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Article List >

World's Most Sold Comic! Timtim Visits Mort Walker

January 11, 2010, 00:42:51
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Just after Thanksgiving 2009, timtim member Graham, his dad Robert, and I watched as Mort Walker focused his thoughts, took pencil and paper, and began to draw. It was a pleasure to the eye and amazing to see his power of concentration. A minute later he’d brought Beetle Bailey to life, using no more than 15 touches of pencil to paper. Beetle is a lazy soldier that conquered the world with 60 years of army comics. Mort inscribed the sketch and turned to us with a smile saying “The story is more important than the drawing. I spend most of my time trying to come up with ideas!” And not just a few ideas – over 20,000 have been published since Beetle Bailey first started. Today, in its 60th year, Beetle Bailey is the most widely read strip globally, appearing in 1500 newspapers in 52 countries and read by over 200 million people every day.

   - CLICK HERE TO SEE TODAY'S TIMTIM COMIC CARTOON -

We had driven up a tree-lined street in a wooded area in the back-country of Stamford, CT to the historic studio built and used by Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor who did Mt. Rushmore. The studio is constructed of local granite with the Walker’s house attached behind. Mort Walker met us at the studio door and guided us through the large 2-story interior filled with Beetle Bailey Memorabilia. There’s even a small section devoted to the US armed forces. Mort, a friendly midwesterner with a gleam in his eye, took us past a large, stone fire place, a sofa setting, and a circular stairway that goes up to a 2nd interior level where his sons run the family company. Comicana is Mort Walker's family corporation. With his 7 children and staff, it controls 9 comic strips, hundreds of books and comic books and licensing agreements for merchandise. Mort, sons Greg and Brian, and author Jerry Dumas do the writing. To keep up quality they only use a quarter of the ideas made and keep thousands of unused ideas on hand. Mort does the pencil work and Greg the inking. Another son, Neal produces all the artwork for foreign publications. Bill Janocha is the office assistant. It’s a busy studio with Mort's wife Cathy acting as hostess. As Mort puts it, “It's like driving 2 tons of canaries in a 1 ton truck. You've got to keep half of them in the air at all times.”

 

Mort Walker, now 86, drew his first comic strip in the Kansas City Journal during the Depression as a 13-year old boy. He later worked at Hallmark in Kansas City, where he was responsible for doing the Disney cards and all the humor cards. He left Hallmark and after graduating from college moved to New York City to try to make it on his own as a cartoonist. After becoming the top selling magazine cartoonist he tried doing a strip that became Beetle Bailey. It was immediately picked up by King Features.

 

We entered Mort’s office in a corner of the main studio. It is a cozy setting with a large picture window looking out on the woods. Behind Mort’s crowded drawing table we saw a computer. Across from this was a comfy sofa against a wall filled with Beetle Bailey book covers from all over the world. Dozens of original, signed artwork from famous cartoon artists such as Charles Schulz, Dik Browne, and Walt Disney covered the other walls.

 

Robert and I settled on the sofa while Graham, paced around in amazement and got right into it with Mort, asking questions in rapid fire. At one point they had an intense debate about how old Walt Disney was when he died. Graham has been studying Disney’s career. Mort told of his long friendship with Walt Disney (also from Missouri) and that Disney had offered Walker a job as an animator with Disney Studios back in the early 40’s. But Mort had other plans. He turned down the offer to go his own way, but their friendship continued. Walt’s nephew, Roy Disney, who died recently, was one of Mort’s friends.

 

I was anxious to know what Mort thought about the comics business today with shrinking newspaper circulation and all the new media. “I don’t know what I would do if I were starting out again today,” he admitted. “But remember, I started off in the Great Depression. Tough times come and go. New Media, changing tastes, different audiences - you have to adapt. Guys like Charles Schulz and I had to struggle and find our way. Look at the early Peanuts strips or the way Beetle looked back in the beginning. They changed and the ideas changed too.” Beetle Bailey started as a college comic, but when the Korean War came along he had to put him into the army. Mort and other cartoonists would meet and discuss their work. He recalled that when Peanuts was just beginning Mort suggested to Schulz that he allow the dog Snoopy to “think”. Schulz liked this idea right away. In no time, Snoopy was flying his dog house with helmet and scarf in search of The Red Baron and Peanuts became one of the world’s most read comic strips.

 

“Good drawing skills will always be needed, no matter what the media.” Mort explained, “And being able to make people laugh and forget their troubles for just a few minutes each day is something we all need – no matter what age!” When asked what it is like to be a famous cartoonist, Mort laughed and said, “I go down to the local supermarket and nobody knows who I am! Beetle is the one who’s famous, and I kind of like it that way. If I’m asked by a stranger what I do for a living and tell them I’m a cartoonist, they ask if I can make a living doing that!”

 

Mort Walker is passionate about comics and cartoons. In 1969 he challenged the court system in the US and won a case declaring that cartoons and comics are officially an art form. In 1974 he started The International Museum of Cartoon Art, using his name and much of his own money to keep it going. Walker started preserving cartoon artwork in the 1950s, when he found out that King Features Syndicate was using original comic artwork as rugs on the floor. The museum changed names and locations several times ending in Boca Raton, Florida.

 

In 2008 the collection was moved in with the Lucy Caswell Cartoon Library & Museum in Columbus, Ohio. “We had so many problems.” Mort told us “ Widows and 2nd generation family of cartoonists were constantly suing us to get back artwork that was given to me or others who contributed to the museum. We were going to relocate in the Empire State Building, but they cancelled our deal and kept our $180,000 deposit - so we called it quits.”

 

For 60 years the world has laughed at Mort’s goofy soldier, Beetle Bailey. Together with Snoopy, Hagar, Dennis The Menace, Calvin & Hobbs, and many others they have given the world a new visual language – the Language of Cartoon Art. Text bubble shapes and line-work, swish-lines, sweat-beads, thunderbolts, puff-clouds, explosion-lines, animated text, and dozens of other visual inventions by comic artists, form an international language of symbols understood by all and used in every modern media today.

 

In 1980 Mort Walker published his own version of this language, The Lexicon of Comicana, packed with funny new words like Plewds, Grawlixes, Agitrons, and Squeans to describe these visual inventions. “No matter where technology and media take us,” says Mort, “this visual language and the ability to draw and use it will be even more important as visual communication speeds up.”

 

A month later, Graham and I met again during Christmas holidays in Copenhagen where Timtim is based. Graham wants to be a cartoonist and his dad brings him by when they are in town for some drawing fun. With stacks of paper, pencils in hand, and inspired by our visit with Mort Walker, we begin to draw – not to conquer the world, but because we love the art!

Link to Mort Walker.com

Link to Lexicon of Comicana in Amazon.com store

Link to iUniverse.com for Mort Walker books 

Link to Mort’s timtim profile

©2010:timtim.com

 

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