars in the early years of the strip. He did so after receiving a letter from a doctor about Broom Hilda’s cigar habit.
“My mind is kind of in my parents’ generation,” Myers said. “I love the old vaudeville comics and stuff. When I started out, I was doing drinking jokes and she had a cigar and all that stuff. Times have changed in the last half century, so that went away.”
Myers last visited Tulsa for his mother’s memorial service in 2012. He drove by the old brick house of his youth. Except for more trees, it looked pretty much the same.
If you’re a cartoonist, you can do your work from almost anywhere. For the last 40 years, Myers and his wife have lived in the same house in Grants Pass, Oregon. He’s 81 and he has no plans to retire from the strip.
“There are days I am tired of it, sure,” he said. “But it has just become such a routine part of my existence. It’s just what I do. ... I have longevity on both sides of family and good health, so I’m just going to keep grinding away.”
Even if Myers had a change of heart and retired tomorrow, Broom Hilda could continue for at least another year and a half because he works ahead and has an inventory of unused strips. There’s an urban legend (or maybe it’s more credible than that) about a cartoonist who waited until crunch time to hit a deadline. Myers said the artist decided to do his work while on a train to deliver the goods. The artist fell asleep and passed his stop. Myers never wanted to be that guy, so he crafts one or two extra strips per week.
“Some guys, they have to be under pressure to produce,” he said. “If I’m under pressure, it makes me squirmy, so I like to avoid pressure.”
In 1978, when Broom Hilda was a relative babe, Myers said this in a Tulsa Tribune interview: “A person wouldn’t be wrong if he said I had the greatest job there is.”
Does he still feel that way?
“Yeah. You tend to take things for granted. I live here and I look out my window. I look out on a river. People come by and say ‘oh, that’s beautiful.’
“Well, it is beautiful, but after you sit here for a week or two, you just don’t see it sometimes. It is just there. You take it for granted. But if I sit back and evaluate, I’m thinking, yeah, I’m sitting here in my house in my bedroom slippers and I can work the hours I want and I guess it is about the best job in the world for me.”
Jimmie Tramel 918-581-8389