Beetle Bailey, the world’s most famous work-shirking private, must envy the comfortable lifestyle now enjoyed by his creator, celebrated cartoonist Mort Walker. But making it to the top of the competitive newspaper comics field took plenty of hard work, which was never popular in Beetle’s bailiwick.
The year 2000 marked the completion of “Mort Walker’s Private Scrapbook”. For half a century Beetle has lived up to his reputation for sowing laziness in the ranks, while Walker earned his rank as the world’s most prolific cartoonist, along with stacks of prestigious honors and awards.
In May 2000, Walker was honored by the United States Army at the Pentagon with The Decoration for Distinguished Civilian Service, the highest award the Secretary of the Army can bestow on a civilian. He was also lauded at the Pentagon ceremony by the Association of the United States Army, the National World War II Memorial Campaign and the Non Commissioned Officers Association for his efforts to help build awareness and raise funds for the National World War II Memorial. A Twilight Tattoo sunset parade, hosted by the Army Office of Public Affairs and the Military District of Washington, was performed in his honor.
The University of Missouri, Walker’s alma mater, mounted a Beetle Bailey 50th anniversary exhibition in the grand concourse of the Elmer Ellis Library from Sept. 1-30, 2000. The exhibition included original daily and Sunday strips, copies of published reprints of the strips, and poster-size lithographs of selected strips. The retrospective also includes a section on Walker’s days on campus, focused primarily on his editorship of a campus humor magazine that was regularly in trouble with the campus administration. And the exhibition looks back at a visit Walker paid to the campus in 1992 for the dedication of a life-sized Beetle Bailey statue, which resides in front of the University alumni center on a busy campus street.
Beetle, in a proud military salute, was featured as a 45-foot tall helium parade balloon that made its television debut in the 2000 Fourth of July Parade in Philadelphia. The Beetle balloon also highlighted the Thanksgiving parade on Nov. 19, 2000 and in 2005, in Stamford, Conn.
Born in 1923 in El Dorado, Kan., Walker published his first comic when he was 11. He sold his first cartoon at 12, and at 14 he was selling gag cartoons regularly to Child Life, Inside Detective and Flying Aces magazines. At 15, he was comic-strip artist for a weekly metropolitan newspaper. At 18, he became chief editorial designer at Hall Bros., ushering in a light, playful style for the company’s Hallmark Cards line.
The following year, 1943, Walker was drafted into the Army. He served in Italy as an intelligence and investigating officer and was also in charge of a German POW camp. He was discharged as a first lieutenant four years later, and graduated from the University of Missouri in 1948. While at M.U., he was editor of the school magazine.
He then went to New York City to pursue his cartooning career. In order to survive he worked as editor of three magazines for Dell Publishing Company. His first 200 cartoons were rejected, but he persisted, and editors started to recognize his talent and in two years he was the top-selling magazine cartoonist.
His first big break came in 1950, when King Features picked up “Beetle Bailey” for syndication.
Beetle, who was originally called “Spider,” began as a college cutup. When he stumbled into an Army recruiting post in 1951 during the Korean War, circulation began to climb.
The comic strip experienced two other notable jumps in circulation. In 1954, when the Tokyo edition of Stars & Stripes dropped the strip because it supposedly engendered lack of respect for officers, the U.S. press had a field day attacking the maneuver, and 100 more newspapers enlisted “Beetle Bailey.”
Then in 1970, when Lt. Jack Flap first marched into Sarge’s office, “Beetle Bailey” became the first established strip to integrate a black character into a white cast. Stars & Stripes and some Southern newspapers quickly discharged the strip, but 100 other newspapers joined up.
King Features now distributes “Beetle Bailey” to roughly 1,800 newspapers, to over 50 countries with a combined readership of over 200 million every day.
Walker’s comic strip “Hi and Lois,” which he created with Dik Browne, began in 1954 as a spin-off of “Beetle Bailey,” when Beetle went home on furlough to visit his sister Lois and brother-in-law Hi.
Walker also created “Boner’s Ark” in 1968 under the name “Addison,” and created “Sam & Silo” with Jerry Dumas in 1977.
Walker has been recognized not only for the wide and enduring popularity of his work but also for his stylistic innovations and his leadership in the comics field. His use of high-contrast, deceptively simple imagery and compact gags became the standard for a generation of cartoonists and endures today.
Walker also recognized the historic contributions of his predecessors and contemporaries and in 1974, he founded the Museum of Cartoon Art, the first museum dedicated to the preservation and elevation of the art of comics. The museum now houses the largest complete collection of its kind, making it the premier showcase for one of America’s few indigenous art forms. Walker was inducted into The Hearst Hall of Fame in 1989.
The museum started in a mansion in Greenwich, Connecticut, then moved to a castle in Rye Brook, New York. In 1992 it relocated to Boca Raton, Florida. It’s new name is The
National Cartoon Museum. Walker’s dedication to the project is tireless. He organizes exhibitions, creates fund-raising campaigns and is involved in all facets of the museum. A retrospective exhibit commemorating “50 years of Beetle Bailey” opened at the Museum on Veteran’s Day, November 11, 2000 and ran through February 2001. The exhibition featured original comic strips and character art, special interactive exhibits for children, animated Beetle Bailey cartoons, Beetle and Sarge costumed character appearances, and a 16-foot-high birthday cake display, complete with animatronic Beetle and Sarge characters.
Walker has written several books on the art and history of comics, as well as children’s books. He has published numerous collections of his comics work, including 92 “Beetle Bailey” and 35 “Hi and Lois” paperbacks. Available here, online or in bookstores is Walker’s autobiography, “Mort Walker’s Scrapbook: Celebrating a Life of Love and Laughter”. An animated “Beetle Bailey” television special was created for CBS in 1989 and “Beetle” animated shorts are available on DVD.
Walker still oversees the 9-to-5 work of the staff at his Connecticut laugh factory studio, which was unofficially dubbed “King Features East” because the work generated there once rivaled the combined output of the entire King Features Syndicate comics department.
Walker and his wife, Catherine, have 9 children between them from previous marriages. Six of his children, as well as the son of his former collaborator Dik Browne, contribute to the funny business, along with several other artists and writers. The shop uses only the best gags — there are more than 10,000 unused gags in the vault — and in 55 years, the studio has never missed a deadline, keeping King Features happy and comics fans in stitches.
Some of Walker’s many awards:
1953: “Cartoonist of the Year, “National Cartoonists Society” (“The Reuben”).
1955: Banshee Award, Silver Lady, “Outstanding Cartoonist.”
1966: “Best Humor Strip, “National Cartoonists Society.”
1969: “Best Humor Strip, “National Cartoonists Society.”
1972: Il Secolo XIX Award, Italy.
1975: Adamson Award, “Best International Cartoonist,” Sweden.
1977: Power of Printing Award.
Elzie Segar Award, “Lifetime Achievement.”
1978: Fourth Estate Award, American Legion.
1979: The Jester, Newspaper Features Council.
Inkpot Award, San Diego Comic Convention.
1980: Faculty Alumni Award, University of Missouri. Scholar in residence.
1981: Doctor of Letters, William Penn College.
1987: “Man of the Year,” Kappa Sigma Fraternity.
1988: Adamson Award Platinum ( Sweden
1990: U.S. Army Certificate of Appreciation for Patriotic Civilian Service
1999: Golden T-Square, National Cartoonists Society ( 50 years of service
(Second ever to receive award)
1999: Order of Chevalier, French Minister of Culture and Communication
1999: Elzie Segar Award
2000: The Decoration for Distinguished Civilian Service
2005: The Connecticut Legend Award