Sunday, June 13, 2021

A Walker in the Park

Sunday Surprise Day. If you are a Mort Walker fan, you can help. The last few years I have been helping Bill Janocha and the Mort Walker family to do a book about the cartoons of Mort. Before creating Beetle Bailey in 1950 (actually earlier, but it started in that year) he worked as a cartoonist, which had been his life long pursuit. Upon becoming one of the best selling cartoonists, he realized that it would never make him rich, so he took a leap upward. In his cartoon work he had created the figure of Spider, a young man at college - based on his own experiences as a G.I. Bill student at Missouri State University. He sold gags with that character to the Saturday Post and Varsity, but they ended up all over the place. When Spider was not bought as a regular for The Saturday Evening Post, he reworked the idea as a newspaper strip and took it to King Features. They bought it and market it as a gag stip about college life. The main character (whose eyes we never saw, even as Spider) was renamed Beetle Bailey - a Beetle as a variation on Spider and Bailey in reference to the Saturday Evening Post's cartoon editor John Bailey. In 1952 Beetle left college and joined the army.
Mort Walker kept on making cartoons until mid 1952 and they were published into 1954. All the time he was making cartoons, he kept a ledger with a description of every cartoon, with notes about production date, sale date, sometimes sales price and an abbreviation for what magazine it was sold to and when the gag was provided by someone else it was noted as well. No information about the publication date, although he also kept an incomploete clip file that sometimes had a date or at least a month noted. In the attic at Mort Walker's studio there was a trunk full of originals - some unsold, some sold and returned, some unfinished sketches and some of his 'roughs' which he made in publishable quality (as he figured out that it helped sell them better). On the back of the originals notes were made saying to what magazines the cartoons were sent to, or left behind after showing them on the regular day once a week all New York editors invited cartoonists to come around. After Mort stopped producing cartoons, he sold the rights to all them to Ben Roth's cartoon agancy, who sold some of the published and many of the unpublished ones to markets abraod. Again, Mort kept a clip book for those.
Using all of that information I put together as complete a list of all the information. Bill wrote a complete history of Mort's career with the main focus on his cartoons, the markets he sold to and an appreciating from his own experiences as Mort's private assistant in the last few decades. He also selected far to many cartoons to be included, cleaned them, adjusted captions and generally made them look good. He had the advantage that all of Mort's cartoons were very well drawn and funny, even the unsold ones. Some were excluded because the subject was too dated (usually to do with attitudes to women and marriage), but his work seems to have dated less than that of other cartoonists.
Form all that information, I also drew a couple of conclusios of my own, some of which made it into the book. One of the more puzzling questions is, how Mort handled those 'roughs'. I got in touch with the Walker family, when I showed my 21 Mort Walker cartoon 'originals' here (click the link to see those and much more). I had bought them on Ebay (from a seller who still has some more, but sadly won't answer my questions about them anymore). All of them have a color note saying OK JB. We worked out that it must have been a note from John Bailey and since all of them had been published, these originals had come from his desk. Still, why would he keep these and not some of the otehrs, which were in Mort's trunk? I was invited to the studio, where Brain Walker and Mort himself wlecomed me and introduced me to Bill Janoche. They told me abot his book project and the trunk - and showed me they ad some of the same originals I had - but without the OK JB note. We looked really closely and although most of them were the same, line for line, some details differed. We came up with the 'rough' theory, which fitted one of Mort;s favorite anecdotes from Backstage at the Strips: how he learned to make his 'rough' as good as the published version, so he would sell more.
A nice working theory but I have never been able to figure out how that worked. Some of the published cartoons were just a little bit more detailed (mainly in the backgrounds) and some were even changed on John Bailey's request. I will show one of those with a request here (incidentally not one of mine, but one that is still for sale on Ebay). So if John Bailey kept the 'rough's and Mort redrew the cartoon for publication - how did he manage to get such an indetical line? One theory is that there were very precise pencil drawings before all of that - but none have ever turned up. Another theory is that Mort kept a copy to work on, but none of those were found either. And in either case Mort's brush and pen control must have been fenomenal if he was able to repruduce those lines so exactly.
Anyway, that's how the book got together. It ended up at Hermes, who already has a line of similar books, one on Garfield and one still to be published on Johnny Hart's B.C. It is now available from Diamond and all of the major book sites (including Amazon). The size (200 pages), price ($45 or so) and publication date (later this year) are known - but I have a sneaky suspicion that all of those may still change. The book is being designed right now and as far as I can tell Hermes will use the pre-sale interest as an indicator for the books eventual size and prize. It is announced as a 200 page book, but there is enough material for 300 pages or even more. Fortunately, most of the pre-order sites have a price guarantee. So if the book sound like something you like or if you want to support Bill (and by extension me), please pre-order it now. You will ge the best buy and it will certainly help Hermes do the book as good as they can. We don't have to reach the heights of Backstage at the Strips, but the more people see this the better. To help you along, I am showing for the first time some of the cartoons Bill selected and cleaned for publication. For more you can of course click on the link below and see all of the cartoons I ahve shown over the years.


Allan Holtz said...

Perhaps Mort used a lightbox to duplicate each cartoon before he sent it off? That would be an awful lot of extra work, though!


Ger Apeldoorn said...

And more of them would have been saved? As it is, we did not find any - or any pencils. If he did lightbox all of them, maybe those were the ones he gave to Ben Roth to be syndicated in Europe? If so, one would be able to see small differences here and there.