January 31, 2018


I had the great fortune to collaborate with cartoonist Mort Walker on a biographical project, which resulted in the book, Mort Walker ConversationsAnd ironically, I was at a convention last Saturday talking to kids and fans about our book and about Mort’s career when I received the early e-mail: Mort had passed away that morning. Many tributes have since poured in from around the world and I would like to add my personal experiences with Walker to the collective celebration of his life. Our time together, and our continued correspondence, gave me some insights into the man behind the comics. [Below: Walker in his studio in the early 1970s].

Publishing professionally as a child prodigy at the age of eleven, and going on to hold numerous positions as an editor, designer, and creator of nine syndicated strips, it is ironic that Walker’s most recognized character (Beetle Bailey) is known as the laziest fellow in the funny pages. Mort Walker caught the cartooning bug as a child, and by fourth grade he was publishing cartoons in his school newspaper.  A product of The Great Depression, Mort learned early on to be industrious and inventive in the face of hardship. The family had very little, and sometimes lived without electricity or plumbing. Walker has quipped that he found his philosophy during that period: "Poverty sucks." But as FDR said, "It isn't sufficient just to want - you've got to ask yourself what you are going to do to get the things you want." For Walker, that meant a tireless commitment to hard work and to evoke that most important ingredient in life- the belly laugh.
For Walker, that was a true labor of love. On January 24th, 1936, at the age of thirteen and home sick with the flu, he wrote in his diary, "Today the paper comes out that maybe will have my comic strip in it. Some of the boys from school came over to see me. Everybody tells me I should come back to school or I won’t graduate. I have been waiting impatiently for the paper. I came downstairs to see if it had come yet. Daddy was grinning from ear to ear. My comic strip was in it. My first printed strip. Boy, am I excited and proud!" I believe that snapshot of the boy cartoonist summed up Walker’s character and revealed a childlike excitement that never faded over an eighty-year career.

While most children pursued traditional amusements, young Walker became an avid collector of original comic artwork. He often wrote to his heroes, asking for the art that would one day become the groundwork to the International Museum of Cartoon Art. "I always loved collecting cartoons," he told his assistant Bill Janocha in their interview in 2003. "I wrote away to the creators when I was a little boy. I had them all over my wall."  Frank Willard was one of the many cartoonists who replied, inscribing an original 1933 Moon Mullins, "Say Morton, those drawings you sent me were swell - I'll bet you'll be a big shot cartoonist someday." That was an understament. Walker was chief editorial designer of Hallmank Cards by 1941, leading gag cartoonist for magazine publications by 1950, syndicated nine comic strips over the years (including Beetle Bailey and Hi and Lois), and won multiple awards in his field. He dedicated his ever-growing collection of original comic art to his museum, which thrilled visitors (including me as a kid) between 1974 and 2002. The work was later donated in 2008 as a resource to the Billy IrelandCartoon Library at Museum at Ohio State University. [Below: Cold War-era cover of Dell's Beetle Bailey comic].

His parents planted some of the essential seeds at home. Walker’s father, Robin, was famous around the house for inventing all kinds of things, including numerous failed attempts at finding a cure for baldness. In our conversation in 2003, he told me, "My father was an architect, artist, musician, poet. He’d get up every morning at five o’clock in the morning because he came from a farm. They always rose early and went to bed early. And he’d write a poem every morning. And the newspaper published just about everything he ever wrote. He would write special poems for Easter, Fourth of July, and George Washington’s birthday, whatever, you know. And my mother would illustrate them. And they would be on the front page of the paper. Great big poems, commemorating the day, or the season, or whatever. I’ve got a big scrapbook full of his stuff. That was always fun to see them draw. And you see your parents doing something and you imitate." An architect by trade, Robin also gained notoriety as The Poet Laureate of Kansas. Together with his wife, who drew illustrations, the couple contributed regularly to the newspapers, and introduced young Mort to the world of publication. The staff cartoonists at the Kansas City Star inspired and mentored Mort as he began his life-long devotion to words and pictures.
Walker showed great determination as a young hopeful. "You couldn’t have stopped me," he told me in 2003. His focus was defined by the mantra he hung over his drawing board as a young man, which read, "I will not be denied!" And he often showed his energy and resourcefulness was not exclusive to cartooning. A self-proclaimed "Human Inventing Machine," Walker left a trail of high achievement and leadership. Desire for a letterman sweater in high school, for example, prompted Walker to buy an old set of golf clubs from a neighbor so he could start his own sports team. Whether it was an art project or a school club, Walker seemed to embody the spirit that Irving Berlin spoke of when he said, "Our attitudes control our lives. Attitudes are a secret power working twenty-four hours a day, for good or bad. It is of paramount importance that we know how to harness and control this great force." This young "Great Force" from Kansas City quickly developed into the most prolific cartoon artist of the century. [Below: joining Mort Walker for one of our regular National Cartoonists Society dinners in Connecticut].

If the Depression era engendered a "can do" approach to life, Walker’s later experience in the Army taught him the humor of contrasts. He told me, "I got my eyes checked, they wouldn’t let me in West Point. Then when I was in the infantry they made me first scout, of all things. Then they put me in charge of the German prisoner of war camp. I couldn’t speak German. They had a body they didn’t know what to do with so they gave it a job." One story he related in many interviews is that of Sergeant Savou. Walker noticed a humorous incongruity one day when Savou, a big tough guy, surprised the squad by pinning a poem he’d written to their pillows and addressed to "My boys." This beast with a heart inspired Walker’s character Sargent Snorkel.
Both Walker and Charles Schulz, whose Peanuts also debuted in 1950, brought a fresh, clean look to the comics page. Their simple drawing styles held up extremely well in reduction, as newspapers were printing comics smaller, and the look of the two strips ushered in a new jet-age approach to cartooning with a focus on gags. Walker credits his design sense to Disney, who he admired as a child, and whose cards he designed during his stint at Hallmark Cards. He described his line work to Bruce Blitz in 2000 as "Straight to the point. No messing around. I love to have clean and neat compositions without things interfering with each other. I just make it readable. I want people to be able to read it quickly and not miss anything. It’s communication."
But it was the writing that Walker enjoyed most. To fight writer’s block he used a system, which was to simply start writing a situation and then invent a punch line for it. He told me, “I call it my “party system.” You say something. Somebody else says something. And then you have to come back with a bon mott. Usually the bon mot comes at night after you’ve had the conversation, you know. (Laughs). A little too late. But still, that’s the way you can get a lot of gags. So you don’t sit there and stare at a blank piece of paper all the time. You start to write and force yourself to come up with a punch line.” And he loved the thrill of creation. "It gives me a thrill, because there was nothing on that piece of paper. And now there’s an idea that exists that maybe people will quote, print in books. It’ll last maybe forever, you know?" And he, like all syndicated cartoonists, was always looking ahead to the next gag.

In fact, like many artists, he was most focused on the next creation. When I asked him in 2013 about his homage to James Bond in a 1966 Beetle Bailey comic [Above: Richard Sala Collection], he answered humorusly, “I have absolutely no memory of that page. It was 47 years ago and I can't remember what I did yesterday. I liked it, though. Sometimes I look back at my early work and can't believe I did it. I'm amazed at the imagination and quality of the writing. I feel someone else wrote it. Who?. Certainly not the guy sitting in my chair right now. What happened to him? By now he's probably just an old fart trying to get out of bed and wondering what day it is. I wish him luck.”
Times changed since he first published in Child Life in 1934, and Walker had to change along with them. The first battle for the king of belly laughs was, in fact, belly buttons. Just as Elvis Presley was televised from the waste up to protect kids in the 1950s from his swinging pelvis, the editors at King Features felt navels were simply too suggestive. Every one that Walker drew was carefully cut out with a razor blade and put in a box labeled "Beetle Bailey’s Button Box." Walker stayed true to his vision and finally won the belly button war. [Below: page detail from Dell's Beetle Bailey].

But that wasn’t his only brush with scandal. Stars and Stripes banned him- twice. He faced flak when he introduced an African-American officer in 1970. And in the 1980’s and 1990’s he re-evaluated what he called traditional, Esquire-type humor regarding women, and he re-vamped the relationship between his characters Ms. Buxley and General Halftrack. He even published a book about it in 1982: Miss Buxley- Sexism in Beetle Bailey? In his conversations, Walker expressed his surprise that comics could inspire so much concern and controversy. When violence came up as an issue in his conversation with Bruce Blitz, for example, Walker offered his favorite response, "if you think that that violence is real, then you must think that a little mouse with ears wears red pants and drives a car." But in practice, he demonstrated an ability to grow in perspective and to be sensitive to his readers. 

Walker’s life revealed that he thrived on creating within a community. Unlike Schulz, who insisted on producing all aspects of Peanuts alone, Walker learned to enjoy the collaborative process. He worked with many assistants, worked with partners on many strips, and brought in his talented children to work on Beetle BaileyHi and Lois, and other strips. One essential part of the process was the gag conference, where all of the writers would pass around their ideas to be evaluated by the group. The gags that passed were the ones that got penciled and inked for publication. Walker learned to value his team’s contributions to help him produce his best possible work.

Walker made time in his busy schedule to support the larger cartoon community. He served as president of the National Cartoonists Society (1959-1960), where he bridged the old timers with the new generations. And in his early days in the Society, he recommended Charles Schulz for membership. He told me, "Schulz and I became good friends. We always got together at the NCS functions and awarded the Reuben every year. We had several exhibits of his work at my cartoon museum and he attended. When he was dying we talked on the phone and both cried.” Despite the fierce competition for real estate on the comics page, Walker seemed to approach his rivals the same way he ran his home and office- the more the merrier. Perhaps it was the heart of a golfer, but Walker appeared to welcome most as friends. 

When we spoke in 2003 about Charles Schulz, Walker reflected on their early days in the NCS: “A syndicate man in New York told me there was a cartoonist in Minneapolis who was having trouble with his strip and asked if I would write him. It was Schulz, and I began a friendship with him. He said the syndicate was going to cancel his strip if it didn't begin selling better. I invited him to come for a visit with my group of cartoonist friends and see if they had any ideas. He took a train down and I got him a place to stay with Herb Green. I threw several parties for him and got everyone to give advice. The main advice was, 'If something isn't working try something else. Don't just sit there and let it die.' While he was here, the New York paper running his strip took a readership poll and Peanuts came in last. I told him I was having the same problem with my new Hi and Lois strip. I was going to try and let the reader read baby Trixie's mind, her innocent view of things. He immediately went home and changed Snoopy from a dog to vulture, then a World War 1 pilot of his doghouse and the strip took off and became the greatest success story in history. I'm not trying to take credit for his success. He did it all. In fact, I thought he was going crazy with the idea when he had Snoopy fly off with his doghouse to fight the Red Baron. I thought ‘What does a dog know about World War 1?’ [Below: Walker in his studio/AP]. It was great to see him processing his friend's flight into deeper fantasy. 

Speaking of community, I'm also reminded of one of my favorite memories, watching Walker with his grandkids in 2002. It was during the Harry Potter craze and they offered him some Bertie Bott's Every Flavour Beans. He tried it, grimaced, and then roared in that deep voice, "Tastes like poopoo." The belly laughs were back again. 

As we corresponded through the years, Walker’s excitement for new inventions and projects never waned. In 2007 he tried to answer the changing newspaper market by creating his own distributed comics pages called Mort Walker’s The Best of Times. He always had news to share about new books, licensing ideas, and his hopes and dreams. True to his roots as the son of an inventor, he wrote me in 2012: “I'm getting a patent on my latest invention called the “Straight Shooter," which is a urination device so that men don't mess up the floors. Other than that I've been building a third floor to my house and an elevator to get there. I'm helping to build an Army Museum in Washington and some homes for families to stay in when they visit their wounded veterans. Lots of other stuff. I can't stop.”

But the gears started to slow down in the last years. In 2016 he wrote to me: “Last night I left her at home and took my kids to New York to the Illustrators Club and got the Lifetime Achievement Award. There were 150 guests there and I couldn't remember any names. Good old friends. I was embarrassed. I guess I should just be happy I've just lasted till I've reached 92.” And later that month he wrote, “I'm having a lot of trouble with my memory lately. Mainly names which I used to be an expert at. Now I even have trouble with my grandsons’ names. But my mind still works wonders for thinking up gags. I can think of 20 gags an hour. I know that Schulz used to tell me sometimes he'd spend a whole morning trying to think of that day's gag and often have to end the strip with "sigh." I'm 92 and I'm still playing golf and drawing my strip so I feel fortunate.” Sadly, he lost one of his children last October. And then he suffered a fall a month ago, which landed him in the hospital. I kept getting updates and hoped he would bounce back quickly. But I was at Saturday's comic convention when I received the news of his passing. I was so sad to hear my old friend was gone, but my pals at the convention, many of whom work for Charles Schulz Creative Associates, got me through the day. I found some comfort in the larger full-circle implications of these many relationships through time. 

Mort Walker said a successful comic strip character should be instantly recognizable. We should immediately understand who he is and what he’s about. Walker called this "see-ability" and "readability." And I’m reminded of my favorite photo of him (above), which was taken of Walker in 1938 at his drawing table, posed with a cap perched back on his head. His young face in the image beams at us with joy and ambition. He seems to embody the Joseph Campbell catch phrase, "Find your bliss." In 1989, Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes) addressed a festival at Ohio State University, expressing that the comic pages were full of doddering, dinosaur strips. A similar plea by Berkley Breathed (Bloom County) came in 2003, asking the old guard to step aside in order to make room for younger creators. To Breathed, Walker wrote, "I love what I’m doing. It would kill me to be told to quit." At any mention of retirement, in fact, he would often quip, "Retire to what? Ditch digging?" Walker’s continued enthusiasm revealed that the boy with the sailor cap in the photo continued to beam from the drawing board, and that to "follow one’s bliss" remained as valid and vital at age fourteen as it did at age eighty... and at age 94. Indeed, that sense of purpose was Mort Walker’s personal "see-ability" and "readability" as a character. Rest in peace, old friend.

Learn more at Mort WalkerHi and Lois, and Beetle Bailey. Portions of this celebration appeared in my book, Mort Walker Conversations (paperback edition here, and stay tuned to my Amazon Author Page for an upcoming ebook edition for Kindle). Related posts: Mid-Century Modern Schulz, Beetle Bailey in Berlin, Mort Walker's James Bomb

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  1. A great remembrance, with insight I haven't seen anywhere else. Thanks for writing it.

  2. Thank you, Brian. And thanks for being there with me on the weekend. I always love our time at Lumacon, and this year it was especially great to have friends nearby :)