Mort Walker turned 87 over the Labor Day weekend and this year his best known creation, the “Beetle Bailey” comic strip, celebrated sixty years in syndication. Mr. Walker was kind enough to take time out of his schedule and invite us down to his home and office in Connecticut. He’s a man in great shape for his age, and to celebrate sixty years in the newspapers he’s taking a two week vacation while King Features runs strips that were chosen by visitors to his website as some of their favorites.
Walker is not always given his due, though Fantagraphics‘ recent printing of “Sam’s Strip,” a short-lived comic from Walker and Jerry Dumas, did draw attention to the fact that Walker is capable of producing a brilliantly complex and innovative comic that is as formally inventive and challenging as anything that could be found on a comics page in Twentieth Century America. It just didn’t last very long.
Reviewing his career can easily turn into a laundry list of awards and accomplishments. Walker worked for Hallmark back when it was known as Hall Brothers, and helped to design greeting cards for the company. He was an editor at Dell Publications. At the age of thirty, he received the Reuben of the Year Award from the National Cartoonists Society. At thirty-one, his second comic strip, “Hi and Lois,” which he produced with Dik Browne, was launched. In 1999, he became the second cartoonist to be awarded the Gold T-Square from the National Cartoonists Society.
Walker can be regarded as an cartoonist of the craftsman school rather than those more recent ones who look upon the form as a means of personal expression. This ignores the small ways that Walker has toyed with convention and the small ways he’s personalized his gag strips. It also ignores the small but daring moves he made. When Walker introduced an African-American character into “Beetle Bailey” in the 1960s, the strip was promptly dropped by many major newspapers throughout the Southeast United States and “Stars and Stripes.”
Despite the strange genius of “Sam’s Strip,” Walker seeks something else from his daily work. “I don’t want the Pulitzer prize,” Walker said, “I want the bulletin board prize. What I want is for people to relate to my strips and say, ‘that’s just like me’ or ‘just like my friend,’ cut it out and put it on the bulletin board. That’s what I’m after.”
CBR NEWS: Does it feel like you’ve been doing “Beetle Bailey” for sixty years?
Mort Walker: It feels like normal life. I get up in the morning and think up gags, sit down and draw strips and don’t think too much about it. [Laughs] I really enjoy it, though. I don’t want to retire. I feel like I have a responsibility to all the readers I have. They tell me I’ve got two hundred million readers in fifty-two countries. You don’t want to go off and leave them if they’ve been reading you and enjoy it. Every time I run into people who say, ‘oh, I’ve been reading you all my life,’ I have a standard answer. “Thank you, I thought you looked intelligent.” [Laughs] They know I’m kidding, but they like it anyway.
What is a typical day like for you?
When people ask me when I’m going to retire, this is my answer, which gives you an idea of my day. I get up and have breakfast. I walk about three steps to my studio and lie down in the barcalounger. I get an idea and take three steps over to my desk. I make some scratches on a paper and they send me money. [Laughs] What would I retire to? Ditch digging? I always think of ideas in bed before I get up. I always have things to write down at the breakfast table.
Now you pencil the comic, but you don’t ink them anymore.
My son Greg inks them.
Why did you give that aspect of it up?
I gave that up a long long time ago. The pencilling is the most important thing. Inking takes a long time and if you find somebody that’s a good inker, you’ve enhanced your product. That gives me more time to work on ideas. I can come up with about twenty ideas in an hour. To get them ready for the gag conference, which we have once a month, I select the better ones and sketch those up. This is what I was doing this morning before you came. I can sketch up about thirty of them in a day.
We go to the gag conference and there are four of us and we each have thirty gags so there’s one hundred and twenty gags. We only need thirty, so there’s a lot left over. We tried to estimate how many leftover gags we have and we figured we had about 80,000 all sketched up. A lot of people think they’re pretty good gags. When they come over from Europe and they have comic books they need to fill up because they don’t have enough of my regular stuff, they come over to look through these files. So some of them are getting used but I still have stacks and stacks. I have three full file cabinets full of them.
Who takes part in these monthly gag conferences?
I run them. My two sons, who also do “Hi and Lois,” write gags. My son Greg does the inking. Brian doesn’t have anything to do with the artwork on “Beetle,” just “Hi and Lois.” Jerry Dumas, who’s an author and a newspaper columnist. He’s been working with me ever since he got out of college and got out of the air force around 1951 or ’52. He used to do my inking for me, then he took on doing his own strips. He’s doing one of the strips that I created called “Sam and Silo.” It started out being called “Sam’s Strip.”
There was a great collection of that strip released by Fantagraphics recently, but the strip didn’t last very long.
It didn’t last too long. The head of the syndicate, King Features Syndicate, said why don’t you just put Sam and Silo in a different atmosphere. So I went back to the comics editor and we sat in the office and went, how about doing this? No. How about small town cops? So that’s what they are, they’re small town cops, and they’ve been like that for forty years.
What is it about “Beetle Bailey” that’s been so big?
I think people relate to it. Of course a lot of people relate to Beetle because they have a lot of thoughts like him: All these rules are regulations are awful, how do I get around them? In an office. In school or college. That’s the way I was. I always wanted to do my own thing all the time. I was really adept at getting out of work I didn’t want to do. [Laughs] It’s funny. I always made good grades, but the teachers were always at odds with me. They couldn’t control me. [Laughs] And I got away with it.
In the army I did the same thing. When the army sent me to school, I was in this dormitory and they had a nine o’clock bed check. I was supposed to be in bed at nine o’clock, but I had a beautiful girlfriend I just had to be with. I found that down the hall there was a closet and there were pipes that ran down to the furnace room. So I climbed down through the furnace room. The attendant down there looked at me like, where did you come from? He didn’t know what to do. I would say, good evening, and then walk out the door. [Laughs] I’d go on my date, come back and say, hi how’re you doing, and climb through the closet. [Laughs] I got away with that for a whole year. No one ever caught me.
That’s interesting. How much is the strip like your time in army?
Well, Beetle is me. He’s a nonconformist. He can’t understand why you have to wash the barracks floor twice in one day. If the sergeant says you’ve got to do it, you’ve got to do it. It doesn’t make any sense. I had to live with that for four years, people telling me what to do.
My theory has always been that Beetle is smartest character in the strip, because he knows what he wants and managed to make it happen. And he’s also the happiest character.
You got it right. Just like me. I was always the smartest one. [Laughs] A lot of people like Sergeant Snorkel because as tough as he is, it’s all a ruse. All my characters are based on real people. I had a sergeant just like Sergeant Snorkel and he was just so tough that everyone tried to avoid him. We would hide when we saw him coming. Then one day we came back after a real tough day, he’d written a poem “to my boys” and mimeographed it and put a copy on each pillow. We couldn’t believe. He thinks of us as his boys. We’re not soldiers. He has some affection for us.
Recently [in the strip], they had mail call and the guys turned around and said, ‘Sarge, how come you never get any mail?’ He’s like, who needs mail, it’s all junk, don’t bother me. Then he goes back to the barracks and sits on his bed and there’s a tear in his eye. I got letters from kids all over the country saying, don’t cry Sarge, here’s a letter for you. Like he was a real person and he was sad and they wanted to cheer him up. That was very comforting to me. To realize that people have that affection for the characters.
When the comic started, Beetle was in college. Why did you have him join the Army originally?
First of all, they weren’t very successful selling it. Readers didn’t glom onto it like with a lot of other stuff. The editor of the “Philadelphia Inquirer” wrote and said, “Put him army, they’re drafting guys like Beetle.” I didn’t want to do it. After World War II, all the army comic strips faded away. I said, as soon as the Korean War is over, I’ll be out of work.” But I put him in the army and it just took off. I said, well this is fine now, but I took him home on furlough and introduced his sister Lois and her husband Hi as an insurance policy.
With the intention that after the war ended, he would leave the army and move into their house or nearby and the strip would involve them.
Yeah. When the war was over and nobody wanted him as a soldier he could become Lois’ brother and we’d work on the relationship there. But it never stopped selling. And today it’s one of the top selling strips in the business and one of the most popular. They’re dropping strips all over the place but they’re not dropping Beetle.
You’ve had an interesting relationship with the army over the years. I don’t think younger readers think of the strip as controversial but “Stars and Stripes” dropped it on two separate occasions.
“Stars and Stripes” dropped it under orders from the Pentagon because they thought it was hurting discipline. That I was showing that opposition to orders was fun to do. [Laughs] The readers responded and Senator [William] Proxmire went to the Pentagon one time and said all my constituents want Beetle back in “Star and Stripes.” The Pentagon finally relented and found their sense of humor. I haven’t had any trouble since.
Military strips tend to have that problem. Bill Mauldin kept running into that during World War II.
He had the same trouble. General Patton called him into the office and told him to stop drawing those damn cartoons. But they’re very popular with the men. It helps with morale. People like to gripe about stuff. Patton finally relented and let him keep it in. And [Mauldin] won the Pulitzer prize.
You were awarded the Reuben of the year Award by the National Cartoonist Society very early in your career. Before Charles Schulz or many others of your generation did. We’re here talking about a strip that you began when you were twenty-seven. What was your early career like after you left the Army?
I came to New York and I just had a few dollars in my pocket. Another artist took pity on me and said, where are you living? I said I didn’t have a place and he said, you came to New York without lining up some place to live? It was after the war. He said, stay with me. He was living in a condemned building. They were going to tear it down and build a dormitory, but until they did that, they were allowing artists and writers to live there at a reduced rate. For eight dollars a month I lived there and became friends with all the people in the building. One guy was a big comic book artist. He made fifteen thousand dollars a year. I wrote on the top of my drawing board, my goal is to make fifteen thousand dollars a year. [Laughs]
I started selling magazine cartoons. Well, I didn’t sell any for the first six months. I realized that I was doing something wrong, so I changed everything. I changed the way I drew. I changed the type of paper I drew on. Instead of drawing roughs like most of the guys drew, I drew finishes. I drew everything in ink and then put a blue wash. The other cartoonists got mad at me because I was outshining them. I said, look, the editors don’t know my work. I’m brand new. They don’t know what my work looks like. If I draw a little pencil sketch, they don’t know what they’re going to get. This way they know what they’re going to get. Not only that, but a lot of them would buy my rough and just use the rough.
Other cartoonists were so helpful. Like the guy who let me come live with him. Other guys who said, we’ll show you around. On Wednesday we’d have an open house with all the different editors. I’d go to twenty different editors on Wednesday. Then they’d say come and have dinner with us afterwards. They were so good to me. They said sign your name big and make it readable so we all know who you are. [Laughs] Good advice.
Then I started selling to the “Saturday Evening Post.” The guy liked my work there and I became the top seller there and he said you know you’re drawing cartoons about family life but you’re not married? I said no. He said, why don’t you draw a college strip. I remember your work when you were in college. I was editor of the school magazine at Missouri University called the “Show Me” and I used to draw the covers and a lot of the cartoons and illustrations inside. He said, draw college kids. So I started drawing college kids. He pointed out one character, that’s a funny looking guy with a hat down over his eyes. Feature him. So I started using him.
In the meantime I got married. Somebody took a survey and found out that I was the top selling magazine cartoonist in the country. My wife said, and you only made eight thousand dollars last year? You’re in the wrong business if you’re the top seller. I guess when I first came up here and just starting they gave me lower rates so even though a lot of people sold fewer than I did, they made more. Anyway, that day I sat down and made a comic strip using this character whose name was Spider.
Prior to this point you were drawing single panel comics?
Yeah, all single panels. So I sat down and did a couple weeks of strips and took them into King Features and they bought them immediately. Except I had to change the name from Spider to Beetle. I named the character after the editor at the Saturday Evening Post who had suggested that I feature him. His name was John Bailey, so the character became Beetle Bailey.
What was thinking behind changing the name from Spider to Beetle?
Well I had a fraternity brother who was drunk and was crawling up the front lawn to get to the house because he couldn’t walk. We were all looking out the window and somebody said, “He looks just like a spider.” That was a name that stuck with that guy. When the syndicate said that they had another strip with a character named Spider, I thought, I’ll just think of another bug.
You mentioned how in Scandinavia, “Beetle Bailey” is huge.
I couldn’t believe it. An editor from Sweden, he was a cartoonist himself, he wrote me and said, “You’ve got the wrong people doing your translations over here. They’re not humorous and you need to have your translations done by someone with a sense of humor.” I said, do you have any suggestions and he said, “Yeah, me.” [Laughs] So I told the syndicate and they said, sure, fine.
Not only did he do my translations and make them funny, he would put me on the cover. He would have articles on the inside. There was a personality involved. It really caught on. When I first went over there I think Donald Duck was one of the big stars and one of the story strips was one of the top selling comic books and the next thing I knew Beetle was the top. Not only would they put out one comic book a month they’d put out several.
Now you can’t have four men doing gags without coming up with a dirty one now and again, so we had all these dirty gags that we couldn’t use.
I’ve seen a number of the dirty gags and they’re very funny, but they could never run in a paper here.
Right now there is someone who wants to run them, but we’re not so sure that we want to do it. He wants to do it in a comic book over here. They’re very popular over there. I’ve got a bunch of books they’ve put out.
What were the comics you loved when you were a kid?
Well I started off with my father reading me “Moon Mullins.” I’d go down and get the paper Sunday morning and I’d get in bed with him and first he would read me “Moon Mullins.” We both loved it. He would laugh until tears came down his cheeks and I would lie next to him. I thought, that’s a wonderful thing to do for someone, to get him to laugh like that. So I got interested in comics. I had to learn how to read. Before I was five years old, I was reading books. I became an avid reader and I decided I wanted to be a comic strip artist. Way back then. Back then comic strip artists were big stars. Milton Caniff and Al Capp and Willard Mullin. Guys like that were all over the cover of “Time” magazine with big articles written about them. I went into restaurants with Milton Caniff and I could hear people saying, there’s Milton Caniff.
Through the Cartooning Museum you used to run and your other efforts, you’ve really helped to preserve comic art and promoted the idea of treating it as art. When did you first begin to collect art?
The “Kansas City Star” had a big art department. They had about six or seven cartoonists. My father, along with being an architect, was a writer, and he would write a poem every morning. He came from a farm in Nebraska where everybody would get up at five o’clock in the morning to milk the cows, so he would get up in the morning and it was too early to go to work so he would write a poem. He would take them to the “Kansas City Star” and they printed them. My mother had been an illustrator for the other newspaper in town, the “Kansas City Journal,” and when they got married she had to give that job up. If it was a Thanksgiving poem or Christmas or other holidays, she would illustrate it and they’d run it on the front page. I have albums full of their work.
Anyway, when he would take his poems into the “Kansas City Star” he would take me with him. I’d go hang out with the cartoonists and they’d let me go through their drawers and artwork and if I saw something I liked I’d say, can I have this? I used to hang all these originals up. Then I got the idea of writing famous cartoonists. Almost all of them sent me originals because people didn’t value them then. I had quite a collection.
Do you have your own favorite strips other than what people voted for?
Well, I have my favorites. It’s the sixtieth anniversary so we thought we’d do some different things. If it’s a real patriotic holiday I do a Sunday page on it. I did one a couple months ago about My Flag and I got more responses to that. Two people wrote music to it. I’ve got George Washington crossing the Delaware coming up.
On my website we printed a whole bunch of cartoons and asked people, which are your six best favorites – and I think we expanded it to twelve best – and we’ll have prizes. This is the result of the voting. I like them all. A lot of them are my own gags. [Laughs]
Is it odd looking at the older comics again where your style has changed over the decades?
Very odd. [Laughs] The characters have changed over the years. Sarge got fatter. I introduced different characters. I didn’t have a black character or Asian character [in the beginning] and introduced those along the way. Beetle is Irish, Sarge is German. Plato is Greek. Killer’s Italian. Miss Buxley is Swedish. I’ve got the melting pot in there.
It’s morbid to ask, but after you’re gone, do you see the strip continuing? Or being rerun like “Peanuts?”
I don’t like that idea, repeating everything in the paper like that. First of all it takes away from other artists to make a living. And if you’re dead, you’re not enjoying it. I would just as soon they didn’t do it. But to provide an income for my children, yeah. There are three of them that work for me in the artistic sense. My daughter works for me on my bookkeeping and website and stuff like that so four of them working for me, but I hope that the strip won’t die with me. I don’t think it will. I mean they’ve worked with me for so long, they know what they’re doing.
Do you have any final thoughts?
I feel very privileged in what I’m doing. I hope that I am making people a little happier. I think laughter is very important to your health. It’s good for your body when you laugh. It makes your day more pleasant. I like to feel like I’m contributing in that way. And everybody has been so nice to me throughout my life. I don’t know why I deserve it. I’ve had so many people go out of their way to help me, to give me jobs. I never ever applied for a job. People came to me and asked if I’d work with them. And I’ve had some wonderful jobs. Everybody’s been so nice to me. I hope I’ve contributed a bit.