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".
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 Amazon, AmazonUK, 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.
Selected Spy Vibe Posts: Spy Vibe radio: The Beatles Help!, The Avengers Critical Guide, The Spotnicks, Benny Spies, James Pond 0017', Satire Stones, Annette Andre Book, Cat Day, Spy Vibe Radio: Get Smart, Caine: My Generation, Interview: Ian Ogilvy, ITC Elstree Event, Horror of Party Beach, Sylvie Vartan Renown, Ringo At 78, Dark Shadows Strips, Spy Vibe Radio: Flint, Archie Batman 66, Paul at 76, Beatles Pac-Man, Spy Vibe Radio: Jerry Cotton, The Invaders, 007 Horowitz Book Tour, McGoohan/Prisoner Event at Elstree, The Prisoner Interviews Vol 1, British Underground Press, Interview: Fab4 Mania, Bond Cocktail Book, Bond at Bletchley, Spy Smasher, Spy Vibe Radio: Peter Gunn, Agent Zero M, New Prisoner Comic, Dr. No Villains Edition, Spy Vibe Radio: Danger Diabolik, Dr. No 60th, Oy-Oy-Seven, Spy Vibe Radio (UFO), Cold War Comic Strips, Thunderball Event, Mission to India, Mort Walker Celebration, Peter Wyngarde Celebration, Batman 66 Exhibit, Prisoner Fifty Event, Ian Fleming Publications 2017-2018, Interview: Ed Hulse Pulp, Avengers Audio Drama, Interview: Callan At 50, Interview: Playboys, Spies, Private Eyes, TWA Returns, Spy Vibe Radio 8, Interview: Ryan Heshka, Mid-Century Modern Schulz, Agent Werewolf, Mata Hair Exhibit, Johnny Sokko 50th, Interview: Trina Robbins, Eddie Izzard, The Prisoner Capt Scarlet 50th, Hugh Hefner R.I.P., Jack Good R.I.P., Interview: Shaken Not Stirred, Callan 50th, Spy Vibe Radio 7, The Prisoner 50th Event, Spy-Fi Event, Kaho Aso 007, Two Million, Bo Diddley, Carnaby Pop, Le Carre Events, Billy Bragg Skiffle, Elvis 68, Jack Kirby The Prisoner, Casino Royale Concert, Review: The Prisoner Vol 2, Interview: The Prisoner Essential Guide, Maud Russell Mottisfont, Spy Vibe Radio 4, Batman Gallants, Adam West R.I.P., Village Triangle, Roger Moore R.I.P., Spy Vibe Radio 3, Sgt Pepper 50th, Satanik Kriminal OST, 60s Overdrive, Make Love in London, Spy Vibe Radio 2, Spy Vibe Radio 1, James Bond Strips, Propaganda Mabuse, Interview: Police Surgeon, XTC Avengers, 1966 Pep Spies, Batman Book Interview, Exclusive Fleming Interview, Avengers Comic Strips, Robert Vaughn RIP, UNCLE Fashions, Thunderbirds Are Pop!, Interview: Spy Film Guide, Lost Avengers Found, The Callan File, Mission Impossible 50th, Green Hornet 50th, Star Trek 50th, Portmeirion Photography 1, Filming the Prisoner, Gaiman McGinnins Project, Ian Fleming Grave, Revolver at 50, Karen Romanko Interview, Mod Tales 2, Umbrella Man: Patrick Macnee, New Beatles Film, The Curious Camera, Esterel Fashion 1966, Exclusive Ian Ogilvy Interview, 007 Tribute Covers, The Phantom Avon novels return, Ian Fleming Festival, Argoman Design, Sylvia Anderson R.I.P., Ken Adam R.I.P., George Martin R.I.P., The New Avengers Comics, The Phantom at 80, 007 Manga, Avengerworld Book, Diana Rigg Auto Show, The Prisoner Audio Drama Review.