September 3, 2018

WHY MORT WALKER?

I published a new book about cartoonist Mort Walker today called Talking Mort Walker: A Life in Comics. Spy Vibers can find Kindle and paperback editions through Amazon worldwide. Mort was born on this day in 1923 and his love for comics and laughter set him on a course to become one of the most popular comic artists in the world. But who was he? What was he about? And why write a 716-page about him? I explore these questions below, illustrated with a fun Thunderball-related Beetle Bailey comic Mort did in 1966 (scanned from the collection of Richard Sala).


I was fortunate to grow up around a community of cartoonists on the east coast, who represented some of the most successful American comic strips ever made. Some years back I worked on a biographical archive project with the leader of the pack, Mort Walker, who syndicated nine strips during his life, including Beetle Bailey, Hi and Lois, and Sam's Strip. Mort passed away last January at the age of 94. Before he died, however, I began writing and editing a new book to chronicle his 83-year career. Yes, you read correctly- Mort was so passionate about his love of comics that he got started early and sold his first cartoon at age eleven! As a little kid, Mort's favorite thing was to watch his dad roar with laughter over the newspaper funnies. Young Mort became obsessed with drawing and crafting jokes. Humor became his great love and he pursued it throughout his life. 

In our era, where printed newspapers have become less common, Spy Vibers might not have a sense of just how popular a medium comic strips have been. But just imagine someone like Mort sending his comics out to 2,000 newspapers, who in turn would distribute the paper each day to their massive population of readers. Not only did it mean big business for artist, it also meant a shared common experience across the culture. I guess we'd now say someone like Mort went viral... every day!


Another aspect that might be hard to fathom is the nature of humor and how it continues to change. Dana Carvey and Jerry Seinfeld recently discussed on Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee how comedy these days is about "authenticity." Both Jerry and Dana agreed they didn't care about a comedian's personal life; they just want to hear funny material! Mort grew up in an era when jokes were king, and I think deep down he was a habitual wise-cracker. He was always looking for ways to fit a punchline into daily experiences. He didn't explore inner anxieties as Charles Schulz did with Peanuts. Making jokes was his niche. But in a way, focussing on "funny" did actually reflect his own life experience and was perhaps his version of autobiography. Mort surrounded himself with family and friends and his comics echoed a man who prized good company and belly laughs. My friend, cartoonist Brian Fies (Mom's Cancer, A Fire Story), and I have been discussing this lately. Perhaps Mort's approach was like a Seinfeld or Bob Hope -guys who focused on the joke- whereas cartoonists like Schulz (Peanuts) or Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes) added more poetry and philosophy. Regardless of taste, I do think all of these artists generated sincere work that flowed from their individual sensibilities- and from their genuine passion to do the work. 

It's no wonder Mort focussed on the gags, given the course of his career: He sold comics and strips to magazines and newspapers as a little kid (rewarded for his jokes!), became chief editorial designer of Hallmark cards at age 18, then editor of Mizzou Showme and 1,000 Jokes magazine, then top-selling gag cartoonist in the country, and finally syndicated Beetle Bailey in 1950 with King Features. Beetle was a massive success! But Mort's love for making comics didn't end there; He syndicated 8 other strips, including Hi and Lois and Sam's Strip, all in the pursuit of laughter and, as he reflected at the end of his life, the pursuit to provide friends for people on the comics page. And he produced it all in his distinctive visual style. The little kid who had fallen in love with comics on his dad's knee generated so much output at one point that he jokingly put up a sign on his studio that said "King Features East".


As the workload expanded, Mort naturally needed help meeting deadlines. And being a social and collaborative guy, he eventually brought people in to help in the studio. Although others assisted with inking and contributing gags for the various strips, Mort kept the penciling duties for Beetle- his breakthrough creation- for himself. He penciled his last Beetle dailies and Sundays on December 16, 2017- the day before the fall that would lead to his death in January, 2018. Mort often talked about how much he adored writing gags. Even when he began to lose his memory a bit in the final years, he told me that he still loved to brainstorm and craft jokes. One his famous quotes sums it up: "Seven days without laughter makes one weak." 

Although my personal taste in comics leans more toward the philosophical, I certainly have recognized and respected Mort's role in helping to bring comics into the modern era. He came of age in the golden era of the form, streamlined the look of comics, and became a bridge between the old masters and the new guard. And I admired him for his absolute devotion to creating and celebrating his true love- comics. For those who aren't aware, Mort also created the Museum of Cartoon Art to elevate comics as Art in the public view, was a leader in the National Cartoonists Society and supported young artists, championed a series of comic-strip US stamps, and even pushed for legal precedent so that comic artists could deduct their original artwork. Whether or not one is a fan of Mort's jokes, one can't deny the impact he made. It was a great labor of love to document his 83-year career and I look forward to sharing Talking Mort Walker: A Life in Comics with you.


From the press release: "Besides syndicating nine comic strips, including Beetle Bailey and Hi and Lois, Mort Walker devoted his life to creating, collecting, curating, and chatting about his one true love- the funnies! Talking Mort Walker: A Life in Comics takes readers on a journey for the first time through Walker’s career between 1935-2018, where over 700 pages of rare interviews, articles, letters, unpublished photographs, and drawings reveal insights about the child prodigy who grew up to become the Dean of American cartooning. Talking Mort Walker: A Life in Comics is a touchstone for comic scholars, fans, and budding cartoonists." Kindle and paperback editions available at AmazonAmazonUK, and Amazon around the world. Enjoy! Up next: Beetle Bailey in Berlin! 

Spy Vibers, please also check out my new episode of Cocktail Nation radio. This month I introduce The Beatles Help! with 007-style score by Ken Thorne (I misspoke during the taping of the show and mentioned producer George Martin -who scored Live and Let Die- oops, sorry Ken!). More info about the episode on Spy Vibe.


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5 comments:

  1. Funny thing about those strips that began in the 50s, Jason. I find most of them pretty awful, boring and sexist, and I fear that includes Mort Walker. Interestingly, the strips from the 20s, 30s and 40s were wonderful: masterpieces like Krazy Kat, Terry and the Pirates, Miss Fury, Brenda Starr, Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers. What happened? I think the post-WW2 sexism and the red scare is what happened. I'm currently researching Gladys Parker, and looking through old newspapers at the other strips that ran at the same time, and once you hit the 50s, it's jokes about fat housewives, dumb girls, and really boring continuity strips like Mary Worth and Rex Morgan. Just like all the talented film writers wound up blackballed, I think the comic page editors were terrified of contraversy. As for Mort Walker, I'm sure you know that he famously said that the reason there were so few women cartoonists was that women had no sense of humor. In about 1979 or 80, he came to the San Diego comic con and we women underground cartoonists all came to see his panel and challenge him. When I asked him about his in famous remark, his reply showed how stereotyped his thinking was. He said (I'm paraphrasing) that he was surprised that there were so few women cartoonists because drawing comics was something you could do while the baby is sleeping or the laundry was getting done. We women walked out. But I'll say this for him: he was good natured and open minded about it. Next time I saw him was at the SF Cartoon Art Museum, where I told him that I had considered pie-ing him, so that when he got mad I could tell him he had no sense of humor. My conversation with him opened his mind a little and he put on the first ever show of women cartoonists at his museum, and when he wrote to me announcing the show and asking my participation (remember letters?) he ended the letter by writing, "Next time we meet, I want the pie."

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  2. "I want the pie." I love that. That's a really interesting story, Trina. Thank you for sharing! When Mort and I spoke in the 2000s about this aspect of his history, he was able to reflect back and understand that he had been perpetuating what he called "Esquire-type" humor. I think it took you and many others to help him gain new perspective. I think he was able to evolve from where he started. Beyond his content, as you say, he was a really warm and supportive guy. Cathy Guisewite spoke at his memorial about how much she appreciated Mort's efforts to support young cartoonists and make them feel welcomed into the cartooning community.

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  3. "Esquire-type" humor is a perfect way to put it!

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  4. Trina, thinking more about your comparison to strips of the 20s, 30s, 40s. Maybe it wasn't just visual styles in strips that got streamlined in the 50s, but a kind of streamlined pattern to appeal to the mainstream. I think the 50s strips still had some kind of point of view, but maybe a higher degree of blandness, too, from following the formulas. Speaking about the 50s work, I think Mort's slapstick material had the most spark vs the post-war attitude-themed interactions between characters.

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  5. Here is some related info from my book re: your comment, Trina:

    [Reflecting on his decision to update Miss Buxley and the strip to CNN in 1997, Walker said, “She came to work in clothes that were not really appropriate for office use… I’ve learned… [General Halftrack] will never again leer at her or ask her to put things in the bottom file so he can see her legs or something like that. He never will do that again.”

    Walker took the criticism to heart and his General Halftrack enrolled in sensitivity training, which we now term harassment training. He told Stephanie Newton at the Houston Chronicle in July, 1997: “I realized there were things I had to learn. When I grew up, it was OK to whistle at girls on the street corner. It was OK to call them ‘babes.’ So, he lowered Miss Buxley’s hemline, raised her neckline, and cut back on the General’s stares. But he was careful to keep an air of (non-sexual) conflict with Halftrack’s gags. “He’s still a primary example of bureaucracy… and screw-ups. He still embodies the worst in all of us. It’s a comic,” Walker reminded readers. “Success is not funny- only failure.” ]

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