Goodbye To Mort Walker
♦ US comic strip artist Mort Walker, whose Beetle Bailey was a staple of American newspapers for decades, has just died at the age of 94. Here’s the Washington Post obituary for him…
Mort Walker, whose “Beetle Bailey” comic strip followed the exploits of a lazy G.I. and his inept cohorts at the dysfunctional Camp Swampy, and whose dedication to his art form led him to found the first museum devoted to the history of cartooning, died on 27 January at his home in Stamford, Conn. He was 94.
Bill Morrison, president of the National Cartoonists Society, confirmed the death. The cause was pneumonia.
In contrast with the work-shirking soldier he immortalized, Mr. Walker was a man of considerable drive and ambition. He drew his daily comic strip for 68 years, longer than any other U.S. artist in the history of the medium.
Debuting in 1950, “Beetle Bailey” was distributed by King Features Syndicate and eventually reached 200 million readers in 1,800 newspapers in more than 50 countries. Beetle and company appeared in comic books, television cartoons, games and toys and were also featured in a musical with the book by Mr. Walker, as well as on a U.S. Postal Service stamp in 2010.
“Beetle Bailey” was among the first cartoons to mark a shift in the funny pages from the serial strips of the previous decade to the graphically simpler gag-a-day model that predominates today.
Beetle’s cast includes the title character, a lanky goof-off whose eyes are always covered by the visor of his hat or helmet; his rotund nemesis, Sgt. Snorkel, a violent but sentimental man who frequently beat Beetle to a pulp of squiggly lines; the ineffectual Gen. Halftrack, who ran Camp Swampy (a place the Pentagon had lost track of); Halftrack’s voluptuous secretary, Miss Buxley; Cookie, the hairy-shouldered chef and purveyor of inedible meatballs; and the bumpkin Pvt. Zero.
The characters never saw battle, and weapons and uniforms were not updated. Mr. Walker said that the military setting was simply a convenient stand-in for the pecking order of which everyone is a part.
Comics historian R.C. Harvey wrote that the strip “gives expression to our resentment by ridiculing traditional authority figures and by demonstrating, with Beetle, how to survive through the diligent application of sheer lethargy and studied indifference.”
Starting in 1954, Mr. Walker wrote another hit cartoon, the widely syndicated family strip “Hi and Lois,” originally illustrated by Dik Browne (later the creator of “Hägar the Horrible”). Mr. Walker said he wanted to depict a loving family “together against the world . . . instead of against each other.”
He thrived on collaboration, working with assistants (including Jerry Dumas and Bill Janocha, and his sons Brian and Greg) to review jokes every week and to create at least eight other strips, among them “Boner’s Ark” and “Sam’s Strip.”
Brian and Greg, who have written “Hi and Lois” since the 1980s and have assisted Mr. Walker with Beetle gags and inking since the 1970s, will continue to produce “Beetle Bailey.”
Even as he was devising his gags — he claimed to have 80,000 unused jokes in storage — Mr. Walker devoted himself to establishing a museum that would treat the comic strip as a serious art form.
In 1974, with a check from the Hearst Foundation and refurbishing help from family and friends, he opened the Museum of Cartoon Art in a mansion in Greenwich, Conn. The collection grew with donations of art from newspaper syndicates and the estates of cartoonists and is today worth an estimated $20 million.
The museum relocated several times and closed in 2002 as the International Museum of Cartoon Art in Boca Raton, Fla., after corporate donors declared bankruptcy. In 2008, its more than 200,000 pieces became part of Ohio State University’s Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum, where a gallery is named after Mr. Walker.
In 1990, the Pentagon recognized Mr. Walker (if not Camp Swampy) with the Certificate of Appreciation for Patriotic Civilian Service. “As hard as it is to find anything at the Pentagon,” the veteran gagman quipped, “they finally found a sense of humour.”