Beetle Bailey, which started as a college-themed strip in 1950, debuted inauspiciously in 12 newspapers. After six months, it had signed on only 25 clients, and King Features Syndicate considered dropping it. The Korean War was heating up at that time, so Mort Walker decided to have Beetle enlist in the Army. He quickly picked up 100 newspapers. Mort redesigned the cast and a Sunday page was added in 1952. After the Korean War was over, Army brass wanted to tighten up discipline and felt that Beetle Bailey encouraged disrespect for officers. The strip was banned in the Tokyo Stars and Stripes, and the sympathetic publicity rocketed Beetle’s circulation another 100 papers. When Mort won the National Cartoonist Society’s award as the best cartoonist of the year for 1953, Beetle Bailey had become a certified success, with licensed products and a growing list of clients. From 1954 to 1968, the circulation of Beetle Bailey grew from 200 newspapers to 1,100, and many new characters were added to the cast. Today, after more than six decades, Mort Walker’s creation is still one of the most popular comic strips in the world.
Awards and Distinctions:
1953: “Cartoonist of the Year,” National Cartoonists Society ("The Reuben")
1955: Banshee Award, Silver Lady, “Outstanding Cartoonist”
1966: “Best Humor Strip,” National Cartoonists Society
1969: “Best Humor Strip,” National Cartoonists Society
1972: Il Secolo XIX Award, Italy
1975: Adamson Award, “Best International Cartoonist,” Sweden
1977: Power of Printing Award
Elzie Segar Award, “Lifetime Achievement”
1978: “Fourth Estate Award,” American Legion
1979: The Jester, Newspaper Features Council
Inkpot Award, San Diego Comic Convention
1980: Faculty Alumni Award, University of Missouri. Scholar in residence
1981: Doctor of Letters, William Penn College
1987: “Man of the Year,” Kappa Sigma Fraternity
1988: Adamson Award Platinum, Sweden
1990: U.S. Army Certificate of Appreciation for Patriotic Civilian Service
1999: Golden T-Square, National Cartoonists Society – 50 years of service, Only second ever to receive award.
1999: Order of Chevalier, French Minister of Culture and Communication
1999: Elzie Segar Award
2000: The Decoration for Distinguished Civilian Service
2010 The Sparky Award, The Cartoon Art Museum
Addison Morton Walker was born in El Dorado, Kan., on Sept. 3, 1923, and had cartooning aspirations at a very young age. “If there is such a thing as being born into a profession, it happened to me,” claimed Mort in the introduction to his autobiography. “From my first breath, all I ever wanted to be was a cartoonist.” He drew cartoons for his school newspaper, The Scarritt Scout, when he was ten. He sold his first cartoon to Child Life magazine at the age of 11. His first comic strip, The Limejuicers, ran in the Kansas City Journal when he was 13. He submitted his first comic strip to a national syndicate at the age of 15 and sold magazine cartoons all over the country. By the time Mort graduated from high school, his work was polished and professional.
Mort’s first full-time art job was as a greeting card designer for Hallmark while he attended Kansas City Junior College. In 1942, he was drafted into the Army and served in Italy during the war. He kept an illustrated diary and some of the G.I.s who he met along the way later became inspirations for Beetle Bailey characters. The Army sent him to Washington University in St. Louis where he got an engineering degree. When he returned home, he attended journalism school at the University of Missouri and was editor of the campus humor magazine, the Showme. Although he was eventually kicked out of the journalism school because he hadn’t taken the pre-requisite courses, he graduated with a degree in humanities and is now an honored alumnus of Mizzou.
Mort was working as a magazine cartoonist in New York when John Bailey, the cartoon editor of the Saturday Evening Post, encouraged Mort to do some cartoons based on his college experiences at the University of Missouri. One character, a goof-off with a hat over his eyes named “Spider,” emerged from these efforts. After selling a few college cartoons to the Saturday Evening Post, Mort then decided to submit a comic strip to King Features Syndicate starring Spider and his fraternity brothers. When King bought the strip, Mort changed Spider’s first name to “Beetle” (another King strip, Big Ben Bolt, had a character named Spider) and added “Bailey” in honor of John Bailey.
In addition to Beetle Bailey and Hi and Lois, Mort Walker has been involved in the creation of seven other comic strips. Mrs. Fitz’s Flats (1957 - 1972) was about a little old lady who ran an apartment building and was produced by Mort’s first assistant, Frank Roberge. Sam’s Strip (1961 - 1963) was about a character who managed his own comic strip and was done with Jerry Dumas. Boner’s Ark (1968 - 2000) starred a bumbling sea captain and an ark of animals, and was produced for many years by Frank Johnson. Sam and Silo (1977 - present) is a spin-off of Sam’s Strip set in a small town and is still being done by Jerry Dumas. The Evermores (1982 - 1986) portrayed a family in different historical settings and was done with Johnny Sajem. Betty Boop and Felix (1984 - 1988) combined two classic animation stars and was produced by four of Mort’s sons, Greg, Brian, Morgan and Neal, and Gamin and Patches (1987 - 1988) starring a street urchin and his dog, was done with Bill Janocha and distributed by United Features Syndicate.
Jerry Dumas and three of Mort’s sons, Greg, Brian and Neal, currently assist with the production of Beetle Bailey. Mort and his staff have developed a patented method for delivering daily laughs. Ideas for comic strip “gags” begin with sketchbook drawings and written observations and eventually evolve into the penciled, inked and lettered “originals” which are used to produce the final printed strips. In the endless search for fresh material, the writers occasionally come up with ideas that are unsuitable for American newspapers. Many of these “censored gags” are sent to Sweden to be published. Censorship and size reduction are just two of the creative challenges that cartoonists face on a daily basis.
Mort has served as president of the National Cartoonists Society, vice-president of the Newspaper Features Council, and was the founder of the Museum of Cartoon Art. He has won numerous awards and citations from cartoonist groups and government organizations. He has done special drawings for charities, including the Red Cross, the President’s Committee to Hire the Handicapped and the U.S. Postal Service. He has worked on advertising campaigns for Sprite, FedEx and General Electric. “I’m thankful for the good life cartooning has given me,” Mort says gratefully, “and I try to give back to the profession and the public.”
Today, after more than six decades, Mort Walker is still producing Beetle Bailey, which is the longest tenure of any cartoonist on his original creation in the history of comics.
Beetle Bailey was modeled after Mort Walker’s old high school and Army buddy, Dave Hornaday, who was tall, skinny and always getting into trouble in an innocent way. Beetle subscribes to the philosophy, “Whenever the urge to work comes over me, I lie down until it goes away.” He is a typical G.I. Joe (which stands for “Government Issued”), an anonymous drone at the bottom of the pecking order who tries to survive in a world governed by nonsensical rules. Beetle is the smartest guy at Camp Swampy because he understands the absurdity of Army bureaucracy and defiantly resists authority. He often gets beaten to a pulp after disobeying Sarge, but he never gives up. Beetle is the little guy who wins in the end because he steadfastly refuses to be defeated.
Sgt. Orville P. Snorkel is based on a sergeant Mort Walker had during World War II. Sgt. Octavious Savou yelled at his “boys” constantly in a booming voice, but one day he left a mimeographed Christmas poem pinned to their pillows. Mort gave Sarge this same mix of roughness and tenderness. He stomps on Beetle and then buys him a beer. The barracks is his home and he feels out of place in the real world. He is a man’s man and he is afraid of women. His nemesis is the fussy Lt. Fuzz, and his best friend is Otto, his dog. He overeats, over-reacts and overdoes just about everything. Sarge embodies all of the excesses that human beings are blessed with.
Among the major characters who made their initial appearances in Beetle Bailey during the 1950s were: Bunny, who replaced Buzz, Beetle’s original college girlfriend. Killer, Beetle’s best buddy, who was patterned after an Army roommate of Mort’s who thought he was God’s gift to women. Otto, Sarge’s canine sidekick, first appeared in 1956 but didn’t get a regulation Army uniform until 1969. Lt. Sonny Fuzz, the camp apple-polisher and go-getter, who closely resembles a 21-year-old newly-minted lieutenant from Kansas named Mort Walker. All of these characters are still regulars in the strip.
Miss Buxley, Gen. Halftrack’s sexy secretary, is still causing problems almost forty years after she was first hired as an office temp. Inspired by Marilyn Monroe, Miss Buxley has been attacked by feminists, canceled by editors and adored by millions of readers. She has survived as an integral member of the Beetle Bailey cast.
In the 1960s and '70s, three new characters helped to keep Beetle Bailey in step with the times. Lt. Flap, the first black character in the strip, was initially controversial but Mort managed to avoid racial stereotyping by making him an officer who is hip, proud and very much in control. Plato, Camp Swampy’s resident intellectual, was based on Mort’s close friend and partner, Dik Browne, and became famous for his thought-provoking graffiti.
Zero is a naive farm boy with the innocent heart of a child. Although these characters look very different today, they still perform the same job – interacting with each other to produce humorous situations.
Other major cast members who made their debut in the 1950s include: Gen. Amos T. Halftrack, the bumbling head of Camp Swampy, who, as time marches on, has become the most autobiographical character in the strip. Cookie, a summation of all the Army chefs Mort was victimized by during his Army career.
Mort has continued to create new characters and redefine established players. Private Blips, Miss Buxley’s hard-working but less attractive counterpart, has been around since the 1960s but has taken on a more militant role in Gen. Halftrack’s office in recent years. Sergeant Louise Lugg, a female version of Sarge, was transferred to Camp Swampy in 1986 along with her feline friend, Bella. Corporal Yo, who was criticized by one Asian-American as being “too smart” made his entrance in 1990. The latest addition to the cast is Chip Gizmo, a nerdy technology specialist. Mort often compares producing a daily comic strip to directing a miniature stage play. In addition to writing, directing and design, the job of casting is crucial to the continued success of Beetle Bailey.
Among the many minor characters who joined the Beetle Bailey cast in the 1950s and '60s were: Cosmo, the camp wheeler-dealer, who was inspired by William Holden’s performance in the movie “Stalag 17.” Dr. Bonkus, the diminutive camp shrink, who is a bundle of nervous tension and psychological disorders. Capt. Scabbard is based on a hard-nosed career officer Mort once served under who carried a canteen filled with gin on hikes. Martha, the power behind Gen. Halftrack’s throne, calls the shots on the home front. These characters are still regulars in the strip.
In the 1950s and '60s, Mort tried to introduce a new character every year to stimulate interest in the strip and develop fresh material for gags. Some of the characters who first appeared during this period include: Chaplain Staneglass, the well-meaning, but ineffectual moral conscience of Camp Swampy. Rocky, a rebel without a cause, who later became the muckraking editor of the camp newspaper. Pop, an older G.I. who, after being yelled at by Sarge all day, would return home at night to be nagged by his wife. Julius, Gen. Halftrack’s fussy driver, who was derisively called “mother” by the boys in the barracks. These characters served their purpose for a short time and now only make rare appearances in the strip.