Mort Walker Still Tickles Military Funny Bones at 80
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Sep. 2, 2003 As he prepares for his 80th birthday on Sept. 3, the creative genius behind the popular comic strip "Beetle Bailey" said he has no plans to retire his drafting pen nor Beetle and his cohorts at Camp Swampy, who have captivated readers for the past 53 years.
"I just can't stop," said Mort Walker, speaking from his Stamford, Conn., home. "I wake up in the morning with new ideas that I want to try out to see how they'll work. I can't imagine not doing this every day."
Nor can the fans of Beetle Bailey, the third-most-widely distributed comic strip of all time. Launched in 1950, it appears daily in some 1,800 newspapers worldwide.
"Beetle Bailey has portrayed the lighter side of military life for millions of newspaper readers for more than 50 years," wrote Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld in a birthday letter to Walker. He praised Walker's ongoing support for the U.S. military. "Your tireless efforts and support for the National World War II Memorial and the Fisher House Foundation are no less important expressions of support for our forces," the secretary wrote. "I thank you, on behalf of all of us in the Department of Defense, family members, and veterans, for your patriotism and commitment to the military."
Walker's relationship with the military dates back to 1943, when he was drafted into the Army during World War II. He later used one of the posts where he served, Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., as a model for Camp Swampy, and based many of the characters in the strip on himself and other soldiers.
"Beetle is like I was when I was in the Army," Walker said. "I hated bureaucracy and I was always bucking the system." Gung-ho Lt. Fuzz is based on the newly commissioned 2nd Lt. Walker, fresh out of Office Candidate School.
"I came out of OCS believing everything was exactly by the book, and that I was going to take over and show everybody how things were done," he said. "That was, until a grizzled old staff sergeant set me straight."
The strip's Gen. Halftrack is modeled after one of Walker's colonels who, he said, "couldn't lead a Cub Scout troop to the candy store." Killer, the ladies' man, is just like Walker's old Army bunkmate. But of more than 20 characters at Camp Swampy, Sarge is Walker's personal favorite. "He overindulges in everything," Walker said, laughing.
Walker has updated his cast of characters over the years to reflect the changing face of the military. He introduced Lt. Flap, the strip's first black character, Cpl. Konishiki Yo, an Asian-American, and most recently, Chip Gizmo, a high-tech warrant officer. But overall, Walker said, he's made very few changes to update the strip to reflect today's military because being funny is his top priority -- definitely more important than being accurate or current.
"People like new things, but they love the classics," he said. "Beetle is a classic. When people read it, it reminds them of their own experiences."
In spite of its military setting and military themes, Walker said Beetle Bailey isn't really a commentary about the military. It's about people -- service members and civilians alike. And the funniest way to comment on people, Walker said, is to focus on their shortcomings.
"Human frailty is what humor is all about," he said. "People like to see the foibles of mankind. And they relate to the little guy, the one on the bottom. If you study the comics, you can see that you have to be a failure to be popular."
And nobody questions Beetle's popularity. Walker has been named International Cartoonist of the Year and earned entry into the prestigious Cartoonist Hall of Fame. In May 2000, he received the highest award the Secretary of the Army can present a civilian, the Distinguished Civilian Service medal.
But Walker said his biggest satisfaction doesn't come in the form of awards or royalties. It's in bringing other people pleasure. "I feel like I create friends for people, friends they want to check in on every day to see what they're up to," he said. "That's pretty gratifying."