Saturday, September 1, 2018

Talking Mort Walker

A friend has a book coming out I want to plug. Talking Mort Walker: A Life in Comics (716 pages!) is an eight-year passion project for Jason Whiton, who grew up in that legendary place and time when all the best cartoonists lived in one Connecticut county a quick train ride from New York City. Jason knew the families of Mort Walker (Beetle Bailey, Sam's Strip, Hi and Lois), Dik Browne (Hagar the Horrible, also Hi and Lois), and dozens of other lower-profile workaday inkslingers who helped make comics and cartoon illustration an important mid-century art and business. Mort died in January 2018 at the age of 94.

Talking Mort Walker contains "interviews, articles, letters, unpublished photographs, and drawings (that) reveal insights about the child prodigy who grew up to become the Dean of American cartooning." It builds on another book Jason wrote/edited a few years ago, Mort Walker: Conversations, which collected many Walker interviews. The new book includes reminisces and reflections of Walker's work from peers who knew him, as well as those who were only influenced by him from a distance, including, full disclosure, me.

Walker is a large but polarizing figure among cartoonists. He wrote and drew Beetle Bailey for 67 years but, I think it's fair to say, isn't regarded with the same reverence as, say, Charles Schulz, who started Peanuts the same year (1950) and did it for nearly half a century. The big difference: Schulz was an auteur who wrote, drew, and even lettered every Peanuts strip himself. Every panel was pure 200-proof Schulz, expressing his personality and angst. 

In contrast, Walker employed the studio or bullpen model, which was much more common at the time, particularly for creators who came out of the worlds of advertising, as Browne did, or greeting cards, as Walker did. While Walker and Beetle shared the experience of serving in the Army, Mort didn't use his comics to explore his private philosophies and anxieties. That wasn't his job. Walker's name was on his strips but he relied on a small corps of gag men and assistants to get the job done (although, Jason tells me, Walker penciled every Beetle Bailey strip himself). That was a much more common arrangement back in the days when a comic strip could earn enough money to support a team. It was a good system that gave generations of cartoonists a break into the business working for established creators, and is still around today (e.g., Garfield).

It's a different business model that, critics argue, produces comics that are more committee-made commerce than deeply personal art (or "Art").

My opinion? I think Walker's gotten a bum rap. The way he worked was how almost everybody (except Schulz) worked in 1950, if they could afford to. He was very good at it. His strips were published in thousands of papers around the world and his characters became iconic. Modern comics since, say, Doonesbury in the seventies came to value what an individual artist had to say more than the skill with which they said it. Which is a fancy way of saying that a lot of cartoonists became very successful despite not being great artists. Walker went to work every day and hit his deadlines; his work was always polished and professional. It's not his fault that those qualities went out of style.

Walker's greatest influence on me was his 1975 book, Backstage at the Strips (which is what I wrote about for Jason's book). At a time when real information about how to make comics was scarce, and I was a kid starving for real information about how to make comics, Backstage was a godsend. 

This is the edition I had. Newer editions are available pretty cheap.

It wasn't a "how to" manual, but rather insight into a frame of mind and creative process. Walker wrote about a Mad Men era of cartooning that, though I didn't realize it at the time, had already passed. He was an eyewitness describing the easy camaraderie among cartoonists, the early days of the National Cartoonists Society, and his own, ultimately frustrated, efforts to launch a permanent comics museum. I always wanted to be a cartoonist, but Backstage made me want to be a cartoonist sipping martinis with Rube Goldberg and Walt Kelly on Milt Caniff's back porch.

I haven't seen Jason's new book, but know it will be worth a look regardless of one's feelings about Walker. Mort was there, in the center of cartooning's Golden Age, and for seven decades one of its most successful practitioners. I once told Jason I didn't think we'd really appreciate Mort Walker until he was gone. Jason's book, which will doubtless be the most comprehensive memorial Walker will ever receive, expresses the appreciation and respect that many in his oddball line of work held for him, including me.

Jason Whiton at LumaCon in 2016, with his earlier Mort Walker book front and center.

EDITED TO ADD: Jason has written his own blog post about Mort Walker, partly in response to this post and a private e-conversation we've been having since. Check it out, then go read the rest of Jason's Spy Vibe site while you're there!

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