Cartoonist Mort Walker just passed away at age 94. I was surprised to hear he was still around, as I think it’s been a good long while since he was directly responsible for turning out his comic strips.
When I was a kid, I got Walker’s 1975 book Backstage at the Strips for either a birthday or Christmas present, which struck me as pretty random as I was no particular fan of Beetle Bailey or Boner’s Ark or (least of all) Hi and Lois. I mean, I enjoyed them well enough, but not especially. But, ya know what? As INVARIABLY happens when people get me such a random gift, I made the full journey from initial disappointment…to later giving it a chance…to becoming quite interested…to becoming quite devoted. I ended up reading Backstage at the Strips many times, and used it almost as a reference book and it became well thumbed through. There was a certain amount of autobiography and revelation about how he got started; and stuff on his working methods; and how Beetle Bailey evolved from a college strip about a lazy dude named Spider; and some gossip about colleagues like Dik Brown, with whom he collaborated on Hi and Lois, and whose own strip was Hagar the Horrible. And there was stuff about his life (and then new cartoon museum) in Connecticut.
Believe it or not, for awhile in the 70s, Beetle Bailey seemed almost hip. In 1970 Walker introduced the character of Lt. Flap, who was not just African American but sported a goatee and an Afro, and if I recall correctly, made a black power salute on at least one occasion. Compared to Doonesbury it wasn’t the most cutting edge thing in the world, but it was vastly more than most comic strips at the time were doing to respond to changing realities, which was nothing at all.
And the times seemed to catch up with the character of Beetle himself. The strip was originally created in 1950, when service comedies were still de rigeur (see Martin and Lewis’s At War with Army, 1950), and Walker had only recently left army service himself. But by the 1970s, a lazy, disrespectful, poorly postured army private whose eyes you could never see seemed subversive. Was he high? How could he not be high?
In 1963 an animated version of the strip was produced for television with Howard Morris doing the voice of Beetle (using much the same voice he used for Jughead in the Archies cartoon), and Allan Melvin doing the voice of Sgt. Snorkel.
Sgt. Snorkel always seemed to me to be fairly identical to Sgt. Carter on Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., except that he had a twin dog Otto, who was kind of his mini-Me (he also drank mugs of beer). (Another similarity with Gomer Pyle: where was the Vietnam War? These guys are in the service during the Vietnam War but there’s no Vietnam War?).
The other characters in Beetle Bailey were the golf playing General Halftrack; his sexy secretary Miss Buckley (the strip’s least progressive gesture); the obligatory ass-kissing boy officer Lt. Fuzz; Cookie, the indifferent cook who made disgusting chow; and Beetle’s fellow enlisted men: Diller, a ladies man (who wore sunglasses and an ascot); Zero, who seemed mentally retarded; and Plato, who was a bookworm.
None of this was world-beating stuff, but not everything is! Walker first began regularly publishing comics professionally at age 14. In essence he brought smiles to people’s faces for 80 years. It adds up.