Answer Man

Answer Man: Mort, Beetle, Lois have kept it all in the family

Q. I know that Lois Flagston of Hi and Lois in the comic strips is Beetle Bailey’s sister. In the comics, their characters’ noses all seem to be the same. How did that come to be? Are the writers and artists related?

— T.B.

A. My compliments on your keen artistic eye, but there’s a simple explanation for the funny business you see going on in these two strips: Both were created by the same man, Mort Walker, so it’s no surprise the characters may look alike.

But here’s something you might find even more comical: After 65 years, not only does the fictional family relationship continue between Beetle and Lois, but there also has been a real partial passing of the guard in the production of the strips. Although Mort, now 91, still oversees the daily work at his Connecticut laugh factory, his son Greg now gets equal billing on the Bailey strip, and five of his and his wife’s other eight children lend a hand in the family enterprise as well.

Robert “Chance” Brown has taken over Hi and Lois from his father, Dik, who drew the strip for the first 35 years before he died in 1989. So just as Dean Young kept Dagwood’s weird hair when he inherited Blondie after his father, Chic’s, death in 1979, Beetle Bailey and Hi and Lois have been taken over by a second generation without skipping a beat.

It must be quite a satisfying feeling for a man who says he had his first 200 cartoons rejected when he was trying to establish himself. But unlike his famous fictional Army private who has labored hard to dodge work for decades, Walker has let nothing stand in his way in going after what he knew he wanted to do since childhood.

Born in 1923 in El Dorado, Kan., Addison Morton Walker had his first comic published at 11 and, by the time he was 14, was regularly selling gag cartoons to Child Life, Inside Detective and Flying Aces. By 18, he had become chief editorial designer at Hall Bros. and helped usher in a light, playful style for the company’s line of Hallmark Cards.

His career plans, however, were interrupted in 1943, when he was drafted into the Army and served in Italy as both an intelligence officer and leader of a camp for German POWs. Finally, after graduating from the University of Missouri at Columbia in 1948, he moved to New York to pursue his dream in earnest.

At first, however, it seemed more like a nightmare. As publishers rejected dozens of his ideas, he had to work as an editor of three Dell Publishing magazines just to make ends meet. But editors finally began to see his talent and, in two years, he was the top-selling magazine cartoonist, he says.

His big break came Sept. 4, 1950, when King Features began syndicating Beetle Bailey. It was patterned after Spider, a series of single-panel cartoons Walker had done for The Saturday Evening Post about a lazy college student more into hitting the parties than hitting the books. So, drawn on Walker’s memories of life in his Mizzou fraternity, Beetle became an equally shiftless student at Rockview University.

Just six months later, Walker saw the strip gain popularity when, just in time for the Korean War, Beetle stumbled into an Army recruiting post. So, on March 13, 1951, Beetle quit school and enlisted in the Army, where he has been giving Sgt. Snorkel, Brig. Gen. Halftrack and the rest of the brass nothing but grief for 64 years.

Ironically, Walker says, it was two military protests against the strip that boosted its popularity even more. In 1954, the Tokyo edition of Stars and Stripes dropped the comic because the paper thought the strip encouraged lack of respect for officers. In response, the U.S. press blasted the decision and at least 100 more papers signed on.

In 1970, when Lt. Jack Flap became the first black character in a major all-white strip, Stars and Stripes — along with a few Southern newspapers — dropped it, but, again, more than 100 new papers joined up. Now, even after more protests over the portrayal of Miss Buxley, etc., the strip runs in about 1,800 papers in 50 countries with a combined readership of more than 200 million.

But Walker wasn’t satisfied having just one major strip. While on furlough in October 1954, Beetle went home to visit his sister, Lois, and brother-in-law, Hi Flagston, which launched the successful Hi and Lois for Walker and his illustrator, Dik Browne. (Browne, by the way, is equally well-known for creating Hagar the Horrible in 1973, which he would pass on to another of his sons, Chris.)

And that’s not all. Using the pseudonym Addison, Walker set sail on the comics pages in 1968 with Boner’s Ark, an amusing update on the biblical tale of Noah that ran until the ark hit dry land on May 27, 2000. In addition, Walker also dreamed up such lesser-known strips as Gamin & Patches, Mrs. Fitz’s Flats, The Evermores, Sam’s Strip and Sam and Silo.

In his spare time, he has written several books on the art and history of comics as well as children’s books. In 1963, a Beetle Bailey TV cartoon series was created with comic Howard Morris voicing the hapless private and Allen Melvin as the Sarge.

To pay homage to his profession, Walker founded the Museum of Cartoon Art, although it was forced to close in 2002 and its collection given to Ohio State University in 2008. He also has donated much of his personal work to my alma mater, the University of Missouri, which unveiled a bronze statue of Beetle in 1992. It can be found near the Alumni Center. (See a picture at muarchives.missouri.edu/beetle-two.html)

He has won countless awards both from fellow cartoonists and the military, including the U.S. Army Certificate of Appreciation for Patriotic Civilian Service. And, he claims, he still has thousands of unused gags in his vault.

So despite all those family ties, it’s probably a good thing Pvt. Bailey didn’t inherit any of Walker’s work ethic genes or else this world would be a less funny place.

Today’s trivia

In what Academy-Award-winning movie did Oscar-winning actor Richard Dreyfuss make his big screen debut with an appearance that lasted all of one line?

Answer to Saturday’s trivia: When Warner Brothers asked Leslie Howard to play Alan Squier in the 1936 classic “The Petrified Forest,” Howard agreed on one condition: Warner would have to sign the still largely unknown Humphrey Bogart to play the gangster, Dick Mantee. Even though the studio wanted the veteran Edward G. Robinson, Howard was adamant, Warner gave in and the rest is history. Bogie apparently never forgot Howard’s stubbornness. When Lauren Bacall gave birth to the couple’s daughter on Aug. 23, 1952, they named their daughter Leslie Howard Bogart. They reportedly named their first child Stephen after Bogart’s character in “To Have and Have Not” — Harry “Steve” Morgan.

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