September 5, 2018

BEETLE BAILEY IN WEST BERLIN

I published a new 716-page book this week called Talking Mort Walker: A Life in Comics, which covers the 83-year career of the cartoonist behind Beetle Bailey and many other strips. I want to shine a spotlight again on a Walker classic comic book from the Cold War era. Beetle Bailey#38 appeared on the newsstands one year after the construction of the Berlin Wall. The issue featured a memorable cover design that depicted Beetle roasting marshmallows over a campfire and the bold title, Beetle Bailey in West Berlin by Mort Walker. Released in 1962, the same year as Deighton's The Ipcress File and the first 007 film, Dr No, the lead story in the comic addressed themes that would become more popularized later with Le Carre's Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963), Deighton's Funeral in Berlin (1964), and Trevor's The Quiller Memorandum (1965). Continues below.


Summary: The 8-page story begins with a simple delivery to General Halftrack. As Beetle makes his way through the compound with a box of food, Colonel Grimshaw shows the General a photograph of top Russian spy, Boris Popoffsky. Of course, the enemy agent is a dead ringer for Beetle and our poor hero is quickly arrested and threatened with the firing squad! Luckily the real Russian agent is captured on a jet bound for Germany, and interrogators go to work on him off-screen to get useful information about his operation. With Beetle's identity cleared, the government boys realize they can now use him to trap Popoffsky's network. Beetle finds himself on a mission to Berlin! Continues below. 







Beetle's contact man leads him to a secret rendezvous, where the enemy is hiding in a tunnel under the wall. Agent Beetle doses them with tear gas and helps the Secret Service and Military Police capture the spy ring. The story includes some elements that function well as a time capsule, like US agents in black suits and hats, spies in trench coats, Beetle's disguise as a European sailor-type, and early commentary on the quality of life at the Wall. As Beetle looks at an East Berlin checkpoint, sporting the slogan of the so-called "Workers' Paradise" and teeming with barbed wire, water hoses, and a tank, he declares, "It's a mighty grim-looking paradise!" He seems to capture the popular response that many had at the time, suggesting that East Germany couldn't have been such an ideological utopia if its citizens were desperate to escape. See below for additional panels from Beetle Bailey #38 and further information.





That last panel is reminding me of the time I was caught up in riot in South Korea between students and soldiers. We all got tear gassed and you could still smell throughout the night wafting in the wind around the city. Spy Vibers, are you interested in the history of comics and about how comics are made? Mort Walker began his cartooning career as a boy in the 1930s and went on to become one of the most syndicated cartoonists in the history of the medium. Two of his strips, Beetle Bailey and Hi &  Lois, have been seen in comic books and newspapers around the world for over 60 years. But who was he and why write a giant book about him? I addressed these questions in my last post, Why Mort Walker?, followed by an interesting discussion with writer, historian, and cartoonist Trina Robbins in the comments section. Check it out. Enjoy!

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