Susan Gerbic: So, Terry, thank you for taking some time to talk to me. I’ve been reading Rex Morgan, M.D. for years but got into it quite late in Rex’s terms, as it has been running since 1948. It was created by Dr. Nicholas Dallis and has been in print for over seventy years. I believe you became involved as the artist in 2013 and took over the writing as well in 2016.
Beatty: Yes, I had been drawing the Sunday adventures of The Phantom for King Features for several years when they asked if I would be interested in drawing the daily and Sunday Rex Morgan feature. Of course I said yes. When long-time Rex writer Woody Wilson retired from the strip, I took over the writing assignment, and not long after left The Phantom, as writing and drawing a seven days a week feature was more than enough work.
Gerbic: For people not familiar with Rex Morgan, M.D., it is a soap opera comic strip that focuses on Dr. Morgan and his wife, June, and their family and medical practice. Some characters are recurring and the storylines branch out into their worlds. Rex Morgan is one of the strips that has characters age but at a glacial pace. The story lines can take weeks to play out completely. The artwork is awesome. The stories often touch on taboo topics and social issues as if the writer is trying to influence readers as well as educate about medical issues. Pretty much every medical issue has come up at some time in the strip.
Beatty: The strip has always leaned toward soap opera, with medical themes popping up from time to time. Some of the stories are about Rex’s friends and deal with social issues as well as personal events in their lives. I try to keep my stories to a two- to three-month run time. As for the characters aging, that’s one of the odd things about the story strips. Is the machine gun–toting Dick Tracy of the 1930s the same Dick Tracy as today’s computer-aided crime fighter? As for my Rex, I’ve established that he’s not the same Rex who started practicing medicine in 1948; somewhere along the line the story has to have rebooted, and today’s Rex is the “new guy.” This frees me from being saddled with decades of continuity that I haven’t even read, because I have no access to the entire run of the strip. King Features’ files on Rex are incomplete, and it’s only thanks to an avid comic strip collector who amassed a large batch of clipped strips that I’ve recently been able to read the first couple years’ worth of the feature.
Gerbic: I’m a long-time newspaper cartoon reader and had just skipped over Rex Morgan, M.D. thinking it was a boring old-person cartoon. It was running right next to Prince Valiant. I’m trying to remember when I first started reading, but I think it was sometime when June and Rex went to Vegas to talk to a showgirl with breast cancer who didn’t want to have treatment. The story line was quite riveting as I remember, and I got hooked.
Beatty: Rex ran in my local paper when I was growing up in the 1960s, and I have to admit I skipped reading it, too. I loved comics but gravitated more to the humor and adventure strips—superhero comic books, too. Rex seemed too much like the TV “soaps” my mom watched!
Gerbic: I don’t want to get too much into the weeds in our discussion, but obviously I’m really curious what is going to happen with many of my favorite characters. Heather Milton, Dolly Pierpont, Hank Harwood, and more. I love when the storyline picks up on one of their adventures. I was devastated reading all three endings to those stories and hope we will soon hear updates.
Beatty: I have no plans for those specific characters at the moment—but you never know when a story will pop into my head.
Gerbic: But the reason I really wanted to talk to you was about the last storyline that is ending right now. Lana goes to see Rex about her husband, Merle, who she thinks is being conned by Almonzo and Serena Galexia, who are offering him phone readings to take toxins out of his body. These toxins are because of chemtrail poisoning. Lana, in an effort to prove to Merle that this is all a con, gets Rex to check her blood for toxins. Because she has never been treated by Galexia, she should have high levels of toxins. Lana talks Rex into going with her and Merle to an in-person cosmic event where Rex recognizes that Almonzo is actually Rene with a beard and fake persona. Rene is one of the series con-men. Rex has a quiet word with Rene/Almonzo and the whole scam is quickly revealed. Merle realizes he has been conned, Lana has her “I told you so moment,” and the two scammers rush out of the building. As of this moment, we don’t know if they are caught by the police or if we will see them again with a new scam.
Okay, now everyone is caught up, as much as you can with a comic series over seventy years old. Terry, I don’t remember Rex tackling pseudoscience directly like this before. What inspired you to go in this direction?
Beatty: I’ve always been fascinated by con artists and hoaxers. That may come from growing up hearing stories about my Muscatine, Iowa, hometown “cancer quack,” Norman Baker. Baker owned a radio station and a newspaper and used both to lure thousands to his clinic where he administered his secret cure—which of course cured no one but made him wealthy.
Having recently heard about some “mystical healers” who were offering cures for chemtrail poisoning, alien implants, and other nonexistent maladies, that seemed a perfect subject for a Rex Morgan story, and it would allow me to bring con artist character Rene Belluso back on stage. When they say “you can’t make this stuff up,” this is the sort of thing they mean.
Gerbic: You yourself are not a medical doctor. You don’t go into specific details about cases, but I assume you have a way of making sure you are not offering bad advice. The story before this one was about new children in the neighborhood who have Down syndrome. They get an exam by Rex and he explains to his daughter, Sarah, that her new friend is just like everyone else, but she has a few things she needs to watch out for health wise. It was very kindly done.
Beatty: Thanks. That story was inspired by having had neighbors with an adult high-functioning Down syndrome son. The strip has also taken a stance against bullying, and the stories about the kids lend themselves to that theme. As for keeping the information in the strip accurate, I do as much research as I can, and I do have medical professionals I can run things past to make sure I’m not making a major blunder.
Gerbic: I fully believe that in order to combat quackery and pseudoscience we need all hands on deck. We need to look at many avenues to give great information. A soap opera comic strip seems like an interesting angle. I believe that Rex Morgan, M.D. has been doing a lot of educating over the years.
Beatty: I’d say that previous writers have focused a bit more on medical issues. Since Rex and June now have a house full of kids, the soap opera/family element has taken over a great deal more—but I do still try to include positive messages and sensible health/medical information. Rex and June, being medical professionals, would have no more patience with quackery than I do.
Gerbic: Are there medical topics you think are too controversial for Rex to tackle? I know euthanasia was discussed years ago, and many papers would not run it.
I’m thinking of topics such as vaccines, dangerous quack treatments such as black salve, enemas for cancer cures, bleach-drinking to cure autism, and so on. I’m especially interested in the discredited facilitated communication, but I suppose that would be way too complicated to explain.
Beatty: There certainly are “hot button” issues that are just too complicated and serious for the comics page. I have to consider that although Rex appeals to an adult readership, it’s also on the newspaper page with strips read by kids. It’s a balancing act.
Gerbic: By the way, what style is the artwork done in?
Beatty: The strip is drawn in a traditional adventure/story strip style, which is how I naturally draw. My longest-running work during my several decades in the comic book field was a private eye series (Ms. Tree) drawn in pretty much the same style that I use for Rex.
Gerbic: I’ve heard of John “goat balls” Brinkley before, but this is the first time I’ve heard of his contemporary Norman Baker. Fake cures are pretty lucrative then and now.
A rebooted Rex. I suppose that makes sense. Lynn Johnston restarted the whole series of For Better or For Worse after the children characters grew up and started moving away. She began again with new art and the kids are babies. I didn’t think it would work, but several years into it I’m hooked on that cartoon also.
Beatty: Baker is a fascinating character. I’ve read all I can find on him, and I still can’t figure out if he knew he was conning people or if he was self-deluded.
Gerbic: And I must know what cartoons you are currently following.
Beatty: I occasionally check in on strips drawn or written by my friends, Joe Staton on Dick Tracy, Mike Manley on The Phantom, and Judge Parker. But I don’t read any of them daily. Busman’s holiday, y’know. My comic strip reading is all book collections of classic material—Milt Caniff’s Steve Canyon, Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant, Leonard Starr’s On Stage, etc. If Lynda Barry, Dan Clowes, Charles Burns, or Bill Griffith publish a new book/graphic novel, those go immediately on my reading list.
Gerbic: I’m a bit of a romantic, and I carry a newspaper clipping in my calendar of Jordan and Michelle having a phone conversation about their first date. October 17, 2016. I guess you were not yet doing the writing at that time, just the artwork. You caught the look on Michelle’s face just when she realized who was calling and why. Another storyline I really enjoyed was when Jordan finally admitted that his leg was blown off when the jeep he was riding in hit an IED as they were going to the store to get fresh vegetables and the driver was killed. I wasn’t sure where you were going with that, but it ended up being a pretty moving storyline and led into his school friend Red getting his PTSD under control and a new kidney. Great work.
Beatty: The Jordan/Michelle romance is my story. I thought they’d make a good couple, both being ex-military. I’m glad you liked the story about Jordan and his pal Red. I got complaints from some veterans on that one, as my crack research team (me!) got some technical details regarding Jordan’s service wrong. Oh well, you can’t win them all. Jordan was one of several “super-achiever” characters introduced by the previous writer. I wanted to back off from that and make him flawed and more relatable. I need to get back to Jordan and Michelle soon; they do have wedding plans in their future.
Gerbic: There was one storyline recently that had Horrible Hank visit Vegas and he ran into Penn and Teller—and you drew them having a conversation with Hank and his son. That was pretty exciting to see people I know in real life actually in the cartoon. How did that happen?
Beatty: I had a Las Vegas sequence coming up in the strip, and thought it would be fun for my characters to meet some actual Vegas performers. I’d been a Penn and Teller fan since their early appearances on Letterman, so I asked around among my show biz–connected friends to see if anyone had contact info. That led to being put in touch with P&T’s manager, who liked the idea and ran it past the boys—who loved the idea. So my ninety-year old-retired horror comic book artist character got to chat with Penn for several strips (Teller had no dialogue, of course) and score free tickets to their show. The gag, of course, was that P&T were longtime fans of the old man’s horror comics—and he had not a clue who they were. The fellas were quite pleased with their cartoon portraits, and I got a big kick out of putting two of my favorite magicians/skeptics on the comics page.
Gerbic: Thank you so much, Terry, for your time. This has been really awesome to hear the behind-the-scenes info from you.
This interview has been lightly edited.