Mort Walker, a cartoonist whose work has been seen by more-or-less every human being who’s ever opened an American newspaper to the funny pages, has died. The creator of the low-key military comic strip Beetle Bailey—and its long-running spin-off, Hi & Lois, which he worked on with artist Dik Browne—Walker was 94.
Until his death, earlier today, Walker held a singular distinction in the world of comic art: Assisted by two of his sons, Greg and Brian Walker, Mort was the longest-serving original creator of a comic strip still being published. For 68 years straight, he worked in the world of Beetle Bailey, capturing the day-in, day-out troubles of Camp Swampy and its seemingly endless series of bloodless military exercises, brawls, and endless complaints about army food.
A military veteran himself, Walker drew on his own experiences when he transformed the hero of his college-set comic strip, Spider, into Private Beetle Bailey, eternal slacker archetype. Accompanied by the combative Sarge Snorkel, Beetle has been a comforting mainstay on comics pages for the better part of a century, playing out endless variations on routine jokes and stock set-ups for longer than most of its readers have been alive. (Weird fact: The strip’s eye-rollingly buxom secretary character, Miss Buxley, has appeared, with only a handful of exceptions, in every single Wednesday strip since her introduction in the early 1970s, a testament to Walker’s dedication to the formula and routine that helped make him a success, and maybe also his tendency to prod back at people who criticized him for his characters’ sometimes stereotypical behaviors and designs..)
Beyond being one of its most prolific practitioners, Walker also had a sincere reverence for the comic strip form. For years, he worked to keep a National Cartoon Museum—featuring more than 200,000 pieces of original cartoon art, much of it from his private collection—afloat; unfortunately, the museum eventually closed in 2002, and its collection merged with one at Ohio State University. He also published a semi-satirical book, The Lexicon Of Comicana, in 1980, establishing once and for all what common comic strip symbols—like the punctuation marks that replace swearing, or the dust clouds that signify something just quickly vanished—are called. (Grawlixes and briffits, respectively, in case you were curious.)
Beetle Bailey is one of those long-running comic strips that’s more likely to draw a slight smile from its readers, rather than provokes an outright laugh. Part of that lies in the weird, eternal purgatory of punwork and drudgery its characters are eternally trapped in, while the rest lays at the feet of the always-conservative mainstream comic strip world. (Walker—who occasionally got into fights with editors over things like the controversial decision to include belly buttons on his characters—apparently liked to blow off subversive steam by writing raunchy version of the strip, which were sometimes published in Scandinavia, of all places.) And yet, it’s impossible to question the man’s work ethic, and the base-line consistency of the comedy he produced. One slight smile is an afterthought; 68 straight years of them is a little harder to deny.