MORT WALKER was one of those people whose eyes smiled every bit as brightly as their mouth. And so, when I sat next to the tuxedoed cartoonist at a 2010 Jersey City dinner and asked him whether he ever had trouble coming up with ideas, he got a playful glint in his eye before he replied: “The other day, I took my wife to the doctor. I waited an hour. By the time she came out, I’d written a few dozen jokes.”
Even that anecdote was delivered with the snap of an old-school one-liner. Whether he was wearing a military uniform in World War II Italy or black-tie in modern Jersey, Walker was forever determined to find the funny in life.
How else could a true “gag man” succeed over eight decades, graduating from greeting cards to become one of the most-read cartoonists on the planet?
Walker created or co-created such globally popular strips as “Beetle Bailey” and “Hi and Lois,” as well as “Boner’s Ark” and “Sam’s Strip.” His work was visually clean and narratively quick, with deft setups and clear targets. He loved wordplay and pratfalls, but mostly, he knew his comic strips needed funny people you could relate to on some level.
And maybe that was the greatest comic gift of Mort Walker, who died Saturday morning at his Stamford, Conn., home after battling pneumonia, according to the National Cartoonists Society. He was 94, and still active in the comics industry.
“I was fortunate to get to know Mort Walker through my membership in the National Cartoonists Society,” Bill Morrison told The Washington Post’s Comic Riffs on Saturday, noting that as president of the NCS, he presented Walker with the Medal of Honor award in 2016 at the Society of Illustrators in New York.
“Mort was the cartoonist that everyone in our field aspires to be,” Morrison says. “He created laughter out of thin air nearly every day of his life, and entertained multiple millions over the course of eight decades with his iconic characters.
“For us doodlers, I don’t think it gets any better than that.”
When I spoke with Walker in 2010, at the National Cartoonists Society’s big Reuben Awards ceremony, he held court in a manner that befit one of the elder statesmen of the room. To a good extent, this was still his room, with an organization he had led a half-century earlier. Walker simply had a warmth and a way that caused him to command attention, whether on the page or the stage.
He sold his first cartoon by age 12, as a Kansas City, Mo., fifth-grader. He published more than 100 cartoons in magazines while still a teenager, and sold a comic strip to the Kansas City Journal. Soon, he was working for the company that would become Hallmark, and he told his bosses that they needed to provide humorous cards. They listened. “I helped change the industry,” Walker told me of his gravitational pull toward writing funny.
He was drafted into the Army Air Corps during World War II, but within the world of Walker, even that sometimes turned comically absurd. He spent time at Camp Crowder, which he said inspired “Beetle Bailey’s” Camp Swampy. “I signed up to go into psychiatry,” he told me in 2013 of the Army’s specialized training program, “and I ended up studying engineering. It was typical Army reasoning.”
And even when Walker was put in charge of 10,000 Germans in a prisoner-of-war camp in Naples, he said, “I sort of made up my own rules all the way along.”
Walker attended the University of Missouri after the war, and the idea for an Army-themed strip evolved from the original concept inspired by friends. Several years later, “Beetle Bailey” became one of the last comic strips personally approved by famed media magnate William Randolph Hearst. “Beetle Bailey” is syndicated by King Features to this day, nearly 70 years later.
Once Walker landed in New York, his wit and ambition only grew. He helped create the NCS’s Reuben Award, he said, and pushed for the group’s inclusion of women artists. He launched the “Beetle Bailey” spinoff strip “Hi and Lois” with Dik Browne.
And by the time he was anchored in Stamford, Conn., as noted in writer Cullen Murphy’s recent memoir “Cartoon County,” Walker’s studio was so prolific that it was jokingly referred to as a King Features satellite office. (Walker’s sons Brian and Greg would join in producing his strips, and son Neal would join the studio.)
Walker wrote such books as “The Lexicon of Comicana,” which is filled with his coinage of comics terms, and he established the nation’s first cartoon art museum in the 1970s.
In recent years, “Beetle Bailey” was syndicated to 1,800 newspapers in more than 50 countries.
So as Walker and I spoke in 2013, as he turned 90, what did he think his legacy might be?
“I think a lot of that depends on the rest of the world,” he said. “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.”
As ever, Mort Walker viewed even life’s darker shades through the prism of humor. Everything, even war, was fodder for jokes. It was his way to rewrite the rules, so he made sure to get the last laugh.