ONE NIGHT during the war — “the big one,” naturally — Mort Walker was getting coldcocked into unconsciousness by a fellow soldier’s haymaker. Sometime later, to his relief, he was riding “on a big cruise ship with a bunch of nurses,” en route to Italy. From bruising to cruising, it was as if Mort Walker’s War was making sure he would have enough material, enough probable fodder, to deliver punch lines about Army life for at least the next seven decades.
The war was victorious: Since midcentury, Walker’s never lacked for an endless source of cartoon humor.
Today, Mort Walker celebrates his 90th birthday. And tomorrow, he marks the 63rd anniversary of the launch of his most famous comic strip, “Beetle Bailey.” All these decades later, the humanity-skewering mind is still at it, crafting quips and visual puns by the dozens. There’s no turning off that hard-wiring for humor. Above all, Mort Walker the cartoonist tirelessly remains one thing:
He is the ultimate Gag Man.
Still, I needed to know: Is the rumor true?
IT’S UNCANNY how quickly many people warm up to Mort. Nearly all his life, he’s had that easy grace to ingratiate himself into most any social setting. “People take a liking to me like I’m a long-lost friend,” Walker tells me Monday from Connecticut, where the big birthday preparations are in full swing. By Tuesday morning, the well wishes are flooding in — including from political and military leaders — and scores come to toast him like the dearly held friend he is.
And surely, when they do, Mort the Gag Man will have a snappy retort.
The first time I met Mort, at a formal Jersey City industry dinner in 2010, the first thing I saw was the line of well-wishers. The tuxedoed Walker was holding court, wearing a broad smile beneath a full crown of white hair. In this ballroom of peers, during the National Cartoonist Society’s formal Reuben Awards dinner, Walker was like approachable royalty.
As I walked up, there was one thing I especially wanted to know: Is the rumor indeed true? Is it fact that Walker can rattle off fresh punch lines as if he’s taking target practice? Is his comic mind that nimble in real life, even away from the drawing board?
“The other day, I took my wife to the doctor,” Walker replied. “I waited an hour. By the time she came out, I’d written a few dozen jokes.”
Walker has several creative devices for joke writing. One, he says, is to start with a thought and then develop a picture from that. Another way is to use “trigger phrases.”
“I play golf with another artist who’s a philosopher and a big reader ...,” Walker tells me. “One day he said, ‘You say you can make a joke out of anything. I’ll give you a list of trigger phrases, like: “How long have you been doing that?” or, “You’ll get fat if you’re doing that.” ‘
“He gave me 25 trigger phrases. I could make a gag out of most everyone of them.”
This ready, shades-of-Henny-Youngman wit makes the Gag Man especially known around his Connecticut town.
“I go to the grocery store with my wife,” Walker says Monday. “She goes off to buy something. Where is she anyways? So I ask the manager: ‘What aisle do they keep the wives in?’
“Then I go by the bakery. There’s a cake there. It’s called, Chocolate To Die For. I buy it and then a couple of days later, go back and say I want a refund. I say, ‘I bought one and I’m still here — it didn’t work.’ “
“They miss me in the grocery store when I don’t go on Saturdays.”
That’s no joke — though if you wanted one out of that, Mort could certainly provide it quick. His mind is the aisle where gags live.
WALKER VIVIDLY recalls his first success with cartooning. It went so well, he soon dropped out of school.
He was 12.
“I first sold a cartoon for five dollars. … ,” says Walker, who was born in El Dorado, Kan., hard past Wichita, before his family settled in Kansas City. “I was in the fifth grade. They sent truant officers to frighten me into going back.”
Six months later, he was back at school — not out of fear, but professional necessity. “I had to go back to school to study writing,” he says, “because writing is [crucial] to cartooning.”
In his teens, he published more than 100 cartoons, he says, in magazines like Inside Detective, and Child Life, and Flying Aces, and sold a comic strip (”The Lime Juicers”) to the Kansas City Journal. So once he enrolled in junior college, it was only natural he would find work at the nearby greeting-card company — the precursor to Hallmark.
“I would change the whole style of cards while I was there,” Walker says. “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!’ “
So Walker, forever trusting his own imagination, began doing humorous cards for what became Hallmark. “Their greeting cards weren’t funny; they were pretty and had flowers and nice scenes and cute cuddly bears. I helped change the industry.”
Walker made a dollar a card — plenty lucrative when a year’s tuition was $25. “I used to sit in my room,” he says, “and instead of studying, I’d do cards.”
IT WAS 1943, and Walker got the call. A half-year into his university studies, he was drafted into the Army Air Corps. A comedic wellspring was about to be discovered.
“I took my basic training on a golf course in Florida,” Walker says. “Then I was on the boxing team. We did some demonstrations and they put me in a theater one night and wanted me to box. So OK, I came out boxing with a friend -- thinking we would just spar around -- but the guy walked out, hit me and knocked me out with one stroke. They carried me back and put me in my bunk. It took me a couple of hours to wake up.
“I realized: I don’t like boxing. They’re trying to kill each other.”
Walker was sent to be a radio repairman, and was posted at Camp Crowder (the inspiration, he notes, for “Beetle Bailey’s” Camp Swampy). “I saw a thing on the bulletin board for an Army specialized training program. I signed up to go into psychiatry and I ended up studying engineering. It was typical Army reasoning -- I never even took math in high school!”
Walker ended up with a degree in architecture. “Then they sent me to the infantry,” he says. “I saw something that said: When the war is over, anybody who served overseas would be the first to get out. So I applied for overseas duty. Next thing I know, I’m on a big cruise ship with a bunch of nurses to Italy.”
Once he landed in Europe, the forces didn’t know what to do with Walker — so he was put in command of a prisoner-of-war camp. “So I had 10,000 Germans in a POW camp in Naples,” he says. “They made me an intelligence officer. I investigated thefts and rapes and murders — all kinds of stuff. I was the only American officer in charge of the camp,” says Walker, who was given a company of Italian soldiers.
“I had my own Jeep and my own interpreter,” says Walker, who sketched and took photographs. “It was the best vacation you could ever have. I saw the [Italian] monuments and the churches and the restaurants. I would spend a weekend with nurses at a seaport resort.”
“I had a great life over there,” Walker adds now, 70 years later. “I never had any Nazis with me. I was talking to these [POW] guys. ... They were scared as hell of Hitler. They said [that in Germany] they used to have spies on every block. They said: ‘We knew better than to talk.’ I sympathized.”
When the war ended, Walker says he took the Germans to Switzerland by boxcar, to turn them over to the Red Cross. Then he found a shipyard and — deploying his warmth of personality — talked his way onto a U.S.-bound vessel.
If there was one running theme throughout Walker’s war service, it was this: “I sort of made my own rules all the way along.”
“World War II was a big joke for me,” Walker the Gag Man adds. “I say, ‘I won the war.’ My wife says, ‘You can’t say that – it sounds like you’re bragging.’ So instead I say, ‘I was in the big war – and we didn’t lose it.’ “
But what had all the posts and transfers and experiences prepared the officer for, exactly?
“The next stop,” former Lt. Walker says, “was to draw a comic strip.”
WALKER DIDN’T have to look far for inspiration. He was, in effect, surrounded by some real characters.
“I was drawing a bunch of guys in college,” says Walker, who returned to the University of Missouri in 1946 to get his degree in arts and sciences. “I based the characters on real people — guys and girls I knew. Beetle was pretty much based on my [high school] friend David Hornaday — he was tall and skinny and lazy. ... To wake him up, we would pull the pillow out [from his head] and turn the bed upside-down. On the floor, he would just go back to sleep.”
Then there was the basis for what would become Walker’s mustachioed ladykiller character. “Killer is based on a roommate I had one time,” Walker recalls. “All he thought about was girls. I would say, ‘You want to go get a hamburger?’ He would say: ‘I’ve got to go to town to get some sex.’ ‘Want to go see a movie?’ ‘I’ve got to go to town.’ He would just walk up and down the street in town and say to the girls, ‘Wanna [expletive]?’ “
“Killer is just as much an [obsessed]-with-sex type of person.”
Walker even based one character on fellow cartoonist Otto Soglow, a New Yorker magazine and King Features talent who famously created the strip “The Little King.” “He was a short, feisty guy,” Walker says. “Someone would say, ‘Stand up, Otto!’ He’d yell back, ‘I AM standing up, damn it!’
“So I named my [comic-strip] dog Otto.”
In 1950, Walker pitched his strip to King Features. The syndicate changed the lead character’s name from Spider to Beetle, and on Sept. 4 debuted the comic in 12 papers. It was the last strip personally approved by King’s big boss, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. “He saw my strip and wrote ‘OK’ on it,” Walker says. “They saved it.”
Walker says Hearst -- the famed basis of “Citizen Kane” -- was “a supermaniac” who “kept buying castles,” and “kept buying up furniture and junk” to fill up those castles. But Walker is glad that Hearst, as “a big comics fan,” at least had a discerning eye for strips.
Life after the launch, though, was slow going. Walker had set “Beetle Bailey” at fictional Rockview University, but seven months after the strip’s debut, Beetle suddenly became an army private, and Rockview was jettisoned for Camp Swampy. During the Korean War, the strip began to take off — and it never looked back.
WALKER LANDED in New York at midcentury, and the city welcomed him with open arms. Gratefully, it was here, he says, he received a boost from some of his industry’s greats.
“For some reason — this always happened to me — people [welcomed me]. Rube Goldberg invited me to come meet him. Milt Caniff began advising me about my strip. He said: ‘Don’t draw real tanks. Draw cartoon versions of tanks. And get some pretty girls in there – everybody likes to look at pretty girls. And sign your name big.
“I followed it all.”
In the mid-’50s, as “Beetle Bailey” grew, so did Walker’s professional stature and vision.
“They used to call me ‘The Kid,’ “ Walker says of these established cartooning stars. “They’d take me on speaking tours and invited me to be president of the [National] Cartoonists Society. They used to meet in the back of a dark bar. They drank and told stories. That was the Cartoonists Society — only about 20 members. I thought: ‘I’ve got to make this a real society.’
Walker, having made his own rules since his fifth-grade truancy, began doing so again.
“I started involving members from other types of [non-strip] cartooning, like gag cartoonists and sports cartoonists,” says Walker, who also began to turn the group a bit more progressive. “And they didn’t allow women, because they all sat around telling dirty jokes.” (Interestingly, “Beetle Bailey” has historically come under criticism for its depiction of lecherous Gen. Halftrack’s buxom young secretary, Miss Buxley; Walker eventually published a book titled, “Miss Buxley: Sexism in Beetle Bailey.”)
“I invited women” into the society, Walker says. “I filled the hall with 50 new members” — even if a few older members tried to take the mike from him, or stormed out of the hall altogether.
Walker says he helped create the society’s Reuben Award -- still one of the most esteemed honors in comics. He launched monthly exhibits by members, aided by the late cartooning great Jerry Robinson. And he brought in potentially controversial speakers.
“I invited Roy Lichtenstein,” Walker says of the then-newly celebrated Pop Art figure. “Everybody was going to attack him [for gaining fame and fortune from ‘stealing’ comic art in his paintings]. But he was such a nice guy. He said he had been starving in his office and decided to paint one [comic-art painting with Benday dots]. He said: ‘That one sold. All of a sudden, I was making money.’ “
By the end of the talk, “everybody went up and congratulated him.”
“I think,” Walker says of the society, “I helped give it a new start.”
IT WAS 1954, and Walker saw another opening on the comics page.
“In almost all the family strips, the husband and wife were always fighting,” says Walker, who decided to launch his gentler-toned spinoff strip, “Hi and Lois,” as counterprogramming. “ ‘Hi and Lois’ wasn’t like…’The Lockhorns.’ I have that [antagonistic] relationship between the general and his wife [in ‘Beetle Bailey’], but that’s only because he’s the boss.”
To produce the strip, Walker found a great collaborator in artist Dik Browne, the late creator of “Hagar the Horrible.”
“He was wonderful — just a great guy,” says Walker, noting that “Beetle Bailey’s” Plato character is based on Browne. “He was funny, and the only thing he got mad at ever, now and again, was when I would say what I thought I was a joke, and he would take it as an insult. . … I’d have to repair it later on [and] say, ‘Let’s start over.’ “
“We were always great partners.”
Today, “Hi and Lois” is continued by three of the partners’ sons: writers Brian and Greg Walker and artist Chance Browne — and sibling artist Chris Browne carries on “Hagar the Horrible.”
YOU KNOW those “dingbat” series of symbols — from stars to lightning bolts — that represent cartoon profanity? Depending on the intensity of your comics fandom, you may know they’re called “grawlix.” What you may not know is that Mort Walker coined the term.
“I wrote a book called ‘The Lexicon of Comicana,’ “ Walker says. “In it, I had the devices that cartoonists use – the characters that they draw when they’ve got a lot of cussing – I took each one of those swirlygigs and gave them names — and called them by the word ‘grawlix.’
Walker was kidding. This time, not everyone took it as just a joke. The term caught on.
“People took it seriously,” he says. “I don’t know why.”
YOU COULD call it “Plight at the Museum.”
Walker, in his dedication to raise public appreciation of the craft, established the nation’s first cartoon museum in 1974 -- launching a four-decade journey of ups and downs.
“I kept trying to start a cartoon art museum,” says Walker, who looked for a while at Washington, D.C., for support, perhaps even a home. “I couldn’t get anyone interested in sponsorship. People didn’t think the comics were worth looking at in a museum. They said: ‘Once you’ve seen them in the newspaper….” But I said: ‘After you’ve seen the Mona Lisa in a book, do you not want to see it in the Louvre?’ “
Finally, a neighbor in Greenwich, Conn., donated a family home to the cause — just two blocks from Walker’s house. The new International Museum of Cartoon Art was a hit until one day, the neighbor took back the house. “We were kicked out,” Walker says. Employees “had tears down their eyes. I said, ‘Let’s go out and find a castle.’ “
Walker landed a new site in New York, and then it was on to the museum’s next home, in Florida. “We made a unique museum in Boca Raton. It was a success…,” he says. “The whole city used it for parties. I had my tuxedo on four times a week. We thought we were doing great until two of the main sponsors went bankrupt and the bank immediately foreclosed on our debt.” He says they were forced to sell at below cost.
Walker next met an Empire State Building owner on the golf course, made a charming pitch and got a lease and designer — before another commercial tenant in the building complained. The cartoonist says a six-figure security deposit was lost.
“Finally, after 34 years of struggling with a museum, we decided to work with Ohio State,” says Walker, whose museum — thanks to the donations of so many generous artists over the years — gave tens of thousands of cartoons and other objects to the university’s Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum, which is hosting a Grand Opening Festival beginning Nov. 14.
Finally, in Ohio — that cradle of so many top cartoonists — the collection can have a permanent home.
TODAY, AT 90, Walker weighs his legacy through a treasury of great memories.
“Beetle Bailey” remains a global presence. It’s syndicated to 1,800 newspapers; has generated hundreds of books; and appears daily in 52 countries. “It’s humor is international,” Walker says. “I have a Swedish editor. He says: ‘More funny pictures, Mort! More funny pictures! A lot of your puns and punchlines aren’t translatable. But a funny picture is good in any language.’ So I am for funny pictures and simple dialogue -- [because] it works for foreign publications.” Whether as a soldier or a humorist, Mort Walker has long known how to play well overseas.
Three of Walker’s sons — Brian, Greg and Neal — work in his studio. “They’ve got pretty good-paying jobs,” Walker the Elder says.
He also notes that he’s shared his wealth with his children, forming a “seven-child corporation.” “The incentive wasn’t an act of generosity,” he half-jokes, “but because [about the turn of the century], I was paying 70 percent taxes!”
Walker says he also shared the wealth with his first wife when he remarried. “I stripped myself of a lot of my assets,” he says, before again pivoting toward the laugh line: “I’m struggling along with a couple million I’ve saved for myself for retirement.”
Not that the ultimate Gag Man has plans to retire. “It makes life fun — [to be able] to make a gag out of almost anything. Rather than gripe about problems, I joke.”.
And as “Beetle Bailey” turns 63 Wednesday, what sort of legacy might he leave his children?
“I think a lot of that depends on the rest of the world,” he says. “What’s the future of newspapers? I might be leaving a legacy of failure to my children. It’s like Kodak – nobody buys film anymore. I have a typewriter sitting in the corner that I haven’t used in 15 years.”
Once again, Mort the Gag Man is most adept at turning the joke — however bittersweetly — on himself.