In the beginning there was Mort.
A natural born boy cartoonist, who started drawing when he was sitting in his highchair. And when he could get loose, drew on the walls.
Addison Morton Walker was born in 1923 and grew up in Kansas City, Mo. He discovered the genre of gag cartoons at an early age and tried outlets aimed at young amateurs, such as Open Road For Boys and Tip Top Comics (which had three pages for young cartoonists in with all its reprinted comic strips). He once told me that the $1 to $5 prizes he got for appearing there convinced him that he was a professional cartoonist. And quite soon he was selling to magazines that didn’t know he was a kid—Inside Detective, Flying Aces, etc. He drew a comic strip for the Kansas City Journal while still in his teens. That it ended prematurely wasn’t his fault. The paper had folded.
Like the hero of a Horatio Alger, Jr. book, Walker was full of pluck and luck. He next got a job with Hallmark in Kansas City and drew greeting cards. By the early forties he was attending the University of Missouri and working on the Showme, the campus humor magazine. Then in 1943, he was drafted into the US Army and sent to Italy and became a 1st Lieutenant. After the War, he returned to college in Missouri and the Showme. Some of his postwar ideas improved the humor magazine and increased the sales by several thousand copies per issue. This resulted in Walker getting a $300 bonus. He took the money and moved to Manhattan to crack the gag cartoon market.
He got off to a slow start, but finally managed to sell a cartoon to The Saturday Evening Post. That was followed by a large quantity of rejections. Within a year, however, he’d sold more gag cartoons to the SEP than any other cartoonist. The Post’s John Baily, the cartoon editor, liked Walker’s stuff, especially some panels he’d done about a Beetle type college boy. A chap who wore his hat lowdown over his eyes and had first appeared in Showme.
After running a few panels about this fellow, Bailey decided he didn’t want a series. Undaunted, Walker who’d been thinking he’d like to do a comic strip, especially since they paid much better than magazine gags, set out to pitch the syndicates. Beetle was going to be his character’s first name, but he needed a catchy last name. One of his cartoonist buddies, Jerry Marcus, suggested that, since John Bailey was sort of the godfather of Beetle, his last name would make a good one and make a nice alliteration. Walker eventually showed samples of Beetle Bailey, a humor strip about college life at Rockville U (which was quite a bit like Missouri University) to King Features comics editor Sylvan Byck. Interested in adding more humor features to the King lineup, Byck felt Walker was just what he was looking for.
The new comic strip came forth on September 4,1950 but barely managed to sign up a dozen client papers across the entire nation. After six months there was not much improvement and the total of newspapers was now twenty five. Then the Korean War saved Beetle’s bacon.
The United States officially entered the Korean War on June 6 of 1950 and US troops began putting their boots on the ground, under the command of WWII hero General Douglas MacArthur. In the early months of 1951, Editor Byck was thinking about putting Beetle out to pasture. But then an editor of a large mid-Western newspaper wrote him and suggested that they put Beetle into the Army. A lot of former college boys and recent college boys were being drafted and it might be a good idea. Byck thought so, too, and when he presented the notion to Walker, so did he.
Thus in March 1951, Beetle left college and enlisted in the United States Army. He’s been there ever since. Stationed at Camp Swampy. The strip began picking up newspapers by the 100s and at its peak had over two thousand around the world and is still doing very well today. Basing the new version of Beetle’s life on his own Army experiences, Walker created a large cast of characters, chief among them Sarge Snorkel, Lt. Fuzz (based on himself), Miss Buxley and Lt. Flap, one of the first black comic strip characters who wasn’t a menial or a bit player.
Sometime around the spring of 1954 Walker’s fancy turned to thoughts of another comic strip to add to his list. “A cartoonist friend had sold a family-type strip to another syndicate. They suggested he get a writer. I asked my editor if I could write for another syndicate and he replied that if I wanted to write a family strip why didn’t I do it for King Features,” Walker recalled. “I jumped at the idea, since I was worried that Beetle might lose readers once the Korean War was over.”
Now came the first nonmember of the Walker Clan to enter the Circle. Richard Arthur Browne, who was the most interesting and colorful character he ever created, was born in New York on August the 11th , 1917. Compared to Mort Walker, Dik Browne got off to a slow start and didn’t work in a newspaper art department until he was almost out of his teens. The newspaper was the New York Journal-American and young Browne’s first art assignments consisted of drawing sketches at trials. After serving stretches at the newspaper and Newsweek and drawing a comic strip based on the works of Sholem Alachem that never sold, Browne entered the Army in 1942. Besides his service duties, he drew a comic strip, Ginny Jeep, for military newspapers.
After the war, he began to look for work. He was something like a modern day Candide then, walking into things, not always quite comprehending what was up and a good part naïve. “I finally, through several friends, was referred to a woman talent hunter and she made a couple of phone calls and said, ‘Try Johnstone and Cushing,” he old Richard Marschall in an interview in the very first issue of Nemo in June, 1983. “So I ran over to Johnstone and Cushing…and Tom Johnstone was playing the piano in the office. Very loudly and every badly. Ragtime….And he said, ‘Can you play the piano?” And I said no, and he told me what I could do with myself.”
Fortunately for the future of Dik Browne and the future of the American comic strip, he was stopped on his way out by Johnstone’s kinder and gentler partner, Jack Cushing. He was asked, “Where are your samples?” And he started to explain that he didn’t have any current ones since he’d been away in the Army. Cushing said that was okay, just be sure to bring some in. This partner showed him around and introduced him to Al Stenzel, the Office Manager. When he got home to the apartment he shared with his wife, Joan, he got a phone call from Stenzel asking him if he could come right back to the office.
They had a rush order for some straight artwork involving lamps, but the fellow who handled that sort of thing had just gone on vacation. They needed a drawing of a large quantity of Love Lamps displayed in a store window. Could Browne do that? At this juncture nobody at Johnstone and Cushing had seen a single example of his work. He told Stenzel that he sure could. He took the assignment materials home and was to bring the artwork back on Monday. He didn’t know anything about Photostatting and so he drew each and every lamp. “I think I counted up over 1000 individual lamps over the weekend, drawing them stacked up in a display window.” The job was accepted when he delivered it early on Monday morning. He was asked if he wanted his money right now. And was given $300. “I darn near dropped dead. That’s a year’s income.”
He was invited to stay and gradually he switched to doing jobs in the bigfoot style, which was easier and a lot more fun. Browne created the Chiquita Banana logo for United Fruit, upgraded the Campbell Twins and took over Roger Wilco a Sunday advertising page touting the PowerHouse candy bar, a gobstuffing mix of toasted almonds, creamy caramel, fudge and milk chocolate. These pages were the first widely circulated samples of his exceptional comic strip talents and he signed most of with a lowercase handwritten browne.
In the spring of 1954, Mort Walker got together with Sylvan Byck to talk over who was going to draw the new strip, to be titled Hi and Lois and starring the couple who had now and then showed up in Beetle Bailey. Lois was Beetle’s sister and he had visited her and her husband Hi Flagston and their four assorted kids in his own strip. Byck was sure that the artist they wanted was the guy who drew a monthly strip, The Tracy Twins, in the Boy’s Life scouting magazine and Walker nominated a cartoonist he much admired who had drawn Roger Wilco. Once they realized they were both nominating the same man, Byck set about hiring him. He was also signing up Stan Drake to draw The Heart of Juliet Jones. Knowing that Drake was working at Johnstone and Cushing, he asked him what he thought of Browne. He simply said something like, “Get him!”
Hi and Lois began as a daily on October 18, 1954. What Walker felt was different about the family strip he had in mind was that the father wasn’t a nitwit and the couple didn’t squabble and they didn’t have excessive money problems and none of their kids were juvenile delinquents. In other words it emphasized the happy side of marriage. Browne agreed and his drawing on the strip is highly detailed and full of life and presents the way a happy middle class life ought to look. Dennis Wepman described the children in this way, “Their rebellious son Chip is at that awkward age that has provided such a vein of rich material to American humor; their eight-year-old twins Dot and Ditto have the combative instincts of all grade school children; and their endearing infant daughter Trixie ties to understand the adult world, but, unable to speak, often resorts to one-sided, thought-balloon conversations with a sunbeam.” The strip was an impressive success and in October of 1956 a Sunday page was added. This was one of the best-colored Sundays on display in the comic sections. Annually Browne always did a page dedicated to autumn foliage and deftly included just about all the shades and gradations of fall. Richard Marschall has said, “For years the traditional Hi and Lois autumn page would feature Browne’s delicate shadings and textured renderings over Walker’s often sentimental themes.” The National Cartoonists Society voted the strip the Best Humor Strip in 1959, 1960 and 1972. And Browne won the NCS’s highest award, the Reuben, in 1962 for Hi and Lois.
One of the things about Browne’s life that changed because of the strip was the addition of golf. Brian Walker has said, “Mort switched from bowling to serious golf in the early days of “Hi and Lois” and Dik joined upon moving up to Connecticut.” One event that quite a few of the local cartoonists took part in was The Connecticut Cartoonist Invitational Golf Tournament, held once a year at the Silvermine Golf Club in Norwalk. The winner was crowned with a custard pie in the face and there were also metal plaques (not delivered pie-fashion) engraved with small cartoons by such participants as Walker, Browne, Curt Swan, John Cullen Murphy, Bud Sagendorf and Ernie Bushmiller. These circled a larger nude drawing of Miss Buxley with tiny golfing cartoonists using her for a golf course. The site of that event has vanished into the past as has the nearby Silvermine Restaurant, another cartoonist hangout.
As hinted at earlier, Browne was a colorful fellow and Richard Marschall says, “The stories about Dik Browne are so many that the books of the world could not hold them….Heywood Broun was described as looking like an unmade bed; Browne has been compared as an unmade bed with Heywood Broun sleeping in it….Browne was dressed in a typical unkempt and absent-minded way one morning and his wife, Joan, said good-bye with0: ‘I hope you get lost; I’d love to describe you to the police!’”
Stan Drake, friend and fellow golfer, said, “Dik Browne stories have become part of the passing parade. Entire golf tournament dinners have been taken over by Dik Browne stories….The night he was held up in an alley and fumblingly produced so much junk from his pockets that the robber walked away cursing… The night he was accosted by a prostitute and thought she was an old friend’s wife… it could go on for hours…and has.” Browne now and then joined the group of cartoonists and writers I sat in on. I was impressed by the way he was always discovering some new fact or idea that most everybody else had already discovered. And how he could discourse and speculate on it.
His magnum opus and greatest success was Hagar the Horrible and that will be dealt with in the next part of this essay. Along with such Walker enterprises as Boner’s Ark, Mrs. Fritsz’s Flats and Gamin and Patches. Plus artists and writers like The Walker Boys, Bob Gustafson and Frank Johnson.
The second non-family member to be added to the Mort Walker Funny Factory was Jerry Dumas. Born in Detroit in 1930, Dumas, like Walker and, had dreams of a cartoon career dancing in his head from an early age. “I know I always wanted to be an artist and a writer,” he told an interviewer, When in high school, he discovered the gag cartoons of Mort Walker in magazines like The Saturday Evening Post, to which Walker was the most frequent seller. He’s said that the Mort Walker style, and the imitating of it, was an important part of his learning and getting closer to being a professional,
He joined the service during the Korean War and was stationed at Luke Air Force base near Phoenix. An account in the Greenwich Time newspaper in 2014, says that it was there at Luke that Dumas “first saw Beetle Bailey, by none other than Mort Walker…At the same time Dumas was now drawing cartoons for the Air Force Times, using much of what he had learned from Walker’s style.” After attending Arizona State, on the GI Bill, and inking Walt Ditzen’s Time Out sports strip on the side, he eventually settled in a Manhattan apartment. He had some success as a gag cartoonist, selling to The Saturday Evening Post and The New Yorker
When Dumas ran into his cartoonist friend Jay Roberge, whom we’ll meet more fully in the next installment, he learned that Roberge was about to start a strip of his own and a replacement for him as Mort Walker’s assistant was going to be needed. This sounds like the plot from a movie, but Dumas tried out and got the job of assisting his longtime idol in 1956. He also worked as an idea man and provided gags for Beetle and Hi and Lois. And the later strips that would come along. Next came their collaboration on one of the most unusual, and funny, comic strips known to man, It was Sam’s Strip, a daily let loose on society in October of 1961. Mort and Jerry wrote it, Jerry drew it and Mort did the lettering. Brian Walker, in his notes on the back cover of the reprint of a sampling of the strip, explained that it was “about a little character who ran his own strip. Sam could do anything; he rented out the front half of the strip one day to an adventure strip that needed more room; watched with ill-concealed resentment when General DeGaulle took a short cut to the editorial page; he ran around with old comic strip characters who had not been seen for years.”
The strip had started as kidding around by the pair, who were both soaked in comic strip lore and gimmicks. King Features was persuaded, reluctantly, to syndicate it. Sam struggled bravely for two years. But, Brian Walker pointed out that Sam, “at his zenith never appeared in more than 60 papers, and it was obvious that it was not destined to reach the heights…Walker and Dumas reluctantly agreed that Sam would have to go.” Which the strip did in 1963 and then, phoenix-like, rose again in 1977 under the alias Sam and Silo. Now Sam and his sidekick were cops in the idyllic New England town of Upper Duckwater and had no idea they were characters in a comic strip. The NEA syndicate had wanted to revive the original strip and contacted Walker. But King decided that they still wanted it. What was not wanted, though, was the screwball approach and the inside jokes. This new version proved acceptable but was much later reduced to a Sunday page only. Dumas, like Browne is fascinated with rural landscapes and autumn leaves and has filled many of these pages with lots of nicely rendered foliage.
Jerry Dumas is also a published author and may well be the only cartoonist to write a book in blank verse. An Afternoon in Waterloo Park, a memoir about his early life triggered by his mother’s death, was published originally in 1972 by Houghton Mifflin and reprinted in 1988 by the press of his alma mater, Wayne State University. The second part of the title is A Narrative Poem and he is listed as Gerard Dumas.
The story has been said to show the influences of Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town. In a lighter mood was his kids’ book, Rabbits Rafferty with drawings by Wallace Tripp, published in hardcover in1968 and later as a trade paperback. The character was afterwards the star of a weekly illustrated column that ran for several years into this century with outstanding art by the versatile Mel Crawford, animator, comic book artist and book illustrator originally from Canada.
In 1984, Dumas wrote a satirical political strip about a Washington, DC government employee and the name of it was Benchley. To draw it the popular MAD cartoonist and caricaturist Mort Drucker was hired. It was not a pleasant experience for him and after having a lot of his copy edited and changed, he bailed out. The strip itself crashed in 1986. The next year, again with Mel Crawford, he wrote McCall of The North. This was in the Sam’s Strip vein and starred the small girl of the title hobnobbing with retired comic strip characters, accompanied by a dapperly dressed pig named Piggins.
Dumas had become interested in handball while a young man in Detroit. He stuck with the sport and in 1956, he became the handball champion of Greenwich. He was the state champion from 1971 to 1976 and managed to also slip in the New England championship in 1971. And he’s still thinking up gags for Beetle.