Monday, June 14, 2010
Is there much more reliable in our lives than Beetle Bailey? The venerable comic strip is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, a fixture of the funny pages for most of our lives. What's comforting about Beetle Bailey is the endless repetition of running gags performed by the wacky cast of characters based in the Army's mythical Camp Swampy. Some may try to ascribe higher meaning to this...a metaphor perhaps for the dullness of military life or even the sameness of life in general. I think it's more that these are jokes that have always elicited a chuckle, and it ain't broke, keep drawing. Even after 60 years, there's still comedy to mined in new twists or nuances on old gags -
The guiding hand of strip creator Mort Walker is also what makes 'Bailey' special. Though he now relies on a team of five to create Bailey gags and art, Walker is right in there at 87 with writing and drawing and having final say on whatever his collaborators, which include his sons Greg, Neal and Brian, produce. There's a great sampling of strips on BeetleBailey.com. Readers can vote for their favorite to be reprinted in the two weeks surrounding Beetle's anniversary. The strip will also be honored next month with its own postage stamp. The 'Sunday Funnies' stamps will honor five comic strips. The dedication ceremony will take place on July 16 at Ohio State, and guests include Walker, Garfield's Jim Davis and museum curator Lucy Shelton Caswell. More details on the dedication can be found here. While at Ohio State, Walker will no doubt visit the Billy Ireland Cartoon Research Library and Museum, and with good reason.
Few have done more for the preservation of comic strips than Mort Walker. Believing in the medium as an art form equal to others, he founded the Museum of Cartoon Art in 1974, later adding "International" to the front of the name. The museum had several lives, starting in Connecticut and ultimately locating in Florida, where lack of funds forced closure in 2002. The collection has since merged with the Cartoon Research Library's collection, prompting them to add "and Museum" to the title. The recognition and preservation of Walker's own work is currently on display at a different museum, the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco.
There are several 'Beetle Bailey' books out there. The strip was well-represented in the comic strip reprint paperback heyday of the '60s and '70s, with over 100 titles to its credit. Currently, there is a book reprinting the earliest years of the strip, 1950-52. This is from Checker Book Publishing, the same folks who bring us the 'Steve Canyon' reprints, albeit infrequently. I'm not sure if they were planning further volumes, but Titan Books is skipping ahead and reprinting all of the 1965 strips in a book due in October. There's no special 60th anniversary book, but the 50th anniversary book can still be found around, though avoid this guy who wants $185! What you shouldn't avoid, but rather seek out, is the Mort Walker interview in the Comics Journal from last year. Interesting stuff for Bailey fans and fans of comics history in general, conducted by Caniff biographer R.C. Harvey.
At the top is the Sunday strip from May 29, 1966. The Cincinnati Enquirer gave 'Beetle Bailey' a full half page, a testament to its popularity. It's ironic that a strip ideal for the way comics would shrink in the '60s and '70s, with its simple figures and backgrounds, was given so much space. How much space? 13" x 9.5"...almost a full square foot! Contrast that with today's 10 1/8" x 3 3/8", less than a quarter of a square foot. It's the same issue I talked about last year with Blondie. I'm just glad it hasn't gotten any worse.