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Beetle Bailey nears retirement age but stays put
Artist Mort Walker, 86, soldiers on as comic strip hits 60
The indolent wiseguy, whose popularity soared when he enlisted during the Korean War, turns 60 on Saturday.
“I don’t know how I’d be retired,” said Mr. Walker, 86. “I wake up every day with another idea.”
The genial gags by Beetle and the cast of characters — Sarge and his dog, Otto; Gen. Amos Halftrack; Miss Buxley and others — are followed seven days a week by readers in 1,800 newspapers, which is “astronomically huge,” said Brendan Burford, comics editor at King Features, the strip’s syndicating service.
Charles Schulz, who created and worked on the enormously popular “Peanuts” strip for nearly 50 years before his death in 2000, came close to Mr. Walker’s longevity. But “no one has worked on the same strip for 60 years with that kind of consistency,” Mr. Burford said.
“He’s definitely in a pretty seriously elite class,” he said.
King Features has been celebrating Beetle’s anniversary by running Sunday cartoons by Mr. Walker of Beetle re-enacting military events in history, such as celebrating the end of World War II or crossing the Delaware River with George Washington.
“He’s still pretty much lazy,” he said. “I haven’t changed him a tremendous amount because I think that’s his character that I want to keep. He represents the little man in all of us.”
“Beetle is the embodiment of everybody’s resistance to authority, all the rules and regulations which you’ve got to follow,” Mr. Walker said. “He deals with it in his own way. And in a way, it’s sort of what I did when I was in the Army. I just oftentimes did what I wanted to do.”
Beetle Bailey, originally called Spider, made his comic-strip debut as a smart-aleck college student on Sept. 4, 1950, in 12 newspapers, according to King Features. It considered dropping the strip at the end of Mr. Walker’s one-year contract, but when Beetle stumbled into an Army recruiting post in 1951 during the Korean War, the number of newspapers that picked up Beetle climbed.
Andrew Farago, curator of the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco, which is marking Beetle’s anniversary with an exhibit, said Beetle, his pals and their uncomplicated gags have become familiar friends to readers over the years.
“I think people find that really comforting,” he said.
Not everyone. Some feminists have been angry about the caricature of a dumb blond secretary, the curvaceous Miss Buxley, Mr. Walker said.
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