This family lived together for 62 years without speaking

Happy birthday to “Wordless Workshop” cartoonist Roy Doty (1922–2015)

Detail from Wordless Workshop, by Roy Doty and Ernest E. Hickman. Popular Science Jan 1960

When I was 10 or 11, I would often walk to my next-door neighbor Dean’s house, sit on his basement floor, and pore over his massive collection of Popular Science magazines dating back to the 1950s. The magazine was much different than its current incarnation. It was geared towards do-it-yourselfers and people who enjoyed learning about how everyday things worked, such as air conditioners, water meters, golf balls, and retaining walls. Every issue was crammed with odd little items about new inventions, small ads for all sorts of weird things, stunningly good illustrations, and handy hints for doing things faster, cheaper, and better.

I liked everything about the magazine, and my favorite part was the regular comic called “Wordless Workshop.” It first appeared in the July 1953 issue and, keeping with the stereotypes of the era, featured a Leave It To Beaver family. Every episode had a similar setup: one of the parents or one of the kids was shown experiencing some kind of problem around the house. The dad would pinch his chin and stare dreamily at the ceiling for a while, and then a light bulb would appear over his head. He’d retreat to his workshop, put on his shop apron, and construct something ingenious and elegant to save the day.

The entire comic was told without words, which is why it was called “Wordless Workshop.” I admired the dad in the comic. He reminded me of my dad, who fixed everything that broke around the house and also did a lot of DIY landscaping and home improvement projects. He also reminded me of The Professor from Gilligan’s Island, who was able to resourcefully solve any problem his fellow castaways had.

The clarity and economy of the line art in “Wordless Workshop” left a deep impression on me. It was so easy to understand what was going on. Even at my young age, I understood that the apparent simplicity of the art was the result of a great deal of technical skill and storytelling experience (I later learned that Roy Doty, the illustrator, had been influenced by the ligne claire school of comic art, which he became acquainted with while serving in Europe during WWII). I imagined Doty to look like the dad in the comic, smoking a pipe as he drew his monthly comic.

Eventually, my family moved across town and I lost access to Dean’s Popular Science collection, but whenever I encountered an old copy of Popular Science in the years that followed, I’d flip to “Wordless Workshop” and admire Doty’s imagination and his confident, playful yet restrained line work.

Some 35 years later, I was helping launch a new magazine called Make, which was in many ways like the old Popular Science. Wouldn’t it be great, I thought, to find an artist like Roy Doty to do illustrations for it? I started looking around for illustrators with a similar style, and someone told me that Roy Doty was still doing “Wordless Workshop” for Family Handyman magazine. What? That meant Doty had been doing “Wordless Workshop” for 52 years! I could hardly believe he was still working — those 1950s Popular Sciences felt like they were from a distant epoch. I wrangled Roy’s phone number and called him, nervous about speaking to someone who I admired so much for so long. Fortunately, he was gracious, funny, and friendly. Roy said he’d recently turned 83 and had just finished illustrating his 177th book. He accepted my invitation to illustrate Make’s puzzle page, called “Aha!” (The title of which was a nod to puzzle master Martin Gardner, who had written a pair of books called Aha!)

This was 2005, and at that time, Roy would send his rough pencil sketches by fax for my approval before he inked them. I never had to give him any feedback, other than “That looks great!” Here’s one of his faxed sketches:

In the ensuing years, Roy and I spoke on the phone and frequently emailed, talking about many things other than work. I loved his annual holiday cards, which often had depictions of Rube Goldberg style chain-reaction machines. He also sent me copies of illustrations he’d drawn for a wide variety of magazines, which showed his range of styles. I’m in awe of his illustration of a blissed-out audiophile, which is probably from the early 1960s:

Even in his late 80s, Roy loved to bowl, golf, and take vacations. When I posted a happy birthday message on Boing Boing to congratulate him on his 85th birthday, he emailed me: “Thanks for all the good thoughts. Makes me feel young again. Actually, I’ve never felt old.”

In a 2006 interview for the book, Tales for Little Rebels: A Collection of Radical Children’s Literature, Roy was asked about what it was like to have a 60-plus-year career as an illustrator. He said, “Oh, what could be nicer? I sit and draw funny pictures and people send me money.”

Roy continued to draw “Wordless Workshop” for The Family Handyman right up until he died in 2015. He would have turned 98 today. Happy Birthday, Roy!

Photo of Roy Doty from 2011, by Kelsey McClellan. Used with permission.