Afghanistan is now the longest-running war on the newspaper’s front pages.
But for some time now, the longest war on the comics pages has been Sarge’s battle to get Beetle Bailey to do anything.
A throwback to the days of conscription, Mort Walker’s strip has nonetheless endured through war and peace, and even beyond his passing Saturday at 94.
Maybe it’s because the theme of lazy workers and incompetent managers is timeless and universal. You don’t have to have served in the military – today, only 0.5 percent of the American population does – to appreciate the comic tension between superior and subordinate.
To that extent, Beetle Bailey is Dilbert in camouflage. Indeed, as the Chicago Tribune wrote, “Walker said that the military setting was simply a convenient stand-in for the pecking order of which everyone is a part.”
What’s more, Walker drew his characters as well or better than a Hollywood screenwriter. Followers of Beetle Bailey feel as if they know these children of Mort Walker’s vivid imagination.
Walker was both ubiquitous and prolific, drawing Beetle Bailey for 68 years beginning in 1950; adding Hi and Lois in 1954; and ultimately appearing in 1,800 newspapers before some 200 million readers in 50 countries. His abundance knew no bounds: Even after all this, he claimed to have 80,000 more gags on the shelf.
He was the Audie Murphy of the war on sloth.
And although cartooning is a cherished art and its best purveyors a beloved lot, it was left to Walker to create the Museum of Cartoon Art in 1974. It closed in 2002, and its collections are now at a Ohio State University museum that named a gallery after him.
Who knows how many young artists and gag-writers were inspired by such a man?
You know one of them yourself.
“When I was very young and interested in cartooning,” says The Chronicle’s own cartooning genius Rick McKee, “there really weren’t any ‘cartooning schools’ where I lived. So the comics pages were my textbook, and Mort Walker was one of my teachers. I would study the deceptive simplicity of his characters and how he developed the gags. Mr. Walker was one of the true masters of the craft.”
Mort Walker will be mourned and missed – but mercifully, thanks to his sons Brian and Greg, who will continue the strip, Beetle Bailey won’t have to be.