Comic strip artist Mort Walker, a Second World War veteran who satirized the Army and tickled millions of newspaper readers with the antics of the lazy private “Beetle Bailey,” died Saturday. He was 94.
Walker died at his home in Stamford, Conn., said Greg Walker, his eldest son and a collaborator. His father’s advanced age was the cause of death, he said.
Walker began publishing cartoons at age 11 and was involved with more than a half-dozen comic strips in his career, including Hi and Lois, Boner’s Ark and Sam & Silo. But he found his greatest success drawing slacker Beetle, his hot-tempered sergeant and the rest of the gang at fictional Camp Swampy for nearly 70 years.
The character that was to become Beetle Bailey made his debut as Spider in Walker’s cartoons published by the Saturday Evening Post in the late 1940s. Walker changed Spider’s name and launched Beetle Bailey as a college humour strip in 1950.
At first the strip failed to attract readers and King Features Syndicate considered dropping it after just six months, Walker said in a 2000 interview with The Associated Press. The syndicate suggested Beetle join the Army after the start of the Korean War, Walker said.
“I was kind of against it because after World War Two, Bill Mauldin and Sad Sack were fading away,” he said. But his misgivings were overcome and Beetle “enlisted” in 1951.
Walker attributed the success of the strip to Beetle’s indolence and reluctance to follow authority.
“Most people are sort of against authority,” he said. “Here’s Beetle always challenging authority. I think people relate to it.”
Beetle Bailey led to spin-off comic strip Hi and Lois, which he created with Dik Browne, in 1954. The premise was that Beetle went home on furlough to visit his sister Lois and brother-in-law Hi.
Fellow cartoonists remembered Walker on Saturday as a pleasant man who adored his fans. Bill Morrison, president of the National Cartoonists Society, called Walker the definition of “cartoonist” in a post on the society’s website.
“He lived and breathed the art every day of his life. He will be sorely missed by his friends in the NCS and by a world of comic strip fans,” Morrison said.
Fellow cartoonist Mark Evanier said on his website that Walker was “delightful to be around and always willing to draw Beetle or Sarge for any of his fans. He sure had a lot of them.”
Beetle Bailey, which appeared in as many as 1,800 newspapers, sometimes sparked controversy. The Tokyo editions of the military newspaper Stars & Stripes dropped it in 1954 for fear that it would encourage disrespect of its officers. But ensuing media coverage spurred more than 100 newspapers to add the strip.
Shortly after U.S. President Bill Clinton took office, Walker drew a strip suggesting that the draft be retroactive in order to send Clinton to Vietnam. Walker said he received hundreds of angry letters from Clinton supporters.
For years, Walker drew Camp Swampy’s highest-ranking officer, Gen. Amos Halftrack, ogling his well-endowed secretary, Miss Buxley. Feminist groups claimed the strip made light of sexual harassment, and Walker said the syndicate wanted him to write out the lecherous general.
That wasn’t feasible because the general was such a fixture in the strip, Greg Walker said Saturday. His father solved the problem in 1997 by sending Halftrack to sensitivity training.
“That became a whole theme that we could use,” said Greg Walker, who with his brother, Brian, intends to carry on his father’s work. Both have worked in the family business for decades.
Beetle Bailey also featured one of the first African-American characters to be added to a white cast in an established comic strip. (Peanuts had added the character of Franklin in 1968.) Lt. Jack Flap debuted in the comic strip’s panels in 1970.
In a 2002 interview, Walker said that comics are filled with stereotypes and he likes to find humour in all characters.
“I like to keep doing something new and different, so people can’t say I’m doing the same thing all the time. I like to challenge myself,” he said.
Walker also created Boner’s Ark in 1968 using his given first name, Addison, as his pen name, and Sam & Silo with Jerry Dumas in 1977. He was the writer of Mrs. Fitz’s Flats with Frank Roberge.
In 1974, he founded the International Museum of Cartoon Art in Connecticut to preserve and honour the art of comics. It moved twice before closing in 2002 in Boca Raton, Fla. Walker changed the name to the National Cartoon Museum and announced in 2005 plans to relocate to the Empire State Building in New York. But the following year, the deal to use that space fell through.
In 2000, Walker was honoured at the Pentagon with the Army’s highest civilian award — the Distinguished Civilian Service award — for his work, his military service and his contribution to a new military memorial.
He also developed a reputation for helping aspiring cartoonists with advice.
“I make friends for people,” he said.
Addison Morton Walker was born Sept. 3, 1923, in El Dorado, Kansas, and grew up in Kansas City, Mo.
In 1943 he was drafted into the U.S. Army, serving in Europe during the Second World War. He was discharged as a first lieutenant, graduated from the University of Missouri-Columbia and pursued a career as a cartoonist in New York.
Walker most recently oversaw the work of the staff at his Stamford studio, Comicana.
Besides sons Greg and Brian, Walker is survived by his second wife, Catherine; daughters Polly Blackstock and Margie Walker Hauer; sons Neal and Roger Walker; stepdaughters Whitney Prentice and Priscilla Prentice Campbell and several grandchildren.
Funeral services will be private.