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Transcript

Comics: Meet the Artist

Brian Walker
Author, Cartoonist
Friday, December 17, 2004; 1:00 PM

Join Washington Post Comics page editor Suzanne Tobin online two Fridays each month to discuss the comics pages. From artists to writers to editors, Tobin is joined by a different guest for each show. This week, Tobin will be joined by Brian Walker to discuss his book, "The Comics Before 1945," his work with his dad, Mort Walker, and the strips he created: "Beetle Bailey" and "Hi and Lois.".

Tobin and Walker were online on Friday, Dec. 17 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the art of cartooning.


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Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Suzanne Tobin: Welcome, comics fans, to another edition of "Comics: Meet the Artist." Today we are joined by Brian Walker, whose recent book, "The Comics Before 1945," is sort of a prequel to his "The Comics Since 1945," which he published in 2002. Brian also is the cartoonist for "Hi and Lois," a spinoff strip from his father's "Beetle Bailey." (Lois is Beetle's sister.) Brian is joining us Live Online from his home studio in Wilton, Conn. Welcome, Brian, and congratulations on the new book.

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Brian Walker: It's great to be here. I always enjoy talking about the comics. I know there's alot of interest with people out there who have been reading the comics their whole life. And, since the book just came out, they may not have had a chance to buy it yet, so maybe I'll be able to tell them something that, hopefully, will stimulate their interest. It would make a great Christmas present.

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Lawrence, Mass.: I was wondering if there were any women pioneers in the early days of comic strips and if your books features any of them? I have a niece who wants to be a cartoonist, but besides Dale Messick, I don't know of any early women cartoonists, either in newspapers or comic books. Thanks for taking the time to answer my question.

Brian Walker: Actually in the early years of the comics there were many women who did successful comic strips. Most notably, Grace Drayton, who did "Dimples" and Rose O'Neill, who did "The Kewpies," and, by the way, the Campbell Soup Kids were based on the Kewpies. Another one, Edwina Dumm, created a strip called "Tippie." Nell Brinkley created "The Brinkley Girl," which was kind of the Gibson Girl of the 1920s. I think in the 1930s, when adventure strips became more popular, there were fewer women doing those kinds of strips, until Dale Messick came along and started "Brenda Starr." Women have contributed a great deal over the entire history of the comics. Some of their work appeared in magazines as well. All those women were really very accomplished artists as well.

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Chester, Pa.: Hi, Mr. Walker: I haven't had a chance to get your book yet, but I've put it on my Christmas wish list, so I hope to have it very soon. I was wondering, which came first, the newspaper comic or the comic book?

Brian Walker: Well, it depends on what you call a comic book. In the 19th century, there were cartoons published in book form. And certainly alot of newspaper comics were reprinted in collections in book form as early as the beginning of the 20th century. But the modern comic book, which is really more of a magazine than a book, started in the early 1930s. And the first successful modern comic book was actually reprinted newspaper comic strips. A few years later, artists started doing original work for modern comic books and then Superman came along in 1938, and that launched the whole superhero comic book genre. So, really, the answer is that newspaper comic strips came before what we know today as the comic books.

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Rocky Mount, N.C.: How long did it take you to write the book? How do you manage to find the time when you are involved in a daily strip? So many of the cartoonists say they already work seven days a week. Did you have a research assistant?

Brian Walker: I spent about two years working on this last book. It started as a side vocation and turned into a second full-time career. I work on both "Beetle Bailey" and "Hi and Lois" as a writer, so I don't do the finished drawing, like the other cartoonists who work seven days a week. But still between working on the book and working on two different comic strips, there wasn't much time for anything except working and sleeping and seeing my wife and kids. I did not have a research assistant, the research is actually the part of working on a book that I enjoy the most. Ity's really kind of fun, the detective work, where you're hunting for not only the art work, which is a big part of it, but the facts and the history and the story behind it. I went to the Library of Congress and did research there. There was a magazine called Editor and Publisher, which is still being published and went into their archives, which go back into the 1890s, and that was fun to read an article about when William Randolph Hearst first came to New York City. It was like going back in time or something. So that's the fun part about it. I told my editor that, for the next book, I don't want to do another encyclopedia. Of course, the book is more than an encyclopedia, it's an art book.

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College Park, Md.: What were some of your best resources for gathering the images for your book. I believe Ohio State has quite a comics collection. What are some of the best resources for someone researching the field?

Brian Walker: Yes, I did use Ohio State University Cartoon Research Library as well as the Library of Congress and Boston University, Syracuse University. But the really best examples of original artwork in most cases belong to private collectors, because they started collecting this material before the institutions recognized the value of cartoon art. So I, from doing exhibits at the Museum of Cartoon Art over the years, have been in touch with a whole network of art collectors all over the world. There are some that specialize in a particular artist, or others that specialize in a certain period of time. I got artwork from collectors in Spain and Italy and I was very careful in the book to provide credits under each piece of where the artwork came from, very much like in a museum exhibit.
As for the best resources, the Library of Congress, if you go to their Prints and Photographs section on the Web site, you can see little thumbnail drawings. Also, Ohio State's cartoon research library also has a Web site where you can access information. Otherwise, you have to do it the good old-fashioned way and go out and get a book, like mine. There are a number of great books that have been published. With the first book I did, "The Comics Since 1945," noone had covered the last few decades, but with this new book, there have been quite a few books published on the early history of comics. So the challenge for me was to provide images that hadn't been reproduced before, so there's some fresh material there.

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San Diego, Calif.: : Did you encounter any information that surprised you while you were researching your books, either this one or your previous "The Comics Since 1945?"

Brian Walker: What was interesting was how many themes in the comics go back to the very beginning. There were political comment in "The Yellow Kid" in 1896. The words "to be continued" were used in a strip as early as 1903, I think. And also some of the comic strip artists that were the most successful are not always the ones you think of. You'd be surprised, today people always talk about George Herriman, who did "Krazy Kat," but he wasn't really that successful during his time. The three most successful cartoonists of the 1920s were Bud Fisher, who did "Mutt and Jeff," Sydney Smith who did "The Gumps" and George McManus, who did "Bringing Up Father." They were really the superstars of the era.

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Bethesda, MD: Brian--

I'm wondering how difficult it was getting permission to print all those classic strips. How did you do it?

Brian Walker: I got very good cooperation from the syndicates that distribute the comic strips and own the rights to most of the older ones. I had to pay reprint fees for alot of that material. Other material is in the public domain. Today, alot of the artists own their own strips and some of those artists who are friends of mine were nice enough to waive their fees for me. But still, the new book has about 600 images and the "since 1945" book has more than 700 images. So I had a fairly substantial right budget. I had to do all the letter writing and negotiating. That was all my responsibility. I worked a total of four years on both books together, so all that was just part of the ongoing process. The hunting down of the images was always full of surprises because collectors would give me leads on artwork that hadn't been reproduced since it originally appeared in the newspaper. For instance, there was a "Yellow Kid" original drawing that appeared in the newspaper in 1896 and that drawing had never been reprinted in any books before. I had heard that it had been sold from some estate sale in Maine, I believe it was, and was bought by an art dealer in Maryland, and ended up in a private collection in New York state, and I actually had to arrange with a photographer, long distance, to photograph it for the collector and then send me the transparency. (It's on Page 15 of my book, if you want to see it.) There's probably a similar story for almost every piece of artwork in the book. I really am very grateful to all the collectors who went to the trouble to have these pieces photographed and to share them with me, and ultimately my readers. There's no way a single person could do a book like this without the help of many, many people.

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Virginia: Did I read that a new Hi and Lois Sunday collection is coming
out? When will it arrive in bookstores? I have always been a
big fan of the strip. I always thought Dik Browne's artwork
was top-notch and your father's writing was great, too. You,
your brother Greg, and Chance are continuing the tradition
wonderfully.

Brian Walker: We try to do the best we can to continue the tradition, and I appreciate the compliment. We celebrated the 50th anniversary of "Hi and Lois" in October of this year. We put together a paperback book collection called "Hi and Lois: Sunday Best," that was published by ECW Press in Toronto. Officially, it's not supposed to be in the stores until next spring. But I think that there are some stores that have already ordered it, and you might be able to get it on Amazon.com. But that was a fun book to put together. It's mostly more recent Sunday pages, that the second generation, myself, Greg and Chance, have done. But then there's also a sampling of about seven or eight classic Sundays from the 1960s that were done by Mort and Dik.

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Towson, Md.: What's your dad think of your two books? Did he advise you along the way by either reading chapters or making suggestions on which art to include?

Brian Walker: He's been very supportive. Of course, we work together on the Museum of Cartoon Art, so we share a love of cartoon history. He's too busy to look over my shoulder on these book projects, but he's always been interested, asking me how it's coming. He's been a little frustrated because I haven't been able to play golf with him enough. But he's bought a couple of boxes of the book to give away to people for Christmas. That's the kind of support I really appreciate.

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Baltimore, Md.: Hi Brian--

I noticed that some strips from as long ago as the 1920s were in color. Were newspapers able to print in color back then?

Brian Walker: Actually, the first newspaper comics were what became called the Sunday funnies, were printed in color. The Yellow Kid, which started in 1895, which is considered to be the first successful newspaper comic feature, it wasn't really a strip, originally appeared in color. In the introduction to my book, I talk about the myth of "The Yellow Kid" as being the first comic strip. Like so many of these things, whenever you say first, you get yourself into trouble. Because every element of the comic strip had appeared before "The Yellow Kid," such as speech balloons, sequential panels, characters, color, etc. But "The Yellow Kid" was the first big success, which launched the whole funnies business. Comic strips that appeared in daily newspapers, which were reproduced in black and white, didn't really start appearing regularly until the first decade of the 20th century. "Mutt and Jeff," which was started in 1907, is considered to be the first successful daily comic strip. So when the syndicates started to control the distribution of comics by the 1920s, they had standardized them to the degree that the size and formats were consistent all around the country. So daily comic strips appeared in black and white in a single row of panels, and then, on Sundays, in color in the newspapers. In those days, a strip would often fill a whole page. There are collectors who collect old newspaper pages and some of them are really quite spectacular.

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New Orleans: Growing up in your household, you must have been steeped in comic history. Did you have the opportunity to meet many of your father's colleagues, perhaps at conventions, or were you the typical kid who thinks noone over 18 can be trusted?

Brian Walker: I often say I was born with ink in my veins but because, not only was my father a cartoonist (he created Beetle Bailey in 1950, before I was born), I grew up with my father's friends who were all cartoonist, John Cullen Murphy of "Prince Valiant," who passed away recently, was my godfather. And Dik Browne, who did "Hi and Lois" beginning in 1954, and created "Hagar the Horrible" in 1973, he performed my wedding ceremony. And of course all the other cartoonists I grew up. When I first started working at the Museum of Cartoon Art when I got out of college in 1974, I was able to meet, who created "Prince Valiant," Milton Caniff, who did "Terry and the Pirates" and "Steve Canyon" and I can even remember when I was a kid going to National Cartoonists Society events and seeing Rube Goldberg and people like that. I think because of all this I have a unique perspective, since I was able to have the opportunity to meet some of these legends and realize that they were living, breathing people. Also the fact that I work as a professional cartoonist, facing daily deadlines, the history of the art form is very alive for me. I have a great deal of respect for the artists that created these strips.

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Rosslyn, Va.: Brian,
Who are some of the strip artists you like?

Brian Walker: I read the New York Daily News every morning, but I also subscribe to two online services, (mycomicspage.com, and one that I think is still in beta form called dailyink.com, which is a service that's going to be released from King Features soon) so they allow me to read comics that aren't in my local paper, which is great. In addition to our strips, which is fairly obvious choice, I really like "Zits," but some of the other strips I read online are "The Duplex," "Stone Soup," "Pickles," "Red and Rover," "Baby Blues," "Zippy the Pinhead," I could go on and on.
One of my favorite strips of all time was "Barney Google" by Billy DeBeck. The peak of the strip was between 1923 and 1933, in my mind, and it really captures the freewheeling spirit of the 1920s more than any other strip. In my new book, there's a generous sampling of classic strips featuring Barney and his racehorse Spark Plug. One of my favorite cartoonists, Fred Lasswell, took over from Billy DeBeck when he died in the 1940s, and Snuffy Smith, who was a hillbilly, eventually took over the strip. And Fred continued working on the strip for close to 50 years after that, and he passed a few years back. He was just everybody's favorite cartoonist, he was like a living, breathing cartoon character himself. Everybody called him "Uncle Fred."

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Brian Walker: It's been nice talking with you today. I hope I've answered some questions, certainly not all of them. People often ask me what I learned in the process of doing these two books. I think that the overall impression that I came away with, is how versatile and durable comic strips are. People have been predicting the death of the comics almost from the beginning and they are still with us. And even though there's alot more competition today from television and the Internet, something like "Dilbert" is proof that the comics still have pulling power. I think that has alot to do with the cartoonists who create these characters who people visit with everyday. They're like friends to many of the readers, even if they're not funny every single day, people still like to see what they're doing and check in on them. I think that's something that's unique that newspaper comics offer that you can't get anywhere else. That's why they are still around 110 years later.

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Suzanne Tobin: Thanks, Brian, for joining us today. It's fascinating to hear how you compiled all these wonderful comics, and the process you went through to get all the great artwork. I hope you and everyone else will join us again in four weeks (we're taking Dec. 31 off) for another edition of "Comics: Meet the Artist."

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