Wednesday, January 31, 2018

My Mort Walker Tribute Pt. 2

Tuesday Comic Strip Day.

So this is the tribute I wanted to post yesterday, but I got sidetracked. I can't promise it won't happen again.

Beetle Baily was Mort Walker's most famous creation. The history of the character has been written about everywhere. While Mort was doing cartoons for The Saturday Evening Post, he created what he though would or should be a recurring character called Spider. Having a recurring panel in the Post was one of the surefire ways to get attention. He based the college character and the gags on various gags he had been making for the Missouri University's monthly magazine The Missouri SHowme, where he had been the editor for almost two years while he was majoring in journalism on a GI grant. Sadly, Spider was not bought by the Post editor John Bailey as such, although Mort went on to sell many more cartoons there.

So he took the idea to Kind Features, where he must have sold it almost immediately. His private ledger shows he was already producing and billing the first weeks of Beetle Bailey (the comic strip version of Spider, named after John Bailey) late in 1949. Slightly more than a year after he started selling cartoons professionally. After a year of not really getting of the ground with the college version of Beetly Baily, he let him join the army and a legend (and a new cast) was born.

To show the further progress of Beetly Bailey, I have collected and cleaned up a couple of Sunday strips from almost every year of the first 30 years, from the messy start in 1951 into the eighties. These are part of a much larger collection I still have to do, so I can put them on this blog. I have always shown a lot of Beetle Bailey's (as well as Mort Walker's other strips) and plan to continue that. It's too bad this national treasure is not reprinted in full, as it is by the Egmund company in Denmark and other Scandinavian countries. One edition of the first two years (a full copy of the Egmond evrsion) was done here and when that wasn't the runaway succes every hoped it would be, Titan resumed their own reprint series reprinting one year at the time - and starting with 1965, the first year the strip was a world wide success. You can see here what you have been missing.

For the first few years Mort's method was to try and create as much choas and slapstick as possible in his Sunday pages, stepping back from the sophistication that his dailies and certainly his cartoons had. Although there are three tier versions of these strips from the start, I have rarely come across them. Many papers only used the two tier version, often as the bottom strip on the first page.

The second soldier here was a leftover from the college version of the strip. Like Beetle, you never see his eyes. He was Beetle's best friend for a while until he went missing in inaction.

In 1953 Mort Walker started introducing the half titel/half panel as the opening panel. I assume that would have been adapted from a full image in the three tier version. The fifth panel probably is a so-called 'drop panel', which was dropped to remake the three tier version into a tabloid page (which I also have never seen). Comic strip making came pretty close to math in those days.

Did you know Beetle used to have a girlfriend waiting back home in the first few years? I guess Mort forgot about it too.

In 1954 Mort Walker started showing more and more of Beetle's mom and dad and family back home. He even introduced Beetle's sister Lois (who later married to Hi to form a comic strip family of her own) and his little brother Junior (who was never heard of again, unless he morphed into Lois' ultra-dumb brother who was a regular in Hi and Lois in 1959/1961).

With his unmoving checkered short, Junior looks like a throwback to Mort's pre-war cartoon style.

ILater in 1954 Mort and Beetle went back to Camp Swampy. Things were about to change.

Somewhere late 1954/early 1955 Mort Walker starts to concentrate more on developing his regular cast at Camp Swampy. Beetle's old school friend has gone and we see the familiar faces appear one by one. Here we see the yet unnamed General Halftrack, who is still at the Pentagon. It seems to me that this is the point that Jerry Dumas joined Mort Walker as a writer and cartoonist. I don't think Dumas came up with all of these innovations (Mort was smart enough to think of them himself) but maybe the way they set up working, with regular script meetings and voting about gags resulted in a clearer focus and possibly some discussions about what works and what doesn't. And I am quite sure the chemistry between these two men must have been terrific, resulting in what I consider to be the best years of Beetle and Hi and Lois and culminating in the Jerry Dumas drawn classis 'newspaper strip about newspaper strips' Sam's strip. In the next few samples we see the move away from chaotic slapstick jokes to character jokes with a lot more visual gags. There's still a lot of slapstick, but it is more clearly animated and character driven.

Cookie is introduced and this may have been the first time we see Zero in a Sunday as well.

Less chaos, more character.

The style of the strip gets rounder as well.

In 1957 we start to recognize the characters as we know them. Bob Gustavson had joined the team and started doing the comic book version of the strip. Not much later he was allowed to do his own strip with Walker Studio gags, Mrs. Fitz' flats. he would remain a studio regular for the rest of his life.

For a long time, the Walker gang liked doing this sort of narrator and cartoon gag strips on Beetle and Hi and Lois. There was a playfulness to their graphic approach that was soon to be caught in Sam's strip.

In 1957 General Halftrack was named and placed at Camp Swampy.

Killer would not have been created today.

If not for the second line under his eyes, this gag could have been drawn ten years later.

We jump forward. The reason I am not showing any Sundays from 1959 and 1960 is that I am using only new scans here and I have been doing huge runs of '59/'60 from the start of my blog. If you want to read them, use the lnk and take an afternoon off. Most of my samples of the early fiftes are three tier strips, which seems to indicate that it had become so popular that it demanded more room in most papers. You can see the rebellious spirit of the early sixties in these strips. At the end of the decade Beetle would make fun of hippies justa s easily, but here the people in authority were the target.

One of my first articles on comic strips in the late seventies was about 'wallpaper gags' which Mort Walker mentioned in his book Backstage at the Strips. Here is an early sample (one of many).

The ealriest sample I have of Sarge jumping up and down on a crumpled Beetle. But I am sure it is not the first time.

Mort Walker rarely did Chrismas gags. This is one of the earliest ones.

In the early sixties, the Sunday strip became a showcase for Mort Walker's timing.

Compare the simplicity of this gag to the chaotic slapstick of ten years earlier.

How a surreal gag like this survived the gag conference process, is beyond me. It must have been sketched out pretty well.

Have your characters hit over the head at least once a week, Mort Walker said in Backstage at the Strips. Or fall flat on their back.

In 1960/61 Beetle took Sarge back home on furlough for a rare longer sequence. It was such a succes that they did it again in 1962/63.

Dik Browne had been introducing a couple of new shading tricks in Hi and Lois, which sometimes crept into Beetle as well.

One of my favorite gags. So simple and so animated. And over the top in just the right way.

And suddenly, from one week to the other, Sage lost the extra line under his eyes. Did he get more sleep or was it a graphic decision spurred on by the shrinking of the size comcis were printed? For me this change marks the point between the years I like every gag and those where the simplification just becomes too much for me and I lose the visual satisfaction of a fuller panel.

All through the sixties references to other strips appeared.

And television series, too.

And historical figures.

Okay, here the simplification works.

This was Beetle in the late sixties and seventies. Characters doing their thing. It was at the top of it's success.

A gag depending on girls not having seen a naked man in his fifties before they were married. Weren't they lucky.

Around this time, the line satrts changing as well. Mort had started a new strip of his own, Boner's Ark (more about that later), where he was doing pencilling and inking all by himself. My guess is he started depending on his assistants for Beetle more and more.

Mort never did a lot of gags with baseball. Doesn't play well in Scandinavia.

Plato started out as a philosophical character. The last few years that aspect of him has been rarely seen.

Beetle rarely did gags that were depenend on a smart last one-liner, but they didn't shy away from it either.

The mouse never became a regular.

In the seventies the half panel first panel was reintroduced, but this time to start the three tier version.

I once asked Mort what the secret of Beetle's succes was and he said: "Who doesn't like to goof off at work and annoy the boss?"

The introduction of Miss Buxley gave the strip a whole new influx of energy. Up till this day originals featuring Miss Buxley make up to twice as much money when sold.

In the eighties the simplification of the strip permitted papers to print it smaller and smaller. Sadly, it started to show.

I made a line about my scans you may have noticed. I applied them from the neest strips to the oldest and somewhere in the mid seventies, I noticed that the line I had made for the eighties no longer fit between te panels. By which I mean: look at how wide the line between the panels had become.

Up until he had his fall last december, Mort was still golfing once a week. This year his son Greg had drawn a card for his 94th birthday saying: now you can finally say your avarage is lower than your age.

If the strip gets printed smaller, the lines get thicker.

Wait a minute... haven't I seen this gag before..?

A good character gag is a good character gag.

Did I drop the color on the bush in the last panel or did someone forget?

I am quittig here. For some reason first Sarge and later all the characters started getting fatter and rounder.

Except General Halftrack. He just remained is scrawny old horndog self.

I will be back with more strips and commentary by Mort Walker and his friends.

No comments: