Comics: Meet the Artist
With Mort Walker
"Beetle Bailey" Cartoonist
Hosted by Suzanne Tobin
Washington Post Comics Editor
Friday, Oct. 11, 2002; 1 p.m. ET
Welcome to the Washington Post Style section comics discussion, hosted by Comics page editor Suzanne Tobin. This week, Tobin is joined by "Beetle Bailey" cartoonist Mort Walker. The cartoon features a character who accidentally enlisted in the Army and ended up the world's most famous work-shirking private.
Tobin and Walker were online Friday, Oct. 11 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss "Beetle Bailey" and the art of cartooning.
The transcript follows.
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.
washingtonpost.com: Greetings, comics fans and welcome to another edition of "Comics: Meet the Artist." Today our guest is Mort Walker, creator of "Beetle Bailey" and co-creator of "Hi and Lois," which he created with Dik Browne as a spinoff to "Beetle," when Beetle went home on furlough to visit his sister Lois and his brother Hi. Today Mort is joining us from his studio in Stamford, Connecticut. Welcome, Mort, and thanks for joining us Live Online.
Mort Walker: It's a unique experience for me to be meeting you all online. You might say I'm a computer goof.
Silver Spring, Md.: Mr. Walker - I've been amused for many years reading your comic strip! Could you please sometime do a flashback to the time Beetle accidentally enlists? Also: How do you respond to charges of stereotyping your characters, such as Sergeant Yo, Miss Buxley, etc.?
Mort Walker: First of all, flashing back to when Beetle first enlisted, I suppose I could do that, it’s a good suggestion. I don’t think I’m necessarily stereotyping black and Asians when I do those characters. All the privates in the Army aren’t lazy, all the generals aren’t stupid and all the sergeants aren’t big and mean and tough. For example, Lt. Flap, is not the historical stereotype of a black man, he’s a man in charge of his own destiny and intelligent and on the go.
Go Tigers!: Mr. Walker,
As a fellow Mizzou alum, I am curious how your time in Columbia inspired or affected your work. Beetle still sits on campus where "the shack" used to be.
Mort Walker: There’s a large bronze sculpture that my son did on the campus of Missouri University that we asked us to do. And we designed it so that there is space next to him on the bench for people to sit and have their picture taken with Beetle. And they say it’s become the No. 1 photo op on campus. I was editor of the campus magazine the “Showme” and I did a lot of cartoons for the magazine as well as edit it. So when I got to New York and was working as a freelancer, one of my editors at the Saturday Evening Post said “Why don’t you draw some college cartoons like I used to see in the magazine?” So I did and pointed to one of the characters and said, “that’s a funny looking guy, why don’t you feature him?” And I did and he became Beetle Bailey.
Washington, D.C.: No question, just a comment.
Two things instantly became 100 percent funnier when I joined the Army -- "MASH" and "Beetle Bailey." It seemed like I suddenly "got" a whole level of nuances that I had missed before.
Mort Walker: So glad you enjoy my work. I got most of my material during my years in the service, from 1943 to 1946. That's where I did all my research. I started out in the Air Force, they sent me to the Signal Corps to be a radio repairman, and the Signal Corps sent me to the Engineers to get a college diploma and then the Engineers sent me to the Infantry, and I went to Officers School and became a Lieutenant, and they sent me to an Ordnance Company in Naples, Italy. And they didn't know what to do with me, so they made me an Intelligence and Investigating Officer. With no training, I investigated crimes. And in addition to all that, I was in charge of the local prisoner of war camp. I had 10,000 German prisoners of war. And all this at 20 years old with no training. Now to me that's typical Army. For instance, they got a guy and they say "I don't know what to do with him," so they decide to make him a general. That's why I think the Army's funny.
Washington, D.C.: I have enjoyed reading "Beetle Bailey" for many years, and I hope that you continue writing it for many more. But have you given any thought to how you want the strip to end, when it comes time for you to retire?
Mort Walker: I'm not going to retire. I'm asked that quite often. I'm 79 years old. And I tell people that I have my breakfast and I shuffle over a few steps to my studio. Then I lie down in my lounge chair and stare at the ceiling until I get an idea. Then I shuffle over to my desk, and make a few scratches on a piece of paper with my pen, and they send me money. What would I retire to, ditch digging? And, in addition to that, I have six of my 10 children working for me, and they are perfectly capable of continuing the strip after I'm gone. And I've got them psyched out to the point where I think I can control them from the grave.
Washington, D.C.: Will you create a woman soldier for the comic strip? Or is everyone in Beetle's unit combat?
Mort Walker: I have several women soldiers in the strip, Miss Blips, the general's secretary, and Sgt. Lugg, Sergeant's sweetheart and I have no plans beyond that.
Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.: What's the latest with the Comics Museum in Boca Raton?
Mort Walker: We have closed the International Museum of Cartoon Art down in Boca Raton. Our collection is in storage and we're negotiating with Yale University, New York and Las Vegas as possible exhibition sites. We had several bankruptcies among our major donors all at once and we couldn't pay our mortgage. We tried to affiliate with Florida Atlantic University, but the city wouldn't allow it, and so we just closed up. We have definite plans for reopening as soon as we can.
Washington, D.C.: Do you have any contact with the modern Army? What are their reaction to your portrayal of the Army and soldiers?
Mort Walker: In the past, I've had a lot of trouble with the Pentagon. One time they published a book with my cartoons saying how NOT to do things in the Army. One Secretary of Defense refused to be photographed with me. Then they discovered their sense of humor. And last year they gave me the highest award the Pentagon can give to a civilian. And they've been helpful ever since.
They gave me a big parade and the Twilight Tattoo there in Washington when I got my award. I was very pleased and was reassured that the quality of officers since I was in has improved considerably.
Juarez City, Chihuahua, Mexico: Hi Mr. Walker, I'm a really big fan all the the way from over here in Mexico, and I was wondering what were your major influences and what comic strips that are made now do you like?
Thanks, AJ Martinez
Mort Walker: There are so many comic strips that I like, it's hard to pick individual ones, but I do like "Zits," "For Better or Worse," "Family Circus," "Hagar the Horrible" and so many others, I can't mention them all.
Influences when I was growing up were "Smitty" and "Moon Mullins." And I was greatly influenced by the work of Walt Disney.
Washington, D.C.: You recently introduced a new character, Chip Gizmo. Any other modernizations planned for the near future?
Mort Walker: I think that's enough for awhile. I don't want to confuse the issue. I already have the largest cast of characters in the comics industry. I have them all marching along the bottom of my stationery, and there's no more room for anyone else. I'd have to drop somebody.
Washington, D.C.: Where can we write to you? Could you give us your e-mail or snail-mail addresses?
Mort Walker: Snail mail is probably the best way to reach me. Send your letters to King Features Syndicate, 888 Seventh Ave., New York, NY 10019.
Harrisburg, Pa.: Please pardon my ignorance, yet I don't believe I recall the original storyline of Beetle Bailey. How did he accidentally join the Army? I recall he doesn't wish to accept promotion. (Has any character been promoted in the strip's history?) Why does Beetle keep reenlisting, other than, of course, to keep your great strip going?
Mort Walker: You'd have to be about my age to remember the original storyline. It happened in 1951. He just walked by a sign that said "Uncle Sam Wants You" and at that moment he felt like it would be nice to have somebody want.
I don't think we've ever promoted anyone. I'd have a lot of petitions to promote Beetle, but I like to think of him like the Rock of Gibraltar. It never moves and it never gets any higher.
Washington, D.C.: "Cathy"s working exercise into her strip lately. Ms. Buxley looks quite healthy -- but is there a male character in "Beetle Bailey" who is equally fit? All those marches, mudholes, and beating ups -- you'd think who'd have a muscle to show, no?
Mort Walker: At one point I had a tennis pro that the General's wife was kind of enamored with. I thought if the General is kind of enamored with Miss Buxley, his wife should have someone too. If you're think the Sergeant's fat, that's really all muscle!
Washington, D.C.: Hi Mr. Walker, Hi Suzanne:
Mr. Walker have you ever thought about, or been asked, to make Beetle an animated TV series? And also what do you think of John Dilworth's creation "Courage the Cowardly Dog" show?
Mort Walker: I do have 50 animated "Beetle Bailey" shows. They were produced by Paramount around 1960 and we syndicate them all around the world. They used to be shown on Saturday mornings, and they used to be shown in theaters. Blockbuster even had them for sale for awhile.
Unfortunately, I'm not familiar with "Courage the Cowardly Dog."
Potomac, Md.: Is the anti-establishment, authority-battling Everyman sadsack Beetle Bailey a satirical, sardonic and symbolic manifestation of post-Vietnam dissatisfaction with our overly powerful government and the ever-sprawling military-industrial complex? Couldn't we see the influence of MASH, Catch-22, the 1960s and post-modern, anti-militaristic viewpoints evident in the daily struggles of Beetle against an over-powering bureaucratic command structure that threatens to destroy the working man? Thank you!
Mort Walker: This is not an editorial cartoon, this is a cartoon that's supposed to make people laugh and make their day a little brighter. The stuff you're talking about belongs on the editorial page.
Namsos, Norway: I am a great fan of Beetle (norwegian-billy), and would like to ask if there is a possibility that you again will attend the Norwegian "Raptus" convention? I was there the last time, but missed your on site by 15 minutes. I would very much like to have a second chance!
Mort Walker: I make a trip to Scandinavia about every four years. And that was two years ago I was there. They treat me so wonderful there, I'd like to go back every year.
Chantilly, Va.: Mort: I was sorry to hear that the Cartoon Museum had to close up shop in Boca Raton. We visited the museum a few years ago and enjoyed it very much.
Also, what kind of reaction are you getting to computer geek Chip Gizmo?
Mort Walker: First of all, I'm so glad you enjoyed the museum. It's unique in the whole world. When I started it in 1974, it was the only cartoon museum in the world. Now there are museums in almost every country. And we have great hopes for it even bigger in better in its next location.
The reaction to Chip has been very good. I think I won a lot of friends among the younger generation who understand those doggone machines. Primarily, my own children, who I have to tear away from the Internet to get them to do any work for me.
Centreville, Va.: This is a question to Beetle:
Beetle, how do you put up with Sarge beating you to a pulp at least once a week? How do you bounce back so easily from such a pounding? How cool is Lt. Flapp?
Mort Walker: Beetle just shows his superiority to everything the Sarge does because he's the smartest guy in the system, because he knows how to get around all the rules, even beat-up rules. Lt. Flap is about the coolest guy in the comics.
Stony Brook, N.Y.: Is there any chance of you opening a branch of the Museum of Cartoon Art in the New York City area? I miss the old castle site. Your ol' friend Kevin Adams.
Mort Walker: New York is where we're hoping to open a gallery. For those of you who don't know the history of the museum, we originally opened in Greenwich, Conn., in 1974 in an old mansion. It was so popular the owner said we were wearing out his house. So we bought an old castle in Rye Brook, N.Y., that had been empty for years. And we renovated and opened there around 1976. After 15 years, we had to sell the castle because it was 100 years old and was falling apart. Around 1995, we were offered some free land in Boca Raton, Fla., and we built a brand new building there. And I think I explained what happened then earlier in the chat.
Washington, D.C.: I enjoy cross-overs, where a comics character visits the world of another comic strip. Do you have any cross-overs planned for the near future? I believe I read somewhere that you collaborate with Chris Browne to produce "Hi and Lois." Any cross-overs planned between "Beetle Bailey," Hi and Lois," and "Hagar the Horrible"?
Mort Walker: Not with Hagar. But occasionally we do take Beetle home on vacation and show him with his sister Lois. Hi and Lois is a strip I created in 1954 and I hired Dik Browne and we were partners for over 30 years until he died. His son, Chance, took over the artwork then, and I thought it was time for the second generation to take over so my two oldest boys, Greg and Brian, took over the writing for Hi and Lois.
washingtonpost.com: Mort, how much fun was it writing your autobiography "Mort Walker's Private Scrapbook" and how long did it take you to complete the book?
Mort Walker: It was great fun! Because I was able to relive all the high points of my life and forget about all the low points. It took me all my life to write it, when you get right down to it. But seriously, it took about two years to compile it. What really surprised me was how active I was when I was young. I read recently an article about attention deficit disorder in children, and when I got to reading about myself, about all the stuff I was into...for instance when I was in high school, I was president of the YMCA in Kansas City, Missouri. At Northeast High School, I was president of the Debaters Society, president of the Art Club, editor of the school newspaper, photographer for the yearbook, a cheerleader, set designer and stage performer. I also started and ran a biweekly dance at the teen center. I had a comic strip in the Kansas City Journal and was selling freelance cartoons to magazines all over the country. And I got to thinking, as I was reviewing all that, "I wonder if I had ADD and didn't even know it!"
Washington, D.C.: Mr. Walker, don't ever change Beetle Bailey a bit? His easy-going, do-what-has-to-be-done but-no-more attitude fits perfectly with the soldiers I knew in the Army. (Including me!) In fact, I think I met every character in "Beetle Bailey" at least once during my nine years a green-suiter!
Mort Walker: All my characters are based on people I knew. Beetle Bailey was a high school/college friend named David Hornaday, who was so lazy, but good-natured. I went by to pick him up one day to play golf, and his mother said, "He's still in bed." I went to his room, shook him, and yelled at him, "David, we have a tee time!" He grabbed his pillow, turned over and went back to sleep. I took the bed, threw him out on the floor. He grabbed his pillow and went back to sleep on the floor. I shook my head and said "David, you ought to be in a comic strip."
I had a sergeant just like Sgt. Snorkel whose name was Savou. He was big and tough and yelled at us all the time.
We came back from a real grueling day once and found a sheet of paper on our pillow. It was poem from Sgt. Savou titled, "To My Boys," and we all looked at each other in disbelief that this man had a heart.
My character Plato was based on Dik Browne, Killer was another roommate. Miss Buxley is Marilyn Monroe, and so forth.
Washington, D.C.: Do other countries have comics? As many as the U.S.? Does "Beetle Bailey" have a counterpart in other militaries? Or is "Beetle" a symbol for soldiers in other armies besides U.S.? Would Beetle ever accept a UN assignment?
Toles seems softer than Herblock in terms of drawing style and a wit that doesn't slap you, but does turn your head. What do you think? Would you be willing to let Beetle be a 'wizard' like the micro-soft paper clip?
Mort Walker: Most of the comic strips around the world are American. Beetle Bailey appears in 52 different countries and has 200 million readers every day. There are other ones, like get "Andy Capp" from England, but I can't think of too many other ones. Most of the European comic strip appear in magazines, not newspapers.
washingtonpost.com: You mentioned that "Beetle" is published in 52 countries? How many of those have you visited? How much traveling do you do each year?
Mort Walker: I do some traveling in Europe...Italy, France, England, Ireland, Belgium, Scandinavian countries. And my strip is very popular in places like Sweden. I appeared at the Gothenburg Book Fair several years ago and they gave me a plaque for having the longest queue line in history for autographs.
I do alot of traveling each year in the U.S. Alot of my travels are for business promotion. In Las Vegas, I recently introduced five Beetle Bailey slot machines at a trade show. They use Beetle Bailey for lottery tickets in alot of states. I'm going to Des Moines on Nov. 11 to introduce Beetle Bailey lottery tickets for Iowa. I also usually visit a Veterans Hospital in whatever city I'm in, and I do alot of autographs there, too.
Washington, D.C.: You've occasionally have Beetle Bailey go home on leave and visit his sister Lois in "Hi and Lois." My friend and family sometimes visited me on base while I was in the Army. Might be interesting for Hi and Lois and their kids to visit Beetle at Camp Swampy.
Mort Walker: I have done that, but you might have missed it.
Washington, D.C.: Mr. Walker,
Thanks for 50 great years. Fifty more, please!
Mort Walker: I hope that I am able to continue for many more years and I hope that I've brought a few smiles to the faces and made friends for many of my readers.
washingtonpost.com: Thanks, Mort, for taking the time to interact with our readers. Join us again in two weeks for another edition of "Comics: Meet the Artist."
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