At 70, Beetle Bailey is still marching, napping

Beetle Bailey is celebrating 70 years. (Courtesy of King Features)

DOVER — Our old friend, Beetle Bailey, has been aggravating Sarge and napping on newspaper comics pages for a long, long time.“Here’s to 70 years,” says Sarge to Beetle in today’s strip.
The Walker brothers — Greg, Brian and Neal — have been paying tribute to Beetle and the cast from Camp Swampy in recent days.
Their father, Mort Walker, who died in 2018, introduced Beetle Bailey to the newspaper world Sept. 4, 1950 — a day after Mort’s 27th birthday.
Beetle and Sarge were shown saluting Mort this past Thursday.
“Old cartoonists never die, they just erase away,” says Mort.
On Friday, the brothers thanked readers — “25,550 strips later, we’re still marching on.”
The words appeared above 13 characters who fell in line. Private Zero, of course, is headed in the wrong direction.
We continue to be drawn to Mort Walker’s characters.
“People over the years have been able to relate to it,” said Mort’s son, Greg. “We’ve got a whole cast of recurring characters. After a while, you understand the dynamic between Beetle and Sarge and the General and all of them.
“They become friends. People pick up the paper and say, ‘What’s Beetle doing today?’”
Originally, Beetle Bailey was a college student in the King Features-syndicated strip in 1950. The comic strip wasn’t taking off. So Mort had Beetle enlist in the Army at a time when the nation’s eyes were on the Korean War.
Mort could relate to both lives of Beetle — as a college cutup and as a soldier. Mort served during World War II, later thanking the military for helping him collect material.

Mort’s interest in the funnies started when he was very young. He would fetch the paper in the morning, and his father would read “Moon Mullins” — often laughing until he cried.
Brian said his father would share that memory and add, “If I could do that, create smiles for people all around the world, that’s something great to do.”
Mort started cartooning for his school newspaper at age 10 and sold his first cartoon at age 11.
“That was the spark of his ambition — to make people happy,” said Brian. “That’s something to be proud of.”
“Our father used to say he liked to create smiles or friends,” said Greg. “That was always his goal.”
“He wasn’t trying to change the world, but just make it a better place,” said Brian. “‘Funny pictures’ was one of his mantras. Keep it funny. When I first started writing, he’d say, ‘Brian, this isn’t Doonesbury we’re writing here.’”
Today, Beetle Bailey appears in about 1,600 newspapers around the world. It is one of nine strips that Mort Walker created.
“Maybe there’s a day when it’s not super funny or hilarious, and the characters will carry you through those days,” said Brian. “You might not have the greatest punchline, but it’s the strength of the characters.”
On Wednesday, the strip showed Beetle arriving with flowers to make up for being three hours late to a date with Miss Buxley.
“It’s not a knee-slapper,” said Greg. “But people will go, ‘Aw, Beetle, what a nice guy!’”
Miss Buxley was introduced as Gen. Halftrack’s secretary in 1970. Mort took some heat for including a sex symbol.
“She was pretty, and she didn’t have a lot of lines,” said Brian. “Readers have always liked her. Just in recent years, we’ve come up with this new angle that Beetle and Miss Buxley are kind of seeing each other. Of all the guys in camp, as a boyfriend, who better than Beetle?”

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Family was important to Mort. And other than golf, his life was dedicated to the cartooning.
His sons inherited his work ethic and joined the team producing his comics years ago.
“His generation of cartoonists considered themselves more like entertainers,” said Brian. “They were very conscious of who their audience was. Their job was essentially to help sell newspapers. I think we’re protectors of our father’s legacy to really care a lot about what our readers think and how they respond to it.
“Is it funny? Does it make their day a little better? Those are important things.”
Mort was known for always cracking jokes.
One of his favorites was in grocery stores. When a store employee asked if he needed help, he would ask what aisle they kept wives in.
Greg said he is the same way.
“You never really stop thinking about jokes,” he said. “They’re always in your head, popping up when you least expect them. One of the most common questions we get is, ‘How do you get your ideas?’ I just take everything in. Sometimes, I just sit and stare out the window, and somehow, it just pops into my head.”
Occasionally, there are moments when they just imagine a scene. Picture the by-the-book Lt. Fuzz at his office desk with Sarge nearby, eating at his desk. A clever comeback, said Brian, will follow.
Greg said sometimes he will come up with a funny visual and work backward.
The brothers still have gag-writing meetings, and they offer up about four times the material that is actually used, Brian said.
The process – brainstorming, telling stories in pictures while using words sparingly, penciling, inking – is more intense than readers may realize.
“This is crazy deadline work when you figure you’ve got a space to fill 365 days a year into perpetuity times however many years you want to stay alive,” said Brian.
As for wanting to get into daily newspaper cartooning, Greg said, “If you’re not a workaholic, don’t even think about it.”

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Saturday’s strip, fittingly, led with Beetle napping by a tree.
As always, a hat was covering his eyes.
The strip’s tribute to Mort Walker: “Beetle Bailey, the laziest character in the comics … was created by one of the most prolific cartoonists of all time.”

Dave Walker’s documentary on the family’s work in the comics business – “Reveille – A Family Legacy in Comics” – will be shown at the National Cartoonist Society’s NCFSFest on Sept. 12.


Editor’s note: Unfortunately, we could not readily determine how long Beetle Bailey has been running in the Delaware State News. But it is likely about five decades.

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