Comics: Meet the Artist
With Brian Walker
Cartoonist, "Hi and Lois"
Hosted by Suzanne Tobin
Washington Post Comics Editor
Friday, Feb. 28, 2003; 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 Brian Walker, creator of the cartoon "Hi and Lois."
Join Tobin and Walker online Friday, Feb. 28 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss "Hi and Lois," and the art of cartooning.
Submit questions either before or during the discussion.
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.
Suzanne Tobin: Greetings, comics fans, and welcome to another snowy edition of "Comics: Meet the Artist." Today our guest is Brian Walker, of "Hi and Lois," who is joining us from his studio in Connecticut. Welcome, Brian, and thanks for joining us Live Online.
Brian Walker: It's great to be here online here at The Washington Post Web site.
Camp Swampy : Hi,
If I remember correctly, isn't "Beetle Bailey" somehow related to either Hi or Lois? If so, what is the connection, and how did it come about? Will either Hi or Lois ever visit Camp Swampy?
Love the strip -- don't change a thing!
Brian Walker: It actually started in 1953, I believe. Beetle was actually a college student, and then he enlisted, and as the Korean War was winding down, my father, Mort Walker, was worried that people wouldn't relate to the military theme anymore, so he sent Beetle home on furlough to visit his sister, Lois. Beetle was considering returning to civilian life, and the readers wrote and said, "No, no, we like Beetle in the Army," so my dad decided to send Beetle back to the Army. And his editor at King Features suggested he started a family strip, for Hi and Lois, and since he was already doing one strip he hired an illustrator, Dik Browne, to do the art. Now Hi and Lois is written by Mort's two sons, myself and Greg, and Chance Browne, who is Dik's son. So Hi and Lois has been handed down to the second generation now.
Hyattsville, Md.: What is going on with the International Museum of Cartoon Art? When I call it up on the Web, it says it's in Boca Raton, but I'm sure I read somewhere that it had closed at that location. Has it reopened somewhere else?
Brian Walker: The building in Boca Raton is either closed or has very limited hours. The collection has been moved North and the museum board, on which my father is a member, is looking for a new location. I worked at the museum from 1974 to 1992, when it was in Greenwich, Conn. Then I became sort of a consultant.
Forestville, Md.: Chip suddenly has eyes! What gives?
Brian Walker: There definitely is a physical resemblance between Chip and Beetle, because Beetle is Chip's uncle. Although Beetle's eyes are never shown, we do occasionally show Chip's eyes. I guess you could ask Chance when he's a guest.
Lyme, Conn.: You don't have to disclose your exact location, yet what part of Connecticut is your studio? It seems there are several Connecticut artists. Maybe there is something in our drinking water that inspires cartoonists?
Brian Walker: I don't think it's the drinking water...the reason why there were a lot of cartoonists in Connecticut for many years, was that many of them worked for clients in New York City. But Connecticut didn't have income tax, so they could live across the state line and take a train in. But now there is a state income tax, so that's not really valid. But in today's world, with e-mail and FedEx, a cartoonist can really live anywhere. I'm actually the chairman of the Connecticut chapter of the National Cartoonists Society.
Leesburg, Va.: How long did it take you to write your new book, "The Comics: Since 1945," and when did you find the time while also doing the daily "Hi and Lois" strips?
Brian Walker: It took me actually probably about six months to write it, but I worked on it for almost a year. I'm now working a "prequel" which is the comics before 1945. That will be published in 2004, and when it's all finished, I will have worked on this project for four years. As for the time, you just have to make it. I work pretty hard, long days, six days a week, no meetings. I never go to any meetings.
Washington, DC: Hi, Brian, thanks for taking my question. When I go to the link for your comic from this discussion page, it says, "Hi and Lois, by Greg & Brian Walker, drawn by Chance Browne." Did you ever draw the strip also? If not, why not? How did this team approach come about?
Brian Walker: As I said before, Hi and Lois was originally a collaboration between Mort Walker and Dik Browne, so we've continued that. But when I write my gags for the strip, I do actually sketch them out. And they are very rough sketches, but Chance follows them pretty carefully, so I have to be able to think visually. They're like storyboards. Chance is a much better artist than I am, but the ideas are very important too. You can have a beautifully drawn strip, but if the ideas are not funny, it won't succeed.
Bethesda, Md.: Are the kids in "Hi and Lois" modelled after anyone in particular? If so, why haven't they ever aged?
Brian Walker: Chip aged in the beginning. He was a little younger when the strip started, so they aged him from 11 or 12 to 15 to get him into the teenage years, which is ripe for gags. There were seven children in my family so it's hard to be able to say the characters were modeled after any one in particular. They're composite characters. And I have two kids, a boy and a girl, and unfortunately kids have a tendency to grow up, so it's harder for me to do diaper gags, because my kids are well beyond that stage. So you just have to channel your experience and your memories into the gags, like my father did when we were growing up. I can read back through Hi and Lois and it's almost like reading a family diary.
Glen Burnie, Md.: Have you ever really explained just what it is, exactly, that Hi does at the office, and what type of company it is? Also, where did the name "Hi" come from? Is it a veiled drug reference?!
Brian Walker: I don't think it's a drug reference. Hi goes back to the days of hi-balls and cocktail parties. One of the challenges we always have is that if Hi was old enough to have a 15-year-old son back in the '50s, how old would that make him now? We think of Hi as being essentially not quite 40. That's the age that he's stuck at. He works for Foofram Industries, his boss is Mr. Foofram. He's got a sort of mid-level kind of an accounting job. Something that's not too exciting, but pays the bills. But we have done some gags about some of his old dreams, like he wanted to be a surf bum or a rock 'n' roll musician. And Chip asks him, "What happened to all that, Dad?" And he replies, I grew up.
Arlington, Va.: Why doesn't Chip's band have a bassist?
Brian Walker: That's a good question. Can you play the bass?
Comicstripper: How would you respond to people who would criticize you and "cartoonists" like yourself who keep legally dead strips alive? Do you feel that, by continuing to produce these old and watered-down strips as one would produce, say, spam, you are not only running a classic strip into the ground, but also making it impossible for new cartoonists to become successful? Do you realize that many of the top comic strips today are the same ones that were popular in the 60's and 70's? Many of the original creators have retired or died, leaving the creation of the strip to a committee or less talented cartoonist, robbing it of it's charm and originality? I feel it is important that good comic strips, like yours was, go out with dignity rather than fading away and poisoning the comics industry.
Brian Walker: I've heard that before. I think that we still have a lot of loyal readers and people you get a lot of enjoyment out of it. Who's to say when a comic strip is no longer valid? We get feedback and letters all the time from fans. I do like a lot of the new cartoonists that are coming along. It's always been a competitive field. In entertainment today, we have careers that are so short, it's nice to have a comic strip that's been around for almost 40 years...I'm not just talking about Hi and Lois.
Washington, D.C.: What art classes would you recommend that someone who does not have any formal art training can take if they want to become skilled in drawing cartoons? What other skills are needed? Writing skill? How did you get your start?
Brian Walker: I always ask people what kind of cartooning they want to do, first. For instance, if you want to draw comic books, then you need to have formal art training. But in our field, of newspaper comics, the writing is the critical part of it, so I think creative writing classes are as important as drawing classes. Obviously, if you look at a comic strip like Dilbert, obviously Scott Adams didn't study anatomy, but he's a very good writer. And that's the most successful comic of the last decade. I think it's very important to have a really broad education, because you have to touch on so many universal subjects.
As I said before, I was born into the business since my father was a cartoonist. When I was younger, I was always sort of enlisted to do cartoons and posters for the school dances, and I was cartoonist for my high school and college newspapers. It was just assumed that I could do that, whether I wanted to or not. And then of course, as a child of the '60s, there was that period where I didn't want to have anything to do with my father's business. I did a lot of traveling and was actually an African Studies major in college. And then I realized my dad's career was actually a pretty good business. And what happened was that when I first graduated from Tufts in 1974, and my father was just starting the Museum of Cartoon Art then, they were fixing up this old mansion, and I had had house painting experience, and so that's how I started working for the museum, as a house painter. We got the house painted, and then it was like, now we have to put up some exhibits. So then I was a curator. And it's just gone from one thing to the next after that, until the early '80s, my brothers and I did a comic strip called "Betty Boop and Felix." That only lasted for about three years, but right about that same time, my father he asked me to try to write some Beetle Bailey gags as well as the Betty Boop ones. And I think he liked some of the stuff I wrote and then I was writing for Hi and Lois after the Betty Boop strip ended in the mid-'80s, and he asked me to write more on a full-time basis for Hi and Lois. And one of his longtime writers, Bob Gustafson, retired about that time, so then my role kept growing. It was sort of a slow evolution of on the job training, and I feel like I'm still learning.
Bethesda, Md.: Hey,
Just wondering why Ditto is named Ditto. Is he named after anyone, or do you just think it's a cool name?
Brian Walker: Well, his sister's name is Dot and they're twins. I didn't think of them, don't blame me, blame my dad.
Leonardo the Bass Player: May I audition for the bass player position? I am a great cartoon character, very two dimensional, very quiet so I don't need any lines, and (true story) I understand someone once worked my last name into an episode of the Simpsons as a prank, so I've sort of already had experience as a cartoon character. Where do I apply?
Brian Walker: Write to Chip Flagston, c/o King Features Syndicate.
Arlington, Va.: I can play the bass but how does Chip's band get along without one? Maybe I could be the band member who could play.
Brian Walker: We do have a Sunday strip coming up where we create a new member of the band who is a bass player, so I hate to tell you, but the job's already filled.
Re: Retired Strips: One of my favorite comic strips of all times, aside from "Peanuts," is "Calvin and Hobbes." Do you read any other comics, and/or have a favorite comic strip aside from the one you work on?
Brian Walker: I like a lot of comic strips. If you look at my current book, "The Comics: Since 1945," I had to study up on all the comics strips for that. I think some of my current favorite strips are "Zits," "Baby Blues," and "Mutts." One other strip I've been reading for many years is "Doonesbury."
Philadelphia, Pa.: Can you tell us about your work environment? Do you listen to music while you work or do you need quiet? Do you work alone or in a group office?
Brian Walker: I work alone and I like it quiet. Greg, Chance and I all work in separate offices, and we get together once or twice a month, but of course we're in almost constant contact through e-mails. And I also work on "Beetle Bailey," and there are four of us doing the ideas on that, my father of course, Jerry Dumas, who writes for Beetle Bailey as well as Greg and I. My father still draws Beetle Bailey and my brother Greg does the inking on that. I think it's always confusing to people all these little jobs and chores, but it's really a lot of work doing a daily strip.
Lyme, Conn.: What is your work process? Do you attempt to do a comic a day, or do you do them in batches, or does it vary?
Brian Walker: I definitely do them in batches. I do 60 gags for Hi and Lois a month and Greg does about 30. So you can see we throw out about two-thirds of what we do. And with Beetle Bailey, since there's four of us writing, there's even more attrition. So hopefully what ends up in the paper are the best gags. It's like batting average in baseball, you don't always get a hit, but hopefully your average is pretty good.
Suzanne Tobin: Do you think cartoons are better or worse than they were before 1945?
Brian Walker: That's an interesting question. Because right now I'm working on this next book, so I'm really immersed in this period. Most comics historians and comics fans, think of this golden age of comics in the 1920s and '30s and it's like talking about things with this nostalgic view of the past, that everything used to be so great back in the past. And that today, we see not only the great comics strips, but we see the not-so-great ones as well on any given comic page. So I think there are unfair comparisons made between the great comics of the past, like "Krazy Kat," or "Little Nemo," or the original "Popeye," and comparing them to the worst comics in today's papers, and I think that's kind of unfair. There's no question that they're different. Cartoonists used to have a lot more space to do a lot more elaborate graphics. But sometimes the storylines were kind of formulaic, in particular in the adventure strips. You had the hero and the damsel in distress. So I think comics today, like "Dilbert," or "Peanuts," or "For Better or For Worse," deal with real human experience. There are some aspects that are better today, but in terms of the art and doing really spectacular graphics, that's really impossible today given the space restriction cartoonists are working under. I still think it's remarkable what cartoonists are able to do within those limitations.
Suzanne Tobin: How do you remain competitive with the new strips that are coming up?
Brian Walker: Obviously, we have to evolve the strip and change it to keep up to date with things, so we've added computers and cell phones, sort of the trappings of progress into the strip. But the dynamics of a family pretty much remain the same. On the other hand, it's frustrating for us because when we try to be a little more cutting edge, and we usually get in trouble for it. There are things that can be done on television in a humor show like "The Simpsons," that we could never get away with in Hi and Lois. Our readers and our editors would never let us do that in the newspaper. There is sort of a double standard there. But then people criticize us for not being as cutting edge, so it's a difficult line to walk between what's in good taste and what's considered funny. I think we've finally arrived at a place where we've realized that Hi and Lois is an alternative to the cutting edge things like "South Park." I frequently use the phrase that the Flagstons are a functional family in a dysfunctional world.
Maryland: Where do your ideas come from, and what influenced you to become a comic strip writer?
Brian Walker: That's the most frequently asked question of cartoonists. There really isn't an answer to it. It's sort of like asking how do you know to open your eyes when you wake up in the morning. Some cartoonists have some smart answers to that. I believe Mike Peters of "Mother Goose and Grimm" goes "Schenectady." But it's like anything, it's work. You observe and soak up all the influences you can, and then you just sit there and pull your hair out until you get something. Another of the great old cartoonists, Fred Lasswell of "Snuffy Smith," used to say, "I just get some unpaid bills and spread them around on my drawing board." Sometimes it's like trying to be funny when someone is holding a gun to your head. But that's the way a deadline is, you have to produce, you have to fill the space, you can't say "I didn't feel funny today."
Suzanne Tobin: Thanks, Brian. It's been great having you.
Brian Walker: Thanks, it's been great to answer all these great questions from your readers. I'm hoping that people will be able to read "Hi and Lois" now and have a little better understanding of where we're coming from.
© Copyright 2003 The Washington Post Company