Fifteen years ago, Rosie McDaniel's perpetually amused husband, a very funny guy bewitched by MAD magazine and newspaper funnies, did something characteristically silly.
The late Mark Cohen wrote to cartoonists to ask if they'd send him a caricature of themselves, naked. Dozens and dozens did, largely because they knew and loved the man behind the odd request.
That Cohen would collect whimsical nude self-portraits of cartoon artists makes perfect sense given the context of his life. From early on, his greatest fascination was with the clever, fantastic, insightful, perhaps even brilliant drawing and writing that goes into MAD and the funny pages.
As a 14-year-old in Stockton, Cohen began sending money orders good for a few bucks to newspaper cartoonists and requesting self-caricatures — regular, fully dressed ones. Junior Cohen would hop around the house when an artist's doodle of him- or herself arrived in the mail.
His collection grew to more than 400. Decades later, Ohio State University Libraries published many of them in a book, "A Galley of Rogues."
As a young man, Cohen also drew his own comics strip. One day, with great anticipation, he submitted his creation for possible publication in his hometown paper, The Stockton Record.
Rosie McDaniel said it was a harsh blow for her future husband when an editor at the paper looked him in the eye and pronounced, "Kid, you can't draw."
So much for Cohen's dream to make cartooning his livelihood. But he didn't allow the discouragement to stop him from making it his life.
He went on to amass a world-class collection of cartoon artwork and original MAD magazine art and memorabilia. He wrote gags for several strips, among them, "Gasoline Alley," "Wee Pals" and "Popeye."
And he not only befriended many cartoonists, including the king of them all, Sonoma County's late Charles M. Schulz of "Peanuts," he ultimately left his day job as Santa Rosa's most comical real estate broker to work as an agent and advocate for comics artists.
As for the nude self-portraits: In 1998, Cohen and his wife were flying home from the Cartoon Art Festival at Ohio State. They were laughing, volleying quips and ideas.
By then, Cohen had been diagnosed with a most troublesome cancer. But he wasn't of a mind to let it dim his love of life.
There on the jetliner, up popped the idea to ask some of his and McDaniel's favorite people in the world — cartoonists — for drawings of themselves in the raw.
"He always said it was my idea," said Santa Rosa native McDaniel, who is 71 and a regular volunteer at the Schulz Museum. "I remember the conversation, but who brought it up I have no idea."
Regardless, Cohen gleefully went about asking cartoonists both famed and unknown to shoot him a doodle of themselves without clothes.
Lynn Johnston, creator of "For Better or Worse," was first to respond. She sent Cohen a playful pin-up of herself wearing naught but bunny slippers and reading the comics pages.
Others followed, many others. McDaniel remembers her phone ringing and her husband and best friend exulting, "You will not believe what I got in the mail today!"
Hysterical, charming, self-effacing, sometimes slightly naughty nudes arrived from most of the biggest names in the business: Sergio Aragon? and Al Jaffee of MAD, Pulitzer Prize winner Jules Feiffer, Gahan Wilson of Playboy, former Santa Rosan David Wiley Miller of "Non Sequitur," Bil and Jeff Keane of "The Family Circus," Sebastopol's Paige Braddock of "Jane's World," Greg Evans of "Luann," — 144 in all.
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