Mort Walker, the man behind comic strips such as “Beetle Bailey” and “Hi and Lois”, died of pneumonia on January 27 at the age of 94 at his Stamford home. The cartoonist helped the industry of comics with the creation of his “Beetle Bailey” strip. The comic focused on a the exploits of a G.I. and his incompetent friends at Camp Swampy, a simple concept that ended up becoming the foundation for cartoonists all over the world. Walker even went on to form the first museum dedicated to the history of cartooning.
The Museum of Cartoon Art was first established back in 1974 when Walker took the 80,000 or so unused jokes he had stored away. He wanted to create a place that would treat comics as a serious art form. As time went on, more and more comics were sent to the museum as donations from other cartoonists wanting to establish their work as more than fun and games; they wanted their readers to see the deep and beautiful nature of comics as well. Unfortunately, the museum closed in 2002 when the corporate donors of the International Museum of Cartoon Art declared bankruptcy. Then, in 2008, the museum’s 200,000 pieces of art became the property of Ohio State University’s Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum, where a gallery is named after Mort Walker.
Walker was also the author of a book titled, The Lexicon of Comicana (1980), in which he helped general readers understand the many different cartooning conventions. For example, his usage of “grawlix” was meant to convey foul language and was originally meant to be for his own entertainment. But the symbolia (as the book calls them) caught on. Grawlix ended up becoming the inspiration behind the book. Other examples of symbolia include: Dites, diagonal, straight lines drawn across clear, reflective surfaces like windows; Squeans, those starburst like circles that help signify intoxication; or one of my personal favorites, the Quimps, planets that resemble Saturn used to replace obscene text and gestures
Mort Walker had a life dedicated to his craft; a dream that began at the age of 3 eventually grew into a career. His first comic was sold at the age of 12, and he continued to publish cartoons in various newspapers and magazines as a teenager. When he was drafted into the army, Walker found the inspiration for his Camp Swampy in his real-life army home, Camp Crowder. By the time he got back from the army, graduated from the University of Missouri, and landed in New York City, Walker’s presence could not be ignored. He helped form the Reuben Award for the National Cartoonists Society and advocated for the group’s inclusion of more women artists.
Whether or not you really know who Mort Walker is, his legacy will continue to live through those that have been impacted by his work, himself, or his humor. “Beetle Bailey” has appeared in over 1,800 newspapers in over 50 different countries. But as The Washington Post’s Michael Cavna reports from an interview with Walker back in 2013, the cartoonist said that he may “be leaving a legacy of failure to [his] my children. It’s like Kodak — nobody buys film anymore. I have a typewriter sitting in the corner that I haven’t used in 15 years.” Legacy is a relevant term when taking into account the way our culture is advancing, but I don’t think Mort Walker’s will be going anywhere anytime soon.