Beetle Bailey creator is no more

Mort Walker, the creator of Beetle Bailey, a comic strip about an army private who malingered his way through seven decades at Camp Swampy to the consternation of his commanding officers and the delight of his fans in the armed forces and beyond, died on Saturday at his home in Connecticut. He was 94.

By RICHARD GOLDSTEIN
  • Published 29.01.18
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Mort Walker in 1993

New York: Mort Walker, the creator of Beetle Bailey, a comic strip about an army private who malingered his way through seven decades at Camp Swampy to the consternation of his commanding officers and the delight of his fans in the armed forces and beyond, died on Saturday at his home in Connecticut. He was 94.

Walker's death was confirmed by his son Brian Walker.

Walker had the longest tenure of any cartoonist on an original creation, King Features, which began its syndication of Beetle Bailey in 1950, said in a statement.

"Little did I know when I was drafted that I was going to get almost four years of free research," Walker recalled in his collection The Best of Beetle Bailey (1984).

"The army thoughtfully sent me to a number of places so that my experiences could be broadest," he wrote. "I was a private, a corporal, a sergeant and a lieutenant and I was a goof-up in every rank."

Walker began drawing as a youngster and after his college years sold cartoons to The Saturday Evening Post about a lanky student at Rockview University named Spider, hat pulled over his eyes, who figured out how to get his roommate to do all his work.

In 1950, amid the Korean War, the signature character syndicated by King Features was Beetle Bailey, in an Army uniform. Walker substituted barracks buddies for dorm mates, sergeants and generals for professors, and the military bureaucracy for academic pronouncements.

Beetle Bailey

In the first sketches showing Beetle Bailey in uniform, this time with an army cap covering his eyes, he took an aptitude test and asked what his specialty would be.

"Not engineering.... Not cooking.... Not driving...." the army tester told him. "You have one outstanding ability! Avoiding work!"

And so it went through the Korean War, the Vietnam War and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, even though Beetle Bailey seldom became topical.

The main character's war was with the army itself, and though he was never promoted beyond private, he bested the likes of the tough but ultimately endearing Sarge (officially Orville P. Snorkel) and the bumbling Camp Swampy commander, Gen. Amos T. Halftrack.

The newspaper Stars and Stripes, published for members of the armed forces, banned Beetle Bailey from its Tokyo edition in 1954, evidently a result of the military's concern that discipline would lag after the end of the Korean War and that the comic strip might inspire disrespect for officers.

The ban, continuing for about a decade, as Walker recalled it, served only to boost the comic strip's profile, and it was eventually syndicated in some 1,800 newspapers around the world.

Brian Walker said that the strip will continue, and that he and his brother Greg had been working on it with their father for decades.

Addison Morton Walker was born on September 3, 1923, in El Dorado and grew up in Kansas City where his father was an architect and his mother worked as a newspaper illustrator. He drew for his student newspaper while in elementary school.

He continued his sketching while in the army in Italy, working in intelligence and later commanding a camp holding German prisoners of war.

He was invited to the Pentagon in 2000 to receive the Secretary of the Army's highest award to a civilian, the Distinguished Civilian Service citation. A life-size statue of Beetle Bailey, cast in bronze, stands outside the alumni center at the University of Missouri.

When the defence department congratulated Walker on his 80th birthday, he said: "Human frailty is what humor is all about. People like to see the foibles of mankind. And they relate to the little guy, the one on the bottom."

New York Times News Service