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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.

Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

McDaniel said Cohen didn't want to impose on his friend and fellow Santa Rosan, Schulz. But one day the universally renowned creator of Snoopy and the "Peanuts" gang said, "Here, Mark, I have something for you."

It was a color drawing of a bespectacled pitcher, facing away and suspended upside-down in the air above the mound after being knocked out of his clothes by a line drive — a play on a frequent occurrence for hapless baseball-team manager Charlie Brown.

That was a most special submission for Cohen, but he loved them all. His wife said that receiving the drawings, inspecting them and talking with the artists about them was one of his greatest sources of joy as the cancer spread and whittled away his independence in 1999.

"This was Mark's last adventure in cartooning," she said.

Her husband thought Playboy would be the ideal publication for the naked self-caricatures, but that still hadn't been arranged when he died at his and McDaniel's Santa Rosa home on Dec. 19, 1999, at the age of 57.

McDaniel has since donated most of their collections to the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum at Ohio State. But what to do with the 140-plus nudes?

Over the years since her husband died, several friends — most notably Jeannie Schulz, the "Peanuts" creator's widow — have encouraged McDaniel to get the sketches into a book. As a result, McDaniel entered into increasingly serious conversations with Lucy Shelton Caswell, founder and former curator of Ohio State Museum, and comics-book editor Gary Groth.

Caswell helped McDaniel with the demanding task of contacting all of the cartoonists who had given Cohen naked self-caricatures, or to the heirs of those who have since died, to request their permission to publish the drawings.

A few declined. McDaniel recalled, "One widow demanded to have it (her late husband's drawing) back."

But most of the cartoonists or their heirs agreed.

The resulting book, "Naked Cartoonists," published by Fantagraphics Books of Seattle, features more than 70 of the portraits, each accompanied by a brief biography of the contributor by underground cartoonist Frank Stack.

Thumb through the book and it becomes quickly apparent that the primary thing revealed by the artists is their playful regard for Mark Cohen.

"They were all his friends and he loved them," his widow said.

"Naked Cartoonists" made a big splash when McDaniel and her partners placed copies of it in the goodie bags at the Reuben Award banquet during the National Cartoonists Society convention in Pittsburgh in May. And the book is up for "Best Humor Publication" in the July 19 Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards.

The only thing it seems to be missing is a nudie self-portrait by Cohen. But there is that one problem.

"Mark," observed his wife and greatest fan, "couldn't draw."

(Chris Smith is at 521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.)

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