Mort Walker, the man who created, and still works on, Beetle Bailey, is 92 years old. He’s been creating Beetle for sixty-five years this week. Which is amazing in and of itself, but what I wanted to share was the advice he wanted to pass on.
When I first came to New York I didn’t know anyone. I went to a cartoonist meeting and was immediately welcomed by famous Milton Caniff and Rube Golberg. They had seen some of the first issues of Beetle Bailey and liked it very much but had a few suggestions. Milton thought I shouldn’t draw real jeeps or tanks. He thought I should draw cartoon impressions of the weapons the Army used. Rube thought I should get lots of funny pictures instead of the characters sitting around talking. And I should have lots of fight scenes. Most of the strips those day like Krazy Kat, Popeye, Moon Mullins, etc. had fight scenes almost daily. Now I’m getting a few fan letters objecting to Sarge and Beetle fighting and I’m trying to change it to a “sport.”
–Mort Walker, Beetle Bailey
Now this is a pretty cool story in general, and a neat window into comics history (holy shit Milton Caniff and Rube Goldberg wow) but what impressed me about this is the last bit– the bit about how some current-day readers feel that some of the cartoon violence in Beetle Bailey reads as abusive, and so Mort is trying to work to change the tone of the way it is depicted into more deliberate play-roughhousing than bullying.
Mort also talked to me once before (not in an interview) about how he changed the way Miss Buxley, the secretary, was treated in the strip, as he became more aware of the way women felt about workplace sexism.
I’m not gonna say Mort always gets it right, but I think it’s really important to look at a 92-year-old man who hears from readers that an aspect of his strip– even something he’s been doing for decades and decades– is objectionable by today’s standards and doesn’t just tell them to accept that that’s how it’s always been, but tries to adapt to to address their concerns while still fitting what he feels is the spirit of his comic. I think that’s pretty cool,and if he can make that attempt at 92, with 65 years in the business, everybody should be able to.
Beetle Bailey, originally published February 12, 1959