Opus 53:

Before We Forget. Beetle Bailey slipped right by its 50th anniversary last fall. The strip began September 4, 1950, with 12 newspaper subscribers. We’ve mentioned this milestone at various times during the past twelve-month. And other media notices have cropped up from time to time. But we miss the hoop-la that might have attended this seldom-equaled occurrence in comic strip history because, no doubt, of a pervasive sadness that accompanied another 50th anniversary last year, that of a strip that started just a month after Mort Walker’s. Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, of course.

By virtue of their birthdays, the two strips are yoked in history like Siamese twins. And when tragedy struck one, the other stood mute out of respect.

Not that there were no celebrations for Beetle. There were. Anniversary book collections, special exhibitions, toy collectibles, parades (a new Beetle balloon), recognition ceremonies, medals and awards, commemorative merchandise of all sorts, and so on.

Still, it all seemed somewhat overshadowed by Schulz’s untimely departure earlier in the year.

But now we have before us a publication that is probably intended to be the culminating event of Beetle’s 50th year activities. Originally announced for a November 2000 publication, it finally shook free of the printer in January 2001. From Andrews McMeel (336 8x10-inch pages, hardback, $24.95), it’s Walker’s autobiography, and an odd sort of autobiography it is.

Its title is about as studiously descriptive as any librarian would like: Mort Walker’s Private Scrapbook, subtitled "Celebrating a Life of Love and Laughter." And if the title doesn’t give it all away, the cover design does. It has the texture and metal corners of a scrapbook, and the type varies from line to line, starting with an approximation of Walker’s well-known signature and then using military stencil letters for "Private." Pictures like photographic snapshots run parallel to the typography, showing Walker, then Private Bailey in fatigues, and then one of those famous fistic encounters between Beetle and Sarge (the "scrap" in "scrapbook," right?).

And the book is indeed about Walker’s life but his life is also about the life of his notoriously lazy private in the U.S. Army, and so is this book. It’s a genuine scrapbook, too. There’s hardly a page that doesn’t carry a picture--usually, several. Sometimes photographs of Walker the cartoonist or Walker the husband or Walker the father, sometimes photographs of family or friends or colleagues, sometimes drawings--cartoons Walker admired as a kid, cartoons Walker drew as a kid, and a generous sampling of his flagship strip, Beetle Bailey, as well as peeks at the eight other strips he launched from his studio in Connecticut.

Connecting all the pictures is an ample smattering of Walker’s spare prose. And cunning prose it is, terseness notwithstanding.

In any autobiography, the basic predicament for the writer is how to tell his or her story without appearing to take him/herself too seriously. It is an hopeless task. The very existence of an autobiography proclaims the author’s opinion that his or her life is important enough to warrant the extended treatment. How does one unhorse this inherent implication?

If you’re a professional humorist as Walker is, it’s not as difficult as it would be if you were, say, a genuinely self-important personage such as, say, an ex-president of the U.S. or the eldest son of one. A healthy dose of comedy dilutes the self-absorption. And Walker does it with aplomb on every page, beginning with the first on which he states "My Philosophy: Be friendly and you’ll make friends; be honest and people will be honest with you; be good and you’ll sell two or three copies of your autobiography (to your mother)."

The other way to submerge the self-importance inherent in autobiography is to make it a scrapbook and leave the task of assembling the scrap to members of your family and staff. And Walker did that, too, picturing the entire ensemble on the last page: son Brian Walker, editing and organizing; Mort Walker, "writing, research and bragging"; wife Cathy Walker, editing and moral support; daughter Cathy Jr. Deutsch, putting copy on disk; studio assistant Bill Janocha, copying and restoration; and son Neal Walker, scanning artwork. And they’re all smiling broadly as if in on some private joke.

The joke is no longer private. Not with a whole book about it. "I hope you enjoyed my life as much as I have," Walker writes on the last page. "See you in the funny papers."

Some of us remember that Walker did an autobiography before--Backstage at the Strips--in 1975. In the autobiography at hand, we learn that the earlier one--perhaps the best book in existence about a syndicated cartoonist--was remaindered when the publisher went bankrupt two months after the book came out. So if you see a copy on e-Bay, grab it up: it’s a treasure.

But Scrapbook is a treasure, too. More illustrative material, for one thing. And while Backstage retailed every story Walker could remember about his fellow cartoonists, this book’s stories are pretty much confined to Walker and his family and career. His early life gets the biggest proportion of the book: it takes 59 pages to get him through school, the Army, and college, and every page is adorned with pictures, many of Walker’s own devising. In contrast, his first two or three years doing Beetle are covered in about as many pages. (Two or three, I mean.)

But nuggets of information abound through all those pre-Beetle pages. Walker’s first strip--ironically--was about (pause) sailors! Dubbed The Limejuicers, it was drawn while he was fourteen and ran in the Kansas City Journal for a year. By then he was already a published cartoonist with seventy-five of his drawings (cartoons) printed somewhere or another. He may have been the most seasoned young cartoonist of his generation by the time Beetle was syndicated.

We learn in these pages that there’s a Beetle Bailey musical lurking in the files (it was presented at the Candlewood Theater in Connecticut in about 1982), that there’s a bronze statue of Beetle at the University of Missouri in Columbia, Missouri where Walker matriculated, that Walker is a deft caricaturist (his Hedy Lamarr brought back overheated memories and Ed Sullivan is likewise dead on), that Walker once sued the U.S. government, and that Walker paints in oil occasionally and writes humorous poetry. Among numerous other achievements (inventing things and writing novels, children’s books, a tv special or two, movie treatments).

The drawings are the real treat, though. In addition to samplings of Beetle and Walker’s other strips, the book presents a multitude of special drawings that have never been widely circulated. Pictures of Beetle as a surfer, for instance--and as a biker, a hippie, a singer. A picture of Sarge as a 21-year-old solider. Censored strips. Drawings and greeting cards made especially for Walker on various occasions (birthdays, anniversaries, holidays) by his fellow cartoonists, many in full color.

And many of the visuals in the book are in color--photographs as well as drawings. Herein is the book’s only blemish: the halftones are often blurred and indistinct a result of printing on slightly porus paper on which the halftone dots spread and get fatter ("dot gain" is the printer’s argot for what happened here). But even a blurry view of the life of one of the world’s most celebrated cartoonists is better than no view at all. Besides, for me, the best parts of the books are the drawings, not the photographs.

As delightful as it is to see the drawings, the text in the book is also worth lingering over. It brims with warm humor. Every prose segment ends with a punchline. Walker recalls that during his courting days with wife Cathy, she described some of her favorite recipes, including (repeatedly) an exotic sounding Spanish fish dish called paella. He couldn’t wait to sample this culinary masterpiece. But Cathy never got past the stage of description.

"We’ve been married now for sixteen years and I still have never seen paella," he writes. "Yesterday we were having lunch with my son Neal, who does a lot of cooking. Cathy launched into her paella recitation, how succulent and moist it was--‘not seca or dry.’

"When she was through, I said to Neal: ‘It’s come down to this. She describes paella to me, and I describe sex to her.’

"‘Not seca,’ I added."

And then there’s Walker’s apostrophe to his own alleged fame, "Icon if Ucon":

"One night I became an Icon, and I’m not sure I feel good about it. At a banquet in New York, the great writer Tom Wolfe referred to me as an ‘American icon.’ First of all, I assume that means I’m old or dead. I’m approaching both those things but hopefully haven’t arrived. I know you can’t become an Icon overnight, or even in six lessons. It takes years of either pestering people or greasing a lot of palms.

"I’m sure there are some rights and privileges that go with being an Icon besides being able to go to bed before 9 p.m. I’d like to think that people would listen respectfully when an Icon spoke and see that his glass was kept full. I’d like to think he’d be able to get a good table, at least in a third-rate restaurant. Most of all, I would like to see my cat pay some attention to me and not walk away when I try to pet her. And I certainly hope there are no responsibilities to being an Icon. I’ve got my hands full being mediocre.

"I already feel the weight of the office very heavily, like I should be doing something important, saying profound things or learning to program my VCR. It’s the unknown that plagues an Icon. Who am I? What is the meaning of it all? Why does a chicken cross the road?

"I went around for a week with my lower jaw stuck out, speaking with a Boston accent, assuming the Icon Role. All I got were looks of disgust. I wonder if real Icons can change a light bulb without an entourage. Of course if we knew all those things, we’d be able to figure out Jerry Lewis."

The book is divided into chapters, some chronological, some not. A chapter on "Mort and Dik" rehearses the story of how Browne was discovered to do Hi and Lois, the first of Walker’s other strips. It also includes a generous sampling of Dik Browne anecdotes, including the story of Browne’s encounter with a mugger in New York: "Dik began digging [through his pockets] for money. Up came matches, cigarettes, keys, gum, Tums, candy, notes, a pencil stub, and rubber bands. ‘Oh, forget it!’ the mugger said."

And here’s Browne’s definition of philosophy: "Looking for a black cat in a dark room when there is no cat." And his definition of religion: "When you think you have found the black cat."

It’s clear from this chapter that Walker and Browne had much more than a simple working relationship.

In another chapter, we see scores of ways in which other cartoonists have incorporated pictures of Beetle or references to him into their own cartoons. In a chapter on "Family (and Lots of It," Walker candidly describes the dissolution of his first marriage in quietly regretful but matter-of-fact language. Another chapter retails the history of the founding of the Museum of Cartoon Art (now the International Museum of Cartoon Art in Boca Raton, Florida, where this spring the National Cartoonists Society will convene for the Reubens Weekend).

The book describes the working methods of the Walker enterprise. Walker holds monthly staff meetings to which he and the others bring a quota of idea sketches--say, fifty each. At present, the staff consists of his two oldest sons Greg and Brian, and Jerry Dumas and the afore-mentioned Bill Janocha. They pass the sketches around silently and rate each idea.

"No one is allowed to laugh," Walker writes, "because that might influence the others. No one is allowed to defend an idea of his that has been vetoed. Being funny is serious business. No campaigning."

The ideas that are selected are stored away in an old army footlocker. Every six months, they’re sorted through, and Walker lays them out on the floor of his studio in rows of weeks. Then they go back into the vault until he’s ready to draw.

"We must have 100,000 gags in our attic that we haven’t used," Walker says.

But there’s a healthy harvest of them in this book--in the cartoons, comic strips, greeting cards and special drawings, and in the warm prose. It’s a winning, persuasive, book. So when Walker writes "Be true to your art, and your art will be true to you," you know he’s right. You have the evidence right there in front of you.

For more about the history of Beetle Bailey and Walker’s consummate artistry, take up a copy of my book, The Art of the Funnies; click here for information about this celebrated tome.

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