There’s a moment in Mort Walker’s “Beetle Bailey,” from decades ago, when the innocent Zero asks the intellectual Plato why he owns so many books. Plato explains proudly that “all the wisdom of the ages” can be found between their covers. Zero responds, “What happens if a couple of pages get stuck together?”
Mort’s own answer might have been, “Well, we’ll always have comic strips.” Millions of people knew Mort, who died last week at the age of 94, as one of the pre-eminent cartoonists of his era — and one of the central figures among the remarkable group of artists (my father, John Cullen Murphy, the longtime illustrator of “Prince Valiant,” was another) who populated southwestern Connecticut in the peak years of the American century.
But in his way, and without putting on airs, Mort was also a historian.
“Beetle Bailey,” the strip for which he was most widely known — though he created several others, including “Hi and Lois” — was slyly but gently subversive, in a manner that wears well in America. “Beetle” was built around a cast of misfits at a military base, Camp Swampy, and Army humor, as Mort often said, writes itself. He told me once that when he was stationed in occupied Italy during World War II, he was ordered to run over watches, radios and other equipment with a tank in order to avoid the paperwork that would have been required to send the stuff back home.
He was a funny man. But a historian? In his golf sweater and khakis, Mort looked like the dad in a ’50s sitcom. Still, there was a quirkily thoughtful dimension to his mind that I’ve found to be virtually the rule among cartoonists. He explained to me on one occasion that the idea of having Trixie — the baby in “Hi and Lois” — convey her innocent but often searing observations exclusively by means of thought balloons, came to him after observing how Sinclair Lewis had handled interior dialogue.
Mort recognized very early that comic strips — a form of creative expression with a predominantly American center of gravity — flash-froze the national psyche at any given moment. The immigrant experience at the turn of the last century. Disparities of wealth and poverty. The changing roles of men and women. The effects of war, technology, bureaucracy, prejudice.
All of this was captured, by means of humor or drama or commentary, every day of the year by hundreds of cartoonists — and had been since the 1890s. The strips or cartoons were penciled and inked on sheets of stiff Bristol board, sent to the syndicates and then printed in newspapers that were thrown away within hours — lining the bottoms of bird cages or wrapping up greasy leftovers. Comic strips came to epitomize what was meant by the term “ephemera.”
Which is exactly what they aren’t, as Mort Walker understood. I suspect that Mort was initially drawn to collect comic art by the sheer skill of the creators. Look closely at the Art Deco draftsmanship of an original “Bringing Up Father,” by George McManus; or at the confidently noirish line, with a hint of a twinkle, in a strip like Alex Raymond’s “Rip Kirby”; or at the elegant economy of Dik Browne’s “Hagar the Horrible.”
Mort began to collect comic art casually, and then very seriously. He was appalled by the disregard often accorded to this work. One catalyzing moment: finding original “Krazy Kat” strips, by the masterly George Herriman, being used to plug a leak in a ceiling at a newspaper syndicate. With the help of like-minded cartoonists and some farsighted university professors, Mort became a vocal force for preservation. Founded in 1974, his Museum of Cartoon Art — he always referred to it, with strains of his native Missouri, as “the mu-zimm” — grew into a major repository. (All of this original work was eventually turned over to the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum at Ohio State University.)
But it wasn’t just the craftsmanship that Mort sought to preserve. It was also the history — the picture of ordinary life that comic strips capture in ink. Imagine the insights we might glean from a year of “Beetle Bailey” created in some lonely Roman outpost on Hadrian’s Wall. Or a year of “Family Circus” from a medieval quill in Aquitaine. A year of “Pogo” as the trauma of the Reformation unfolded. A year of “Blondie” from riotous Tudor England. A year of “Doonesbury” from the time of the American Revolution.
As scholars have come to acknowledge, these are the sorts of perspectives we actually do have, from comic strips, for all of the 20th century and into the 21st. Graphic novels carry on and amplify the tradition.
I last saw Mort Walker a few months ago at an event for my book about the circle of cartoonists he embodied and helped hold together. He was wearing his baggy pants and his golf sweater. He ambled about in athletic shoes.
“I’m just about the last one of the group still alive,” he told me. “I’m almost part of history. I never thought of myself as being part of history.”
He was being disingenuous. He knew it all along.
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