Worked on his daily strip for 68 years
By: Legacy Staff
6 months ago
Mort Walker, the cartoonist who created “Beetle Bailey” and “Hi and Lois,” died Saturday, Jan. 27, 2018, of pneumonia at his home in Stamford, Conn. He was 94.
Walker’s was a life devoted to cartooning, and that went beyond the award-winning and widely read strips he drew. Walker had a never-ending enthusiasm for his art that prompted him to gather his colleagues together, building a professional organization and establishing a museum to celebrate their work. Where others saw comic strips as a harmless diversion, Walker saw art, and he championed that art all his life.
Born Addison Morton Walker Sept. 3, 1923, he grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, and was fascinated with cartoons from an early age. He read them, and he drew his own, finding publication in a school newspaper while he was still in grade school. And he wrote to his cartooning idols, sending them his own work and asking for theirs in return. According to the collection, “Mort Walker: Conversations,” an early response from “Moon Mullins” creator Frank Willard offered encouragement for a budding career: “Say Morton, those drawings you sent me were swell – I’ll bet you’ll be a big shot cartoonist some day.”
Walker must have taken those words to heart because, within a few years, he was publishing his work in the local newspaper and considering dropping out of high school to draw cartoons full time. But he stuck with education, realizing a good eye for drawing wasn’t enough; he needed a formal education to develop his writing skills. He studied at the University of Missouri, but as Walker told it, he was more interested in working than studying.
That work included drawing comic strips, of course, but it also included a stint at a greeting card company, during which he leveraged his ear for a joke. As Walker told The Washington Post, greeting cards then, in the early 1940s, were sweet and sentimental, with no room for humor: “I said: ‘You don’t have any cards for men.’ They said: ‘We have fuzzy bears with a pink ribbon for women and a blue ribbon for men.’ I said, ‘I wouldn’t send one to my grandfather!’” Walker started writing funny cards for the company that would later become Hallmark, and, as he put it, “I helped change the industry.”
Walker had only been in college half a year when he received the news that would change his life and offer him a wealth of inspiration: He had been drafted into the U.S. Army. While he was overseas during World War II, Walker observed the men with whom he served, tucking away in his memory the details of their personalities and physical quirks. Many of those fellow soldiers would influence the comic he was soon to create, “Beetle Bailey.”
That comic strip began as something much different. When it debuted in 1950, it featured a lazy young man attending fictional Rockview University, but Walker soon found his focus as he had Beetle enlist in the U.S. Army. For decades, the young private would fecklessly serve alongside Sgt. Snorkel, Pvt. “Killer” Diller, Lt. Jackson Flap, and others. Running gags included the sergeant hanging precariously from a cliff and needing Beetle’s help, as well as the sergeant beating Beetle until he was reduced to a pile of clothes on the floor (though he always miraculously recovered in time for the next strip.)
“Beetle Bailey” produced a spinoff, “Hi and Lois,” featuring the family life of Beetle’s sister, Lois. Walker told The Washington Post he made a deliberate effort to create a new sort of family strip when he launched “Hi and Lois.” “In almost all the family strips, the husband and wife were always fighting. ‘Hi and Lois’ wasn’t like … ‘The Lockhorns.’” Instead, it portrayed a loving family, with the humor coming from typical situations of daily suburban life rather than from constant sniping.
Though Walker created and wrote “Hi and Lois,” he didn’t draw it, as he did “Beetle Bailey.” Instead, he turned to his friend Dik Browne, creator of “Hagar the Horrible,” to provide the art. Today, the strip is drawn by Browne’s son, Chance Browne, and written by Walker’s sons, Brian and Greg Walker. Walker’s sons also took over “Beetle Bailey” for him upon his retirement in the 1980s.
In 1968, Walker created “Boner’s Ark” under the pseudonym Addison. The cartoon was about a group of animals on an ark led by Captain Boner – which never managed to find land until the very last strip in 2000. Walker also created “Sam and Silo,” though he turned it over to co-creator Jerry Dumas in 1995.
As “Beetle Bailey” became popular in the 1950s, Walker was invited to join a casual group of cartoonists called the Cartoonists Society. At that time, it was, as Walker described it to The Washington Post, less a professional organization and more a gang of colleagues who liked to gather for a few drinks.
Walker, already dedicated to the art of cartooning and determined to advance it in the public eye, quickly became the group’s president and began organizing it into “a real society,” as he told The Washington Post. He invited new members – including women, formerly verboten – and created the Reuben Award to honor each year’s best work.
In 1974, Walker opened the first incarnation of the National Cartoon Museum, an institution that would struggle in several locations before finding a home in Boca Raton, Florida. It remained there until 2002 when it closed for lack of funding.
Among Walker’s other claims to fame was a vocabulary he invented for the symbols commonly found on the comic pages. His 1980 book, “The Lexicon of Comicana,” offered terms including “plewds,” the sweat droplets around a character’s head indicating hard work; “wafterons,” wavy lines emanating from a person or object to indicate a foul smell; and “grawlixes,” typographical symbols that replace profanity.
Walker won a Reuben Award in 1953 for “Beetle Bailey,” as well as numerous other cartooning awards including the Elzie Segar Award in 1977 and 1999. In 2010, the Cartoon Art Museum presented him with the Sparky Award for lifetime achievement at the New York Comic-Con.
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