Thursday, July 29, 2010

60 Years of Beetle Bailey: A Tribute to Mort Walker

This show, which is on display at the Cartoon Art Museum (San Francisco) through September 19, is exactly as the title states; a celebration of the Beetle Bailey comic strip, which was first published on September 4, 1950, and of the career of its creator, the prolific and hard working cartoonist Mort Walker.  Brian Walker, cartoonist, comics historian, and Mort’s son, curated the show. I was curious about this show, as the SF Chronicle dropped the strip a few years ago when they reformatted the comics page and it had been a while since I've seen it.

Mort Walker is one of those lucky people who learned what their passion and talents were at an early age and never stopped.  According to his bio, he published his first cartoon when he was 11 years old.  In his teens he contributed to newspapers and magazines, and worked for Hallmark Cards. In 1943, he was drafted into the army. Four years later, he was discharged as a first lieutenant. He graduated from University of Missouri in 1948, and then worked for Dell Publishing in New York.  He got his big break when King Features accepted Beetle Bailey for syndication in 1950.

There are 3 things I enjoy seeing in a show like this: the evolution of the cast of characters, the growth and change in the artist’s drawing style, and how cultural influences effect the strip.  This show did a good job presenting all three, and also provided some insight into the process of a working cartoonist and his studio.

The show begins with a couple of cartoons from a 1937 strip called The Limejuicers (sailors were called this because of the British navy’s practice of giving them a weekly allotment of citrus juice to help avoid scurvy), featuring Captain Salty Sullivan.  Mort, who was born in 1923, would have been 14 at the time.  These drawings have a very traditional style of illustration, with detailed backgrounds and fleshy, well-defined characters.  By the time the Beetle Bailey strip finds its mature look around the 1960’s, the backgrounds are spare and stylized.

Like the backgrounds, the style of the characters also evolves. In the beginning, Beetle Bailey is a college capers strip, based on Walker’s own memories of his college days. Early versions of the main character, Spider, show a thin, lazy guy with a hat over his eyes. Spider is renamed Beetle, and takes his last name from John Bailey, an editor at the Saturday Evening Post, who first encouraged Walker to create the strip.  After Beetle enlists in the Army in 1951, the character we are most familiar with emerges. Although the depiction of the Beetle character grows more stylized as time goes on, it is the character of Sargent Snorkel that really got my interest.  In the 1950’s, his body is triangular, with a long face, a big nose, and a serious underbite with two protruding bottom teeth.  He seems unbalanced. By 1960, the character has become the solid, round, grouch we know.
Bailey Exhibition at CAM,
photo by Andrew Farago.
The show includes social/cultural issues in several ways.  The strip ebbs and flows in its popularity with publishers in response to its stand on social issues (like bringing in Lt. Flap, a black character, in 1970) or in response the strip’s perceived disrespect of authority during and after wartime.  Three rejected strips from the 1990’s position General Halftrack’s obsession with Miss Buxley as a case of sexual harassment on the job.  Walker seems to sum up his “philosophy in the comics” in a 1970’s cartoon featuring the character Plato, who writes “Al Capp once said ‘you can’t draw a picture of a dog without making a statement on the condition of dogs.’ All cartoons therefore contain observations on mankind and society. Some cartoons are just more obvious in this regard.”

Over 60 years of daily strips, Walker’s observations on the conditions of daily life in the imaginary world of Camp Swampy have entertained generations of readers.  The show wraps up with descriptions of work at Walker’s studio, and representations of the trappings of fame: a photo with Nixon at a charity event, a mailer for fans, an animation cel from the 1990’s. On the whole, an interesting and new view of a comic strip that has become an institution.

1 comment:

  1. Recent AP article about Mort Walker and the anniversary.