Beetle Triumphant

Posted by on May 28th, 2010 at 2:41 PM

News about Little Orphan Annie’s impending demise on June 13 probably hit Mort Walker harder than it did most practicing comic strip cartoonists. Walker at 86 might be the oldest still drawing strip cartoonist—I haven’t mustered the entire regiment to see for sure—but his comic strip, the immutable and irresistible Beetle Bailey, a satirical monument to all social hierarchy worthy of ridicule (and all of it is eminently deserving), is, in its 60th year, without doubt the longest-running comic strip still being drawn by its originator. And so Annie’s disappearance from the funnies was a rude reminder that comic strips, with their financially strapped host publications, are not immortal, Beetle’s persistence to the contrary notwithstanding.

“With strips falling by the wayside, it’s sort of my responsibility to keep Beetle going,” Walker said to David Colton at USA Today. “That’s why Beetle just goes on and on. I feel very strongly about it.”

Walker feels so strongly, Colton said, that to celebrate Beetle Bailey’s 60th year, Walker is producing a series of seven special Sunday strips featuring his eternally bumbling Army private, snarling albeit goofy Sarge and the rest of the gang in famous patriotic settings. Appearing once a month between now and December, the special strips commemorate iconic images in American military history, Beetle style—Beetle in the boat with Washington crossing the Delaware, V-J Day in Times Square with Beetle depicted in the famed photo of a sailor kissing a young woman in a white dress, and Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown, which signaled the end of the Revolutionary War, and so on. The first strip in the “Great Moments” series appears Sunday, May 30, paying tribute to Memorial Day.

In anticipation of that occasion, Walker supplied USA Today with this special drawing by way of kicking off the series.

Walker, with his co-conspirators, sons Brian, Greg and Neal, and his long-time assistant, cartoonist Bill Janocha, will be spending the weekend in scenic Jersey City, where the National Cartoonists Society is holding its annual Reubens Award Banquet, and if tradition holds, Walker, the indisputed dean of American cartoonists, will present the Reuben trophy to this year’s winner (either Dan Piraro for Bizarro, Stephan Pastis for Pearls Before Swine, or Richard Thompson for Cul de Sac).

Other anniversary events for Beetle Bailey include a commemorative Beetle Bailey postage stamp, a reader contest at BeetleBailey.com, exhibits in far flung art galleries, and a book collecting strips from 1965, the year the strip passed the 1,000-mark in numbers of subscribing papers.

According to King Features’ press release, BeetleBailey.com will present a gallery of Walker’s favorite Beetle Bailey comic strips from each of the last 60 years. Fans visiting the website can vote for their favorite strips and register to enter The Best of Beetle Bailey Contest. The top-ranked fan favorites will be published during the two weeks surrounding Beetle’s 60th birthday, September 4, 2010. Everyone registering will be eligible to win one of 10 original Beetle Bailey daily strips, signed and personalized by Walker. Winners will be chosen at random and prizes will be selected from the Beetle archive and mailed directly to the winners no later than November 30, 2010.

The book, Beetle Bailey 1965: Daily & Sunday Strips, will be released by Titan Books in October (SRP $19.95). It will include a foreword by Walker, a history of the strip by Brian Walker, and a celebrity gallery featuring famed cartoonists such as Charles Schulz, Milton Caniff and Jack Davis. Fans will get a sneak preview of the book at the San Diego ComicCon International this July.

Some of Walker’s work over the past 60 years will be featured in two Beetle Bailey retrospective art exhibits. At the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco, Calif., May 8 through September 19, Brian Walker’s selection of highlights from the strip’s sixty years, and another, similar retrospective will be exhibited at the SESC Municipal Center in Sao Paulo, Brazil, May 6 through June 27.

Despite the Army setting of the strip, Beetle Bailey has only rarely (I can remember only two occasions) referred to any on-going real-life military activity. The Korean War, never actually mentioned in the strip, was responsible for the strip’s growth: Beetle was a slacker college kid for the first six months or so of the strip’s run, but, like many other American males of his vintage, he faced the draft, and he subsequently enlisted. He’s repeatedly re-enlisted: he’s found his satirical being in uniform. And Walker found his life’s work.

“Beetle’s never been anti-military or anything like that,” Walker said, adding that he has always kept current conflicts, including Iraq and Afghanistan, out of the strip in respect of the sensibilities of military families. (Beetle has never been noticably pro-military either; that’s the fate of satire.)

“I pretty well stick to the old Army,” he told Colton. “Beetle’s just the little guy beset by all these rules and regulations. He’s become a hero in that respect.”

I think of Beetle Bailey as the great vanilla comic strip, the Jay Leno of the funny pages. And I mean that in the most complimentary way. Like Leno’s humor, the hilarities in Beetle Bailey are universally accessible: everyone can understand (and appreciate) the comedy; no special insights are needed, no demographic niche is being courted or pandered to. It’s for us all.

But Walker and his cohorts keep the strip up-to-date with the march of modern mores and technology, and they also every now and then deploy the visual resources of the medium in ways that delight antique comics aficionados like me wherever we are.

And if you haven’t yet caught on to the strip’s long-running romance, here’s hand-holding evidence of its flowering.

Will Beetle and the luscious Miss Buxley get engaged? Marry? Not likely. Beetle isn’t as stupid as Li’l Abner, who blithely ignored his hormones and Daisy Mae’s cleavage for at least 18 years before succumbing to wedded bliss, but Beetle is colossally lazy, too lazy, we suspect, to ever pop the question—or, even, to formulate it.

Still, happy anniversary Beetle. And Mort.

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