Monday, January 29, 2018

In Memoriam: Mort Walker 1923-2018

"Seven days without laughter makes one weak"

Believe it or not, I've spent years debating with myself whether to eulogize Walker or not. That's not a typo, I said YEARS, even though he just died the day before yesterday. I knew how old he was (for a while now the oldest cartoonist with a comic strip produced daily), and that his passing would come sooner or later...but it's been so long I've been debating this, it now seems more later than sooner! What was my problem, exactly? Though I liked his work a great deal growing up, I've come to see him in recent years, nay, recent decades, as the Anti-Charles Schulz. He didn't seem the artist Schulz was, but instead more of  a goddamn media mogul with an army of writers and artists (some of them his children) working under him.  Who knows when he last wrote or drew something on his own? 1993? 1985? 1971? Why not just eulogize the president of King Features instead?

Nevertheless, after reexamining his life work, my original enthusiasm for the man returned. Other people may have had their hands on it lately, but it's all based on Walker's original and quite wonderful style. So let the eulogizing begin...

 Walker grew up in Kansas City, Missouri...

 ...where he was a cartoonist prodigy of sorts.

 At age 11, Walker first cartoon, (top left) was published in Open Road for Boys magazine after he won second prize in a contest. A few years later, he had his own newspaper strip, The Lime Juicers, in the weekly Kansas City Journal, before he was even old enough to drive.

 Upon graduating high school, Walker attended the University of Missouri, where he had this cartoon published in a campus newspaper. 


  Little did I know when I was drafted that I was going to get almost four years of free research.” 

After the war, Walker began contributing cartoons to this magazine, which at the time had the highest circulation in America. Charles Schulz also had his early cartoons published there around the same time, though it would be a few years before the two men actually met.

As you can see Walker covered a wide variety of topics...

...but he seemed most interested in the misadventures of a lazy college kid named Spider. Walker eventually decided that he could make more money if his new star appeared in a multi-paneled newspaper strip.

William Randolph Hearst. He's known for many things. Yellow journalism. A humongous newspaper chain. Dozens of magazines. The Spanish-American War. The model for the title character in Citizen Kane (which Orson Welles always denied, though nobody, including myself, ever believed him.) A granddaughter kidnapped by a bunch of Marxist revolutionaries who ended up joining the Marxist revolutionaries herself. But it is in his capacity as the head of  the King Features Syndicate that he interests us. Walker's new comic strip about that lazy college kid...

 ...Beetle Bailey (Spider was dropped because there was another character with that name somewhere else in the funny pages) is said to have been the last one Hearst personally approved before he died in 1950.

Here's a rare look at Beetle's eyes:

It was rejected by the syndicate. Apparently they felt the same way that professor did in that final panel.

Beetle Bailey was a nicely drawn comic strip, and if you're willing to squint to read them, the gags are funny enough, but it its first year it was picked up by only 25 newspapers, and King Features considered dropping it.


I don't know that General MacArthur was all that happy about it, but thanks to the change of locale, Beetle Bailey quickly became one of the highest circulated comic strips in America, which it remains today. Let's look at some of the reasons why:

First off, there's Walker's drawing style. He was a superb cartoonist, it's as simple as that. Speaking of  "simple", the drawing became more so as the years went by.

Along with Charles Schulz and Johnny Hart, Walker was one of the comic strip medium's great minimalists.

Let's look at some of the denizens of Camp Swampy:

There's the title character, who never met a nap he didn't like.

 Skirt-chaser Killer. Whenever he sees a pretty girl, those oval things on each side of his cap start shaking, the closest a mainstream comic strip has ever come to depicting arousal. 

Country bumpkin Zero. With all the money that's spent on the military, can't they find this guy a good dentist?

 Plato. Like his namesake a bit of a philosopher, but Banksy he's not.

 Rocky, a comic strip version of James Dean. 

 God watches over orphans and drunks, but he sent Chaplain Stained Glass to watch over Camp Swampy.

Several years before Milo Minderbinder, Walker beat Joseph Heller to the punch with the entrepreneurial Cosmo.  

Gung-ho junior officer Lt. Fuzz, who's always trying, and always failing, to impress his superiors.

 Mess sergeant Cookie. If he prepares your food, you might want to keep a bottle of syrup of ipecac on hand.

Obese Sergeant Snorkle is one of Beetle Bailey's more multifaceted personalities. That's not saying much in a strip built on comic stereotypes, but whereas most of the characters has a single shtick they stick to, Snorkle has several:

There's the beat-the-hell-out-of-Beetle shtick.

There's the eat-every-thing-in-sight shtick.

There's the hanging-onto-the-branch shtick.

And my personal favorite, the eternal-war-of-nerves-with-Lt. Fuzz shtick.

 General Halftrack, the elderly commander of Camp Swampy, is another multifaceted character with several shticks of his own.

There's the drowning-himself-in-alcohol shtick.

 There's the can't-get-enough-golf shtick. 

 There's the stuck-in-a-lousy-marriage shtick.

 But my favorite is the shtick we see most often: the ineffectual leader.

The sexual revolution saw the arrival of Miss Buxley, Halftrack's scantily-clad civilian secretary

Over the years feminists have complained that Halftrack's behavior toward Miss Buxley bordered on sexual harassment (though she never seemed to notice.) Walker for years dismissed such criticisms...

 Until a real life military sex scandal made headlines in the 1990s.

 Halftrack was told to shape up.

These days Miss Buxley dates Beetle. After all, it's HIS strip.

I can't say for sure what effect the turbulent 1960s had on Walker, but in 1970 the normally noncontroversial cartoonist took a socioeconomic walk on the wild side with the introduction of Lt. Flap. In recent years he's been a much more subdued character, but there was a time when his every appearance made the strip every bit as edgy as Doonesbury.

Every comedy needs a straight man. That role was ably performed by Captain Scabbard.

Other characters include Private Blips, the plain-Jane counterpart to Miss Buxley: Otto, Sergeant Snorkle's lookalike dog; Major Greenbrass, another straight man; Martha, Halftrack's bossy wife; Julius, Halftrack's anal chauffeur; Dr. Bonkus, Camp Swampy's loopy psychiatrist; agressive Sergeant Louise Lugg, who's out to win Snorkle's heart; Bella, Lugg's cat; Corporal Ho, an Asian; Specialist Gizmo, a computer nerd. In it's own way, Beetle Bailey was every bit as multicultural as Wee Pals

Before I leave the Beetle Bailey strip completely I want to temporarily jump back in time...

Though there's no evidence Beetle actually served overseas,the Korean Was the impetus that took the young slacker out of college and into the army. Once that war ended, so did Beetle's hitch. He moved back home with his  family, which included his sister Lois and brother-in-law Hiram. That's them there on the couch. The change in locale didn't suit readers, and he soon re-enlisted. Except Walker had grown fond of Beetle's family, and proved the impetus for Walker's next great strip. Of course, two comic features was quite a bit of work, so he looked for someone else to do the artwork.

The 1940s logo for Chiquita bananas. You may think I'm a bit bananas for showing you this when I'm supposed to be talking about Mort Walker. But it's who designed that logo that interests me.

That's Dik Browne, the guy who designed the logo, on the right, talking to Walker about their new venture:

Hi and Lois (she changed her hair) Flagston, their older (soon-to-be teenage) son Chip, boy-and-girl twins dot and Ditto, and baby Trixie. See how Browne managed to get Walker's drawing style down pat. So much so, that as a kid, when I saw the "by Mort Walker and Dik Browne" credit, I assumed it was Browne that did the writing! )Of course, Browne eventually came up with a winning style of his own with Hagar the Horrible, and even doing Hi and Lois, his work tended to be more detailed than Walker's.)

It may be more Brady Bunch than Rosanne, but it was funny.

As you can see, the strip's origins weren't forgotten about, either.

In 1968, Walker came up with another strip. If Noah's story were only that funny. The strip was credited to someone named Addison. That's because Walker's full name was Addison Morton Walker.

How in the world did Walker find time for three strips. Well, he had some help from this guy, Jerry Dumas, who worked on all three. As well as a forth that some comic historians believe to be Walker's masterpiece.

The metafictional Sam's Strip premiered in 1961. If you're a longtime comics fan like me, you gotta love this stuff.

Unfortunately, there may not have been enough long-time comics fans out there. the strip only lasted two years. Here the two principal characters, Sam and Silo, make a cameo in Beetle Bailey.

Other strips created or co-created by Mort Walker include Gamin and Patches, Mrs. Fitz's Flats, The Evermores, and Sam and Silo (featuring the two characters from Sam's Strip.)

In 1974, Walker founded the International Museum of Art, currently located in Boca Raton Florida. I've never been there, but I'm sure when I do go, the guards will have a hard time getting me to leave.

Here's three cartoonist Morts for you: Drucker (Mad), Gerber (The New Yorker, Playboy) and Walker.

Since I think they were friends, I looked mightily for a picture of Walker and Charles Schulz. Instead, I found this one. That's Walker in the middle, his son Brian on the left, and Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau on his right. During his long career, Mort Walker received many awards and honors, and, as this picture illustrates, had the respect of a very important peer. That's good enough for me.