The Great American Comic Strip
At 92, Beetle Bailey creator Mort Walker is still cranking out the punchlines.
Mort Walker loved his literature and composition classes at Mizzou, and it showed. One evening, Walker’s writing professor invited him to dinner. All through the meal, the teacher and the straight-A student discussed books and authors, and over dessert, the professor turned to Walker and said, “So, you’d like to write the next great American novel?”
“And I said, ‘Huh? I want to write the next great American comic strip!’ ” recalls Walker, BA ’48. “He got up and walked away. I wasn’t his favorite student anymore.”
Walker went on to create Beetle Bailey, one of the most popular comic strips in the world, which celebrates its 65th anniversary in 2015. Even as most newspapers cut back on comic strips, Beetle Bailey runs in roughly 1,800 newspapers in more than 50 countries with a combined readership of more than 200 million every day.
Walker fell in love with comics while wrapped in his father’s arms, watching him read Moon Mullins in the Sunday paper. “He’d read the comics to me, and he’d laugh so hard he’d cry,” Walker says. “It just warmed my heart to watch him do that. I thought, ‘I’d love to do that to people.’ ”
Walker instilled the same desire in his children. Sons Greg and Brian assist with the production of Beetle Bailey and have taken over Walker’s comic strip Hi and Lois, which began in 1954 as a spin-off of Beetle Bailey. Son Neal, along with father, designed and sculpted the bronze human-scale sculpture of Beetle, which was dedicated beside the Reynolds Alumni Center during the strip’s 50th anniversary.
At 92, Walker still goes to work in his Stamford, Connecticut, studio every day, brainstorming one-liners and sketching panels for Beetle, the U.S. Army’s laziest private. “I lie in bed in the morning, and by the time I get up, I have a couple of gags. I go to the grocery store, and all I do is crack jokes.” For Walker, who has created more than 23,725 Beetle Bailey strips, it’s not work. It’s his lifeblood.
“When you called, I thought, ‘Oh, I’ve been doing this 65 years?” he tells MIZZOU magazine. “I added it up, and you were right. How lucky am I!”