Mort Walker, Creator of ‘Beetle Bailey’ Comic Strip, Dies at 94
Posted January 27, 2018 11:16 p.m. EST
Mort Walker, the creator of “Beetle Bailey,” a comic strip about an Army private who malingered his way through seven decades at Camp Swampy to the consternation of his commanding officers and the delight of his fans in the armed forces and beyond, died Saturday at his home in Stamford, Connecticut. He was 94.
Walker’s death was confirmed by his son Brian Walker.
Walker had the longest tenure of any cartoonist on an original creation, King Features, which began its syndication of “Beetle Bailey” in 1950, said in a statement.
“Little did I know when I was drafted that I was going to get almost four years of free research,” Walker recalled in his collection “The Best of Beetle Bailey” (1984).
“The Army thoughtfully sent me to a number of places so that my experiences could be broadest,” he wrote. “I was a private, a corporal, a sergeant and a lieutenant and I was a goof-up in every rank.”
Walker began drawing as a youngster and after his college years sold cartoons to The Saturday Evening Post about a lanky student at Rockview University named Spider, hat pulled over his eyes, who figured out how to get his roommate to do all his work.
In 1950, amid the Korean War, the signature character syndicated by King Features was Beetle Bailey, in an Army uniform. Walker substituted barracks buddies for dorm mates, sergeants and generals for professors, and the military bureaucracy for academic pronouncements. In the first sketches showing Beetle Bailey in uniform, this time with an Army cap covering his eyes, he took an aptitude test and asked what his specialty would be.
“Not engineering. ... Not cooking. ... Not driving. ...” the Army tester told him.
“You have one outstanding ability! Avoiding work!”
And so it went through the Korean War, the Vietnam War and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, even though “Beetle Bailey” seldom became topical.
The main character’s war was with the Army itself, and although he was never promoted beyond private, he bested the likes of the tough but ultimately endearing Sarge (officially Orville P. Snorkel) and the bumbling Camp Swampy commander, Gen. Amos T. Halftrack.
The newspaper Stars and Stripes, published for members of the armed forces, banned “Beetle Bailey” from its Tokyo edition in 1954,evidently a result of the military’s concern that discipline would lag after the end of the Korean War and that the comic strip might inspire disrespect for officers.
The ban, reported in the press with no small degree of ridicule and continuing for about a decade, as Walker recalled it, served only to boost the comic strip’s profile, and it was eventually syndicated to some 1,800 newspapers around the world.
Brian Walker said that the strip would continue and that he and his brother Greg had been working on it with their father for decades.
Addison Morton Walker was born Sept. 3, 1923, in El Dorado, Kansas, and grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, where his father was an architect and his mother worked as a newspaper illustrator. He drew for his student newspaper while in elementary school, began selling cartoons to magazines at 14 and became the chief editorial designer for Hallmark greeting cards at 18. He continued his sketching while in the Army in Italy, working in intelligence and later commanding a camp holding German prisoners of war.
He graduated from the University of Missouri in 1948, edited fan and humor magazines for Dell Publishing and sold cartoons of his own to leading magazines before a Saturday Evening Post editor named John Bailey urged him to create a cartoon series revolving around his fraternity brothers from college. Walker later gave the character deriving from Spider the surname Bailey to honor the editor who inspired his college-themed cartoons.
Walker modeled the character after a high school and college buddy who was tall and thin and often got into trouble innocently. The overweight, snaggletoothed Sarge was based on a sergeant Walker once encountered. The cast at Camp Swampy also included Sarge’s uniformed canine sidekick Otto and Halftrack’s sexy secretary Miss Buxley.
Walker had long been urged to include a black character, but felt he would draw complaints if he made the figure an oddball like the others at Camp Swampy. He decided to create an officer with an Afro who liked wild clothing, introducing Lt. Jack Flap in the early 1970s.
“There was an initial fuss from people who either thought I was propagandizing or ridiculing blacks,” Walker remembered. “Stars and Stripes banned me again and Sen. Proxmire had to convince them to reinstate me,” he continued, referring to William Proxmire of Wisconsin.
He later added an Asian-American character, Cpl. Yo, and a high-tech warrant officer, Chip Gizmo.
“There’s always changes,” Greg Walker told CBS News in 2015. “Everybody’s got a cellphone now, and computers and all that.”
Walker received the National Cartoonists Society’s award for outstanding cartoonist of the year for 1953. He was invited to the Pentagon in 2000 to receive the Secretary of the Army’s highest award to a civilian, the Distinguished Civilian Service citation. A life-size statue of Beetle Bailey, cast in bronze, stands outside the alumni center at the University of Missouri.
Walker worked with his associates Jerry Dumas, Bob Gustafson and Bud Jones as well as several of his children in creating gag ideas. In addition to “Beetle Bailey” he created “Hi and Lois,” with Dik Browne, based on Walker’s family members’ lives; “Boner’s Ark,” featuring quirky animals and their search for dry land; and “Sam’s Strip,” about a comic strip character running his own comic strip. He founded “Sam’s Strip” with Dumas, who later took over and renamed it “Sam and Silo.”
Working from a home and studio in Stamford that once belonged to Gutzon Borglum, the Mount Rushmore sculptor, Walker was also a comic strip historian and preservationist. In 1974, he opened the International Museum of Cartoon Art in Greenwich, Connecticut. Its extensive collection of drawings and books, including creations of Walt Disney, Charles Schulz, Walt Kelly and Rube Goldberg, was later housed in Rye Brook, New York, and in Boca Raton, Florida, and is now at Ohio State University in Columbus as part of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum.
Survivors include his second wife, Catherine, and two stepchildren, Priscilla Prentice and Whitney Prentice. In addition to his sons Brian and Greg, Walker is also survived by his children Polly, Margie, Neal and Roger from his marriage to his first wife, Jean. “Beetle Bailey” used the Army as its setting, but its popularity derived from everyday life and the universal battles against authority figures and mindless bureaucracy.
“It deals primarily with working, playing, eating and sleeping,” Dumas, who began working with Walker in the 1950s, told The New York Times in 2000. “That means it can be understood and related to by people all over the world.”
When the Defense Department congratulated Walker on his 80th birthday, he said: “Human frailty is what humor is all about. People like to see the foibles of mankind. And they relate to the little guy, the one on the bottom.”