Thursday, June 4, 2009

Mort Walker Interview

The current issue of the Comics Journal (#297) has a wonderful in-depth interview with cartoonist Mort Walker, creator of Beetle Bailey, as well as a stable of other strips including Hi and Lois, Sam and Silo, and Boner's Ark that's a fun read.

This is quite a treat because most current mainstream comics news publications focus primarily on the direct-sales comic-book market. Which is a bit ironic because until comics-themed and influenced movies began dominating popular culture in the past decade or so, the syndicated comic-strip field used to be considered the pinnacle of the cartooning profession. (No doubt the near-collapse of the present-day newspaper industry also has played a role in the seemingly shrinking relevance of the daily comic strip.)

Over the years, however, the Comics Journal—as well as its parent publishing company, Fantagraphics—has found a niche providing coverage to the broader field of cartooning, including syndicated newspaper comics, small press zines, and non-English language comics and cartoons from overseas. This has been part of a larger historical effort on Fanagraphics' part to expand the horizons of the field and the tastes and knowledge of readers. The Walker interview nicely dovetails with Fantagraphics' comprehensive reprint projects of strips like Prince Valiant, Krazy Kat, Popeye, and, more recently, Peanuts (I'm sure it's also not accidental that the interview with Walker coincides with Fantagraphics release of Walker's short-lived cult syndicated comic-strip, Sam's Strip).

Nevertheless, as someone who grew up becoming familiar with the history of the syndicated newspaper strips and their creators, the interview with Walker took me back to my youthful fascination with comic strips.

Famously gregarious and outgoing, Walker by disposition—as well as by longevity—is well suited to his role as the current presiding "dean of cartoonists." Walker is one of the last surviving links to an earlier generation of cartoonists when it was a smaller community. In its heyday, the cartooning profession was very much a "boys club," primarily centered around Connecticut where many cartoonists lived; New York City where the main syndicate and gag markets existed; and the annual meetings of the National Cartoonists Society. Many of the cartoonists in this golden era worked hard, but they also played hard. Social gatherings were very alpha-male oriented, usually centered around golf and heavy drinking. These guys were real hell-raisers!

The interview is conducted by well known cartooning historian R.C. Harvey. Harvey authored a definitive biography on Milton Caniff called Meanwhile... (reviewed here), and having read that book myself, though the two men differed much in personality, I found the similarities between the two cartoonists striking; like Caniff, Walker was a man in a hurry and an over-achiever from a very young age: Walker was professionally cartooning by age 13 and through high school and college was involved in a myriad of activities including student government, editor of his campus newspapers and humor magazines, performing comedy skits, and producing events and parties, which was only partly put on hold during his service during World War II, which is a fascinating and funny story in itself, as Walker tells it. (indeed, if he's to be believed, Walker was elected president of nearly every club and fraternity he joined!)

This drive and work ethic continued well into his professional career—at his busiest, Walker was working on six simultaneous comic strips that he had either created or co-created, which earned his studio the nickname of "King Features West." In addition, demonstrating his commitment to the form, he also founded the International Museum of Cartoon Art (which, after having gone through several sites and false starts, is now housed at Ohio State University's Cartoon Research Library). His work with the museum underscores his love of the form and his respect for the history of the medium. Indeed, he wrote one of the first books in the field that provided a candid (and, typical for Walker, funny) glimpse into the everyday life of a cartoonist, called Back Stage at the Comics. (It is a book I pored over in bookstores and coveted when I was an adolescent, and finally purchased a used copy many many years later when I came across it earlier this decade.)

As a link to the first generation of cartoonists, Walker in the interview provides wonderful insights and anecdotes about the cartooning community of the '50s, '60s and into the modern day, as well as a glimpse into the colorful personalities of these cartoonists.

Of particular surprise to me was the fact that Beetle Bailey is incredibly popular in Sweden, where it supports its own comic-book, andwhich has allowed Walker to produce a few graphic novel albums exclusively for that market! Walker talks about a book signing done in the country once, where people waited nearly 4 hours on line for an autograph.

Walker also provides some interesting insight on the well oiled machine that produces Beetle Bailey. Now well in his '80s, Walker remains fully engaged in the production of the strip, with a stable of assistants (which now includes all three of his sons) to help with the series and other strips, as well as with licensing and overseas demand. Throughout his life, Walker was a gag machine, which has enabled him to be so prolific, as well as build up quite a backlog of gags that will enable Beetle Bailey and his other properties to thrive well after he passes!

As I mentioned in my recent review of Fantagraphics' reprint collection of Peanuts, I don't read newspaper strips much these days, though Beetle Bailey was definitely one of my favorites as a youth. But like the recent biography of Peanuts creator Charles Shulz I read, this interview gave me new appreciation for Walker's achievements. Though Walker focused on having as broad an audience as possible, and avoiding politics and other controversies in his strip, it's clear from the interview that Walker nonetheless had strong principles and opinions, and knew when to fight his battles; he also had the smarts and foresight to make changes in the strip as the zeitgist changed. But through it all, the essence of Beetle Bailey has stayed remarkably the same, truly a great achievement and a wonderful comment of the genius and hard work of Mort Walker.

Note: Beetle Bailey is (c) King Features Syndicate

No comments: