Happy Anniversary, Beetle

Posted by on September 4th, 2010 at 8:20 AM

Mort Walker at 86 might be the oldest syndicated cartoonist still drawing his strip— I haven’t mustered the entire regiment to see for sure—but his comic strip, the immutable and inevitable Beetle Bailey, a satirical monument to all social hierarchy worthy of ridicule (and all of it is eminently deserving), celebrates its 60th anniverary today and is, without doubt or quibble, the longest-running comic strip still being drawn by its originator.

Beetle Bailey started in twelve papers on September 4, 1950. With about 1,800 subscribing newspapers today, it ranks as one of the world’s half-dozen most popular comic strips.

On assignment for The Comics Journal in December 2008, I went to Walker’s Connecticut lair to interview him, and it was on my agenda that I wanted to see him perform the ritual act. When I said I wanted to watch him draw a strip, Mort said, “Sure,” and we got up from the conversation pit where we had been seated in front of the massive fireplace in what had once been the studio of Gutzon Borglum, sculptor of Mount Rushmore, and walked into Mort’s office around the corner from the stairway leading to the loft overhead where Mort’s assistant, cartoonist Bill Janocha, labors daily.

Mort had finished penciling his regular weekly batch of strips the day before—Monday, daily strip drawing day—but he sat at his desk, and from a stack at his elbow, he pulled out another roughly sketched strip to convert to a finished pencil for my benefit.

He put a small drawing board, maybe eighteen by twenty-four inches, in his lap and tilted it, propping it against the desk, then picked up two pieces of artboard. He placed the smaller 5×17-inch piece on top of the larger sheet and, taking a mechanical drafting pencil in hand, he drew it along all four edges of the smaller rectangle, penciling the border of a strip on the artboard beneath.

On the artboard with the template still in place, he marked the middle of the strip—where it would be divided into two panels—put the template aside, placed the rough rendering of the strip on the upper edge of the drawing board, and looked at his watch. Then he began to draw the first of the two panels, copying the compositions in the rough.

The day’s gag, roughed in a clean pencil sketch on 8.5×11-inch foolscap, featured only Beetle and Sarge: Sarge, seated at his desk, hands Beetle an envelope and tells him to deliver it, and Beetle promptly sits down, leaning against the wall. “What are you doing?” Sarge yells. Beetle says: “I never do any work without goofing off first.”

Mort quickly sketched very lightly two circles to position the characters’ heads in the first panel, then he indicated their bodies’ positions with a couple outlining lines each. His blocking of the panel’s composition now consisted of two wraith-like apparitions, barely visible, entirely featureless like snowmen. Next, he lettered the speeches of the characters and drew the speech balloons.

Then he turned to Sarge and, drawing a small rectangle on top of the head circle, he located Sarge’s garrison cap on his head, then drew the characteristic four-lumps that finish the abstraction of the character’s customary headgear. He then drew Sarge’s eyes, focused on the desk in front of him, then a round ball for Sarge’s nose. He drew the upper part of Sarge’s body, seated at his desk, and the extended arm and hand giving Beetle an envelope.

Next he drew another rectangle, somewhat boxier, squarer, than Sarge’s, on Beetle’s head, adding a pointed bill to complete the fatigue cap Beetle usually wears. Then he put a perfectly round shape under the bill for Beetle’s nose. Beetle’s eyes, as usual, do not appear, obscured for evermore under the bill of the cap.

After giving Beetle a body and tubular legs and arms, Mort went on to the second panel.

Every line Mort drew was exactly, perfectly, placed: none of the lines were sketchy, trial-and-error lines searching for the correct position. Sarge, the desk, and Beetle were each outlined with single strokes. When Mort’s son Greg inked the strip, he wouldn’t have to choose which lines to ink: there was only one in every instance.

Mort had been drawing Beetle and his compatriots for nearly sixty years: he didn’t have to guess about where the lines went; he didn’t have to search for their positions.

In the strip’s second panel, the composition, again faintly indicated with ghostly figures, was the almost same as that of the first panel, and Mort again copied the picture in the rough sketch, but when he drew Sarge this time, he changed the character’s position somewhat.

Sarge in the rough is still seated at the desk as he is in the first panel; in reproducing that image, Mort drew Sarge getting up from his chair, leaning forward, supporting his bulk with his hands on the desk. Now, glowering down at Beetle as the work-averse private sat leaning against the wall in front of the desk, Sarge seemed much more threatening than he’d been in the rough sketch.

“You changed the pose,” I said.

“Yes,” Mort acknowledged. “I always try to improve things a little. And people like to see action in a strip, so I’ve got Sarge moving, getting to his feet, standing up.” He hunched his shoulders in imitation of Sarge’s pose.

He was right: he had improved the composition of the strip by enhancing the visual drama. With a few more strokes of his pencil, Mort finished drawing Beetle, completing the strip. He looked at his watch again.

“Ten minutes,” he said. “I could do the rest of the week’s strips in what remains of an hour.”

And why not? By the time I witnessed him at work on this day in mid-December 2008, Mort Walker had been drawing Beetle Bailey for 58 years and three-and-a-half months. His hand and eye knew their tasks so well that he scarcely needed much time for them to turn in another perfect performance.

And now it’s been 60 years, exactly, since Beetle Bailey first appeared in syndication. And both Beetle and Mort continue their flawless performance. Happy anniversary, Mort.

Note: The foregoing description was published as part of the Introduction to the interview with Mort Walker in The Comics Journal, No. 297, April 2009.

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2 Responses to “Happy Anniversary, Beetle”

  1. johnrplatt says:

    Back around 1990, I met Jeff MacNelly and watched him draw a Shoe strip and an editorial cartoon. He just drew a few circles as placeholders and went right to ink. He’d drawn his Shoe characters — and in the case of his editorial cartoon, a tank — so many times he didn’t need to pencil them first. It was amazing to see.

  2. BorjaGarcia says:

    Here in Spain there is an author that created a strip in 1945 and stills draws it. With 88 years!!! But in the beginins I think i wasn’t a daily strip.
    The creator is Olmo, and the strip is Don Celes.