| Comics: The People's Art
Interview with Beetle Bailey's
Creator, Mort Walker by Gord Wilson
|(This was an interview I did for
Animato!, but the magazine folded after the 15th anniversary issue
(#40), so this article never appeared.)
Mort Walker is a prolific cartoonist who has created some of the funny pages’ best known and most-loved comic strips, including Beetle Bailey, Hi and Lois, Boner’s Ark, Sam’s Strip, and Sam and Silo. He’s also been active in preserving comics and cartoons and was co-founder, in 1974, of the International Museum of Cartoon Art. In 1996, it was renamed the International Museum of Cartoon Art, and moved to Boca Raton, Florida. On July 31, 2002, the museum closed its doors, and is currently looking for a new location, probably on the east coast.
GW: When did you begin the Beetle Bailey comic strip?
MW: Beetle Bailey began Sept 4, 1950. It started out as a college strip based on my experiences at University of Missouri. Six months later the Korean war heated up and my biggest editor said you’ll have to put Beetle in the army because they’re drafting college kids, especially ones that aren’t doing so well, which was Beetle’s unique position.
I put him in the army, thinking he’d get out as soon as the war was over, because I’d seen what had happened to other war comics when WWII ended—Sad Sack, Bill Mauldin’s Willie and Joe and all of them eventually just faded away. I didn’t want that to happen to me, so I sent Beetle home after the Korean war was cooling off to get involved with his sister Lois and her husband Hi. Readers didn’t like that—they said put him back in the army, so I did.
I’d created another strip in 1954 called Hi and Lois. I’d always wanted to do a family strip because I had children and could see the humor that went on in our house. I have seven children so I had all my research built right into my house. My kids would get embarrassed because I’d be drawing about them and they’d get teased at school. Now they look back on it and get a nice feeling that it was treated gently. I didn’t want to do mean little kids, I didn’t want to do dumb husbands like most of the other strips did. In the other strips kids were a pain in the tail. I wanted to draw a positive picture of family life, and it was very successful. Most of the fan mail came from people who said, “oh you must’ve been looking through my window.”
In both strips I try to find what I call a universal truth—something that happens to everybody, and then try to make a gag out of it. I always know that I’ve succeeded when I see one of my strips tacked up on a bulletin board somewhere. I’m not sure about the Pulitzer Prize, but I’d like the refrigerator prize.
GW: Beetle Bailey seems a lot more positive than either George Baker’s Sad Sack or Bill Mauldin’s Willie and Joe.
MW: Yeah—there was a bitterness about them. Sad Sack was just completely mauled constantly, and while you were sympathetic with him, pretty soon it became rather perverse and you’d think, wow can’t that guy ever win? But Beetle never gives up, and he’s constantly winning over Sarge. He’ll be lying in a heap on the floor, look up at Sarge and say “give up?” He’s always getting Sarge in trouble, because Sarge has a certain naivete—he isn’t very well versed in anything except weaponry and marching and things like that. Beetle runs rings around the other guys—he’s really the smartest one in camp. He knows how to use the system to benefit himself, so he gets more sack time and goofs off and gets away with it.
All my characters have been based on real people. They have definite personalities. I think that’s one of the reasons they come alive for people.The guy who was the medel for Beetle just died last year. His name was Dave Hornaday; he was in his seventies and lived in St. Joseph, Missouri. He was a cartoonist, and was long and lanky and lazy and loveable. Every so often his picture would end up in the St. Joe’s paper as the model for Beetle Bailey. He was a buddy of mine in high school and college, and we did everything together. I remember one time I went by his house to pick him up for a golf game and his mother said, oh he’s still in bed. I ran upstairs and shook him and said, come on Dave, let’s go, and he grabbed his pillow and nestled in, and I turned the bed upside down and he fell out on the floor. He just grabbed his pillow and went back to sleep. I looked at him and said, that belongs in a comic strip.
GW: So maybe you’re the model for Sarge. How’d you meet Dik Browne?
MW: When I created the Hi and Lois strip, I did about two or three weeks of ideas and gave them to the syndicate, and the syndicate said yeah we’d like to do this. Why don’t we look around and find the best artist possible? So the cartoon editor and I met up after a week with a list of people, and at the top of both our lists was Dik Browne. I said, do you know this guy? And he said, no—I was in the dentist’s office and saw a copy of Boys Life magazine. Dik did a strip in there called The Tracy Twins. Dik worked for an advertising agency and did a lot of comic strip ads for them. I’d seen a Lipton Tea ad I really liked that he’d done, so he was my choice, and we were unanimous.
The editor called the advertising agency and got him on the phone and said, how would you like to do a comic strip for us? And Dik said yeah yeah, OK. He was sure someone was playing a joke on him. So he went back and looked around the bull pen, where all the artists were, and was puzzled that no one was missing. He said, gee, I don’t know, maybe that was real, so he called the editor back, and we met in his office, and after that Dik and I became best friends for about thirty five years.
GW: So then he started Hagar the Horrible?
MW: Yes. He didn’t own Hi and Lois—I owned it—and he began worrying about what would happen to his family when he died, so he created the strip and brought it down and asked me what I thought of it. I said I think it’s terrific. I didn’t like the name Hagar the Horrible; I thought no one would understand how to pronounce Hagar. He was stuck on that name though, because that was what his kids called him when he got up from his nap. He’d come down the stairs with his hair all disheveled and they’d yell, “run run, here comes Hagar the Horrible!” He sent it to the syndicate and didn’t hear from them for months. They were very reluctant to take it on for some reason, and kept passing it around. Finally they decided to give it a try, and it became their all-time best selling strip. That was King Features, and the editor was Sylvan Byck. He was a cartoonist himself, a wonderful man and a very influential comic editor there for many years.
GW: Do you want to comment on what happened in 1954 with Beetle Bailey and the overseas military newspaper, Stars and Stripes?
MW: When you’re out in the field you don’t have time to spit and polish, but now the war was over and the guys were back to shaving every day. The editor of Stars and Stripes thought the Beetle Bailey strips were hurting their disciplinary efforts to get the guys back to routine appearances and so forth. They made a blanket decision that cartoons which made fun of officers were persona non grata. I had a friend on the staff over there, and he wrote me a letter and told me all about it, so we decided to make a little publicity coup out of it. We sent out news stories about the brass stomping on the little man again. I had editorials all over the world. It was a wonderful event—like being “banned in Boston.”
GW: So did people cut Beetle Bailey out of their home papers and send it to soldiers overseas?
MW: Yes. That happened several times. When I introduced a black soldier, Lt. Flap, in 1971, the Stars and Stripes banned the strip again. They were having racial problems then and thought it would increase the tensions. In the beginning they feared it was an unflattering stereotype. Some whites, on the other hand, thought I was proseletyzing for black causes, so I got it both ways. But anyway, people were cutting out the strip and sending it over to soldiers. On one occasion, a group went to see Senator Proxmire, and told him they wanted Beetle Bailey back in the Stars and Stripes. He went over to the Pentagon and talked with them and they put it back in.
GW: Then ten years later the strip got cut by the Minneapolis Tribune because the editors considered the Miss Buxley episodes sexist. Beetle Bailey always seemed to cause a ruckus. It’s fascinating to read the controversial episodes along with the letters people wrote in about them in your book, Miss Buxley Sexism in Beetle Bailey? What about the animated cartoons? Did the animated episodes ever cause a commotion?
MW: They were made by Paramount. The Hearst Corporation, which owns King Features, put up the money for them. We made fifty films, and they wouldn’t let me do anything on them. They wouldn’t let me write, they wouldn’t show it to me; they said, you know how to do comic strips, we know how to do animation. You leave us alone, and you’ll make a million dollars. So they kept brushing me off. I didn’t really think the series was very good, and it hasn’t made a lot of money. I was supposed to get a percentage after they recovered their investment. After twenty five years I never got a cent out of it. Finally I went to them and said somebody’s making money here or you wouldn’t keep doing it. If anybody’s making money from this, I think I ought to. They said it costs us money to sell this stuff, and I said, you wouldn’t have any stuff if it weren’t for me. They looked at me as if I was from outer space or something; it never occured to them I had any rights in it.
GW: No creator rights, then.
MW: It was like they were selling potatoes. I’d originally been guaranteed about $10,000, so they figured I’d already been paid. I finally prevailed on their sense of honor and began getting a little money out of it. Then we did a CBS special that I was able to write, and go over the drawings. We did a pretty incredible job on that one, and most of the art work was done in Korea. It was called The Beetle Bailey CBS Special, but CBS never aired it. It was all done, and they asked me to draw the ads for it, and I did that. But they got a new man at CBS who either didn’t like animation or he didn’t want his predecessor to get credit for anything, so he killed all the specials: Hagar the Horrible, Betty Boop and a number of other shows in preparation. The guy who had been at CBS before that liked animation and had used quite a bit of it.
GW: So the Beetle Bailey special never came out.
MW: No. The only thing we’ve been able to do is sell it outside the United States, but so far I don’t think it’s ever appeared here, because of the contract. That stipulated that they were free to peddle it in other countries, but not here. That contract probably should be up by now. I know King Features is just as anxious to air it as I am.
GW: Well these are certainly the halcyon days for animation, so it may yet see the light of day.
MW: Yes, it’s truly made a comeback. When we first started the International Museum of Cartoon Art (IMCA) back in 1974, animation was on its tail, and a bunch of unemployed animators hung out at the museum. They’d had animation studios in New York City, but were pretty much out of work at that time. The museum originally opened in Greenwich, Connecticut in 1974, in an old house in a residential area. The owner of the mansion thought too many people were coming through and we were wearing out his house, and after two years he refused to renew the lease. We looked around and found a castle in Rye Brook, New York, and we were there for about 17 years, but we outgrew that place. People were coming from all over the world, but the castle was really a house, and had a limited number of rooms.
GW: How did the museum come to move to Boca Raton, Florida?
MW: We actually had contracts in several different places: Boston, Norwalk, Connecticut, Washington D.C., and they heard down in Florida that we were looking around. They said, come on down and try us; we’re trying to get cultural institutions down here to give our kids something to do besides going to the beach. At one time there were very few museums and performing arts centers and things to do there. Boca Raton offered us the land free; it’s worth about a million and a half bucks. They’ve been very helpful in supporting us.
GW: What was the original charter and vision for the museum?
MW: I’d always collected cartoons. When I was a little kid, I’d write away to the creators of comics. Both my parents were artists, but when people’d come in they’d go right past my parents’ paintings and go to my studio and say wow! They were interested in them. I call comics the people’s art. You don’t have to go to college and study cartoon appreciation or anything like that; you see it everyday in the papers. I think it has dimensions that fine art doesn’t have: it has humor, it has history in it, it creates characters, it has many facets to it. I’ve always loved cartoon art.
I gained access to syndicate archives, and they used to let me take whatever I wanted. They didn’t want it, so I gained a tremendous collection. Syracuse University was trying to develop a popular art section for its library, and they were collecting manuscripts and sheet music, and decided to add some cartoons to it. I sent them a thousand drawings and they said, you know you can take a tax deduction on these. So I had an art appraiser appraise them at $50 each, and the government disallowed it, saying they were worthless. In 1970, I went to a federal court with a jury and had to prove, over a week-long trial, that cartoons were art. They’ve been considered art ever since.
Hal Foster, who drew Prince Valiant, was bothered by people asking for originals, so to discourage them he started asking $5 a piece.. Now, of course, they’re going for $10,000 each. I found that the syndicates were throwing them away. At one time Tribune Syndicate emptied out their storeroom. They put tables full of original cartoons down in the lobby and said take one if you want one. The comics were simply a burden to them.
GW: That parallels how animation studios used to simply wipe off their cels and reuse them. Disney used to hand out cels at Disneyland; they only began selling cels when they found out antique dealers were getting outrageous prices for them.
MW: Hanna Barbera, for example, sold a lot of their cels to a manufacturer who was going to melt them down to make Clorox bottles. An enterpreneur named Paul Burke heard about it and went out and for a thousand dollars bought them all. Dik Browne and I were at a cartoonists’ convention in Jamaica, and we were sitting there having a drink, looking over the ocean as the sun went down, and we were talking about the sad plight of cartoonists and what had become of our original art.
Dik says, I don’t know why people like Picasso so much, and yet they don’t think that cartoons are art. I said it’s because we don’t have a museum, and he said, well let’s start one. That was the genesis of the cartoon museum. I came back and formed a committee with some of the most famous cartoonists in the business at the time: Walt Kelley, Milton Caniff and so forth. We went around as a group to various government agencies: we went to the Kennedy Center and talked with President Kennedy’s cultural advisor; we went to large corporations and foundations and kept trying to raise money, and could never do it. After a few years, the effort fell apart and I went out on my own.
I was at a golf tournament, sitting next to a member of the Hearst Foundation, and I said old man Hearst ought to finance this, he started the comics sections back in the 1800s. He was the first one to publish the color comics, and he thought they were a great circulation booster.
GW: He loved comics; he kept Krazy Kat going when everyone else wanted to drop the strip.
MW: He created several comics; remember The Katzenjammer Kids?. He sort of stole them from a series of cartoons in a book in Germany called Max Und Moritz. Hearst saw it and said, I’ll make a comic out of it and call it The Katzenjammer Kids, which means “howling cats”—it’s a synonym for a hangover. He looked around to find an artist, and found Rudolph Dirks. He was so successful that he decided to take a year off. Hearst said the hell with that, and he hired Harold Knerr to continue it. Dirks came back and said the heck with that; those are my characters. Hearst said you don’t own the name, and there was a court battle. The upshot was two strips: The Katzenjammer Kids and The Captain and the Kids. Hearst was instrumental in starting a bunch of strips.
So I told this executive that Hearst ought to finance the museum, and he said, I agree with you, so about a year later we got $100,000 to open up, and I put my own collection in there. The minute the doors opened, all the syndicates said, hey this is a chance to get rid of all our strips. They just backed up their trucks, and we ended up with about 50,000 drawings. That was 1973. Now we have close to 200,000 original cartoons, and we haven’t bought one of them. Of course you can’t see all of them; most of them are in storage.
GW: I remember a number of those cartoonists came together for charity fund raising efforts. I was very excited to get so many different comic characters together on one card.
MW: We did a lot of those. Paul Burke put together one with all the characters and the artists’ signatures at the bottom to help fight hunger. He talked Federal Express into sending it from one cartoonist to another. When you got it, it would have the address of the next cartoonist to send it to, so it travelled all over the country. Federal Express donated all the shipping expenses. We did other benefits against child abuse and for the homeless, and for something to do with the Constitution. Then we sold the cards and donated the proceeds; one of them made about $250,000. Gary Trudeau and I worked together on some of those.
GW: The Smithsonian’s travelling comics exhibition a few years back probably also stirred up some interest.
MW: That was the “One Hundred Years of American Comics” exhibition. I wrote the preface for the book on the comic book parts, and my wife worked on it too. We selected material and went to the Smithsonian in Washington. That show’s still going around; last year it was in Hong Kong.
GW: That show had some amazing art in it. I remember being impressed by Alex Raymond’s painterly style on Flash Gordon, and I loved the book, mostly for the original Superman strips and because there was so much Little Lulu in it.
MW: People still come to me and say you’ve got to get Little Lulu in there; that must have been a very popular comic.
GW: Then there was your recent The Best of Beetle Bailey book, where you wrote a lot about what went on behind the scenes.
MW: That was published by Comicana. We kind of pioneered that type of book. Several people have done books like it now. You get more than just page after page of reprints; you get some of the background behind the strip as well. I noticed in the Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book Bill Watterson did the same thing.
GW: I remember reading somehwere that Beetle Bailey is the third most widely distributed strip in the world, although that information may be rather dated.
MW: It used to be number two in the eighties. Garfield was started in 1978 and zoomed right past. For the last twenty years or more Beetle’s been in about 1 800 papers. I think Garfield and Peanuts are at about 2,000. For Better or Worse and Hagar the Horrible are probably about the same as Beetle, so there are about five of us up holding that rank now. Calvin and Hobbes did at one time, and I think Dilbert’s coming up real fast, but it hasn’t reached there yet.
GW: Bill Watterson, of course, made the decision not to have any animated Calvin and Hobbes specials. The only thing he wanted was bigger panels in the comics.
MW: He didn’t want any licensing at all. A lot of papers did give him more control over his comic. He wanted a half page, but a half page in the tabloids would still be small for his strip. He alienated a lot of people by saying that the old dinosaurs should get out of the business and let in more young talent. These guys have assistants, he said, and they go out and play golf and let the assistants draw the strips.
GW: We know he means Garfield. I have to defend Garfield, though. It’s one of my favorite strips and favorite cartoons. I love the look of Garfield and think Film Roman’s done a great job of animating him.
MW: I think Jim Davis has done very well with the licensing of products from Garfield. I know he works very hard to keep the quality up and keep the art work consistent. He just put out a catalog of all of his products. It’s a nice catalog. It’s fun to read. He’s made it interesting and fun to read—and he’s got more products. Snoopy used to be the most merchandised character, but now I think Garfield’s right up there.
GW: The thing that launched Peanuts was that Coca Cola, the sponsor, liked that first Christmas Special, when nobody else did. Do you think Beetle Bailey’s at a similar impasse with the CBS special?
MW: I’ve always had to fight for my rights, and haven’t won out very often. A sympathetic sponsor would’ve helped. I’ve also had several movie deals that fell through because they couldn’t come up with a good script.
GW: If they can make Popeye as a live-action movie, you’d think they could make one of Beetle Bailey.
MW: I’d certainly like to see it. I still have a contract with Fox Family Films to do a live-action Beetle Bailey, but they couldn’t come up with a good script. I said, let me try to write it, but they said nah nah nah, and wouldn’t let me do it.
GW: Do you think they’re afraid of creator rights?
MW: I don’t know. Hollywood is a strange place where people jealously hold onto their spots; they want to take credit for everything. Some people will do schlock or anything, just to get their name on it.
GW: Even as recently as the '90s people were saying that Hollywood (still) hates animation. You’d have thought those days were over. What’s the museum done that’s animation-related?
MW: One year we opened a new show called “Cartoons Go to War.” My son Brian was putting together exhibits in Brussels and throughout Europe, and he came down and assembled it. Of course you’ve got your usual Sad Sack and Private Snafu, some Mickey Mouse films, a lot of war posters, and a lot of Beetle Bailey. There’s Bill Mauldin’s Willie and Joe and George Baker’s Sad Sack, and all the most famous cartoons going back to the Spanish-American war. We’ve got a jeep sitting there, and machine guns and mortars, old helmets and rifles—very educational.
GW: So there were 200,000 strips in the backroom?
MW: Those weren’t all strips; they included editorial cartoons and animated cels. We went through a lot of growing pains our first year in Boca Raton. We initially raised a lot of money, and did it very rapidly, and then all of a sudden everything kind of stopped. We occupied the building and opened the first floor. A lot of people thought it was done; we'd barely begun moving into the second and third floors.
In 1996, I created what I call the Mort Walker award—don’t know where I got the name. We presented the first one to Roy Disney. It goes to people who aren’t cartoonists but have made a great contribution to the business of cartooning. Roy Disney’s been a writer, director, producer, and is head of the Animation Division at Disney now. We thought he’d be a great choice for the first recipient of this award. We hosted Garfield’s 20th anniversary in 1998. That was a big affair. Jim brought his staff and we did a lot of cooperative things.
GW: Will we be seeing any new surprises from Beetle Bailey?
MW: I sure hope so. A few years ago I wrote a stage show. I had one up at one time, but it was kind of a workshop session. Two theaters now want to do a dinner theatre presentation of Beetle Bailey. So I just sent that off to the agent handling it. It’s more a collection of jokes and comic situations, with a series of blackouts and songs. The dinner theatre guy said I don’t want a big story; I don’t want people to sit there and have to think—I want them to sit there and laugh.
Author's update: In 2000 Mort Walker was honored by both the United States Army and his alma mater, the University of Missouri. The Army awarded him the Decoration for Distinguished Civilian Service, the highest honor bestowed on a civilian. The UofM mounted a Beetle Bailey 50th anniversary exhibition. The University also boasts another memento of Camp Swampy: a life-sized statue of Beetle, erected in 1992. Mort Walker's Private Scrapbook: Celebrating a Life of Love and Laughter, was published in 2001. --© copyright Gord Wilson, 2002.
(For more buzz on Beetle, see mortwalker.com).
The Comics Before 1945
Review by Gord Wilson
(A version of this review appeared on Amazon)
When Comics Were Funny
And not just funny--witty, colorful, inventive, slapstick, adventurous--and eagerly awaited. Here's an oversized, hardback, full-color, coffee table book chock-full and brimming with the art of the funny papers. Brian Walker, son of Mort Walker (Beetle Bailey), not only draws comics but also mounts exhibitions of them. This book includes hand-colored originals from the Museum of Cartoon Art, as well as full page Sunday layouts. From the Yellow Kid and Hogan's Alley at the turn of the century to the wartime wonders of the 'forties, this is a coffee table book you can't put down. Retailing at $50, Amazon's price is about $30--a bargain and a steal for such a beautiful volume. Also check out Walker's companion volume, The Comics: Since 1945. (Click here to order or for more information).
The Comics: Since 1945
Review by Gord Wilson
(A version of this review appeared on Amazon).
Cornucopia of Comics
Blondie, Archie, Nancy, Pogo, Beetle Bailey to Peanuts, Garfield, Mutts and Calvin and Hobbes, here's a lavish, full-color, oversized, hardback, coffee table book celebrating the best part of the newspaper. Comics curator Brian Walker, son of Mort Walker (Beetle Bailey, Hi and Lois), collects the best examples of this much-loved medium over the last half century. Now that the companion volume, The Comics Before 1945, has appeared, Walker's labor of love is complete. Together these inviting volumes offer a compelling tribute to the art of the funny papers. And Amazon's irresistable price is nearly half off retail. (Click here to order or for more information).
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