The bright colors of the Sunday comics have faded for us recently with the sad news of Mort Walker’s passing in late January, at the age of 94.
Mr. Walker was the Chairman Emeritus of Cartoon County, a once large group of gag writers, inkers and illustrators who all lived in Fairfield Country, mostly between Greenwich and Westport. They made it their job to poke fun at life and make us laugh at our own foibles.
Born in Kansas in 1923, Mr. Walker…..err “Mort” (with apologies to his family, we feel he knows us so well we can take this liberty) knew from an early age that he wanted to be a cartoonist. By age 12 he was regularly publishing his cartoons in magazines and, by age 15, had a regular comic strip in the Kansas City Star.
In 1942, Mort was drafted by the U.S. Army and famously said, “Little did I know I was going to get almost four years of free research.” It was during this time that he was put in charge of 10,000 German prisoners in a POW camp in Italy. (Camp Swampy?)
He helped oversee the destruction of binoculars and watches. His job was to make sure no one stole them before they were destroyed. In his memoir, he wrote, “I began to realize that army humor writes itself.”
Fast forward (only because space here does not allow us to give it its proper due) through college, getting married, becoming a top selling gag cartoonist. In 1950, he launched the comic strip Beetle Bailey, initially in just 12 newspapers. It almost ended before it began. It was not until the next year, when the U.S. military paper banned the cartoon for portraying laziness and mocking authority, that its success was guaranteed.
Over the next 68 years, Mort’s commentary on military life would be a mirror of social commentary on how we viewed not just the military but society. Through Beetle and Sarge’s shenanigans we could see parallels in our contemporary society. After decades of General Amos Halftrack ogling Miss Buxley, in the 1990’s the General got sensitivity training and then gone too were the three martini lunches. The comic strip evolved and, in the process, today it maintains its relevance and its humor.
Mort had an active mind, far more active than can be portrayed in just one comic strip. In fact, in addition to Beetle Bailey, he inked Hi and Lois and had his hand in numerous other strips. He said, “Laughter is the brush that sweeps away the cobwebs of your heart.” He was right, of course. What fun is a world without laughter? Perhaps our favorite quote of his is, “Seven days without laughter makes one weak.”
Mort, along with Jerry Dumas and others, were part of a bygone era. They belonged to the greatest generation who decided that, after World War II, there was a need for humor. After so much seriousness there needed to be laughter, and whom better to laugh at than ourselves? We could make the argument that the same need still exists today.
Fortunately, Beetle Bailey is not going away. Sons Greg and Brian Walker, who have been working with their father for decades and are at the helm Hi and Lois, reassure us that the strip will continue.
That is good news for fans. Who among us does not enjoy smudging the Sunday comics between our fingers just a little bit, wondering what our favorite characters have gotten up to this week? It is a guilty pleasure, but one we are not willing to give up just yet.
We bid a fond farewell to Mort Walker and thank him for the gags, jokes and laughter that he brought into our lives.