Beetle Bailey: 1965 Daily and Sunday Strips (Titan Books)

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The troops may still be telling the same old jokes to this day, but this collection of the classic "humor in uniform" strip shows Mort Walker's charming side.

 

224 pgs. B&W; $19.95
(W / A: Mort Walker)
 
There are more people who disagree with you than you think. No matter what your opinion on any issue, there will be tens of thousands of people who believe the opposite. It's easy to forget about them because they're usually silent, but every so often they will be energized enough to go on TV, march on Washington or send letters to the editor in droves stating their opinion. Sometimes our political, media, or social climate (or a search through internet forums) makes their numbers clear, and you can be astounded by how many people think or believe something you can't comprehend. Thus is the world of newspaper comics. The funny papers are a place where moving Dilbert four inches lower on a page can lead to weeks of complaints. Never is the questionable taste in comics of our fellow citizens on clearer display than when a newspaper pulls a comic strip.
 
Thousands of people love Beetle Bailey. As proof, consider this: a contest in 2002 to name a new character drew more than 80 thousand entries, and that's just from people who felt like entering. Now, think about how many people in your hometown voted in the last election. Like the U.S. Military in which Beetle serves, you can find the strip in dozens of countries. It's an invading force that pervades papers internationally, and its prevalence and popularity can be astounding.
 
This collection of Mort Walker's flagship strip (he also created Hi and Lois and something intriguingly titled Boner's Ark) gives new insight into Beetle Bailey's success. The strip gained popularity in its first year (1951, though it debuted in autumn 1950), when Beetle—then called Spider—enlisted in the armed services. Since then, Beetle, Killer, General Halftrack, Sergeant Snorkle, and the reading public have been engaged in a military action that's lasted longer than Afghanistan, Vietnam and M*A*S*H combined.
 
While the humor in uniform theme helped the strip take off during the Korean War, it's astounding that the concept lasted so long. This collection covers 1965, fourteen years after the inspiration should have dried up. But at their best, the strips seem fairly subversive by mainstream standards of the time. The troops ogle pinups, take raucous road trips and hurl insults at each other. There's a degree of edginess that undoubtedly appealed to a wide audience. Unfortunately, Beetle did not keep up with military technology or humor. The jokes have not evolved much. These strips play almost like today's new editions of Beetle Bailey. It's odd that more hasn't changed, given the occasional battering the military's reputation has taken since Vietnam. Beetle still wears the same uniform Mort Walker did in his military days (he was discharged in 1947), and the troops still tell the same jokes.
 
That's charming, in a way. These old strips make the new ones look retro, and even fun. The art is great in that mid-century way. I've always liked the way Walker uses simple shapes to render people, the way he illustrates tucked-in shirts makes the characters look oddly pudgy, and it's a nice touch. Walker is also a master of illustrating sexy things in a non suggestive way. Certain female's breasts are clearly drawn to be large and attractive to the other characters, but it's not like the women the troops hit on are destroying readers' innocence...though you may remember Marge Simpson cutting Beetle Bailey out of the newspaper because she didn't like Home ogling Ms. Buxley.
 
The fact that Ms. Buxley could be fodder for a Simpsons gag is perhaps another testament to Beetle Bailey's pervasiveness. It's everywhere. It's part of the zeitgeist, and this book shows that it didn't get there for nothing.
 
But there's more. This isn't like Peanuts (or B.C., to a degree). You won't pick up this book and find unexpectedly dark or subversive strips. This, perhaps, is an example of how life can influence art. By all accounts, Mort Walker was a happy man. He was something of a child star in the Midwestern comics scene, selling art when he was a teenager. He made it to Lieutenant in the Army, and the photos in the introduction of this book—as a kid at the drawing table and as a draftee in uniform—show Walker smiling, beaming even. Walker was a talented man who built a successful empire that he still runs, overseeing the production of Beetle Bailey and Hi and Lois. He worked hard and earned what he deserved. His sons make the comics now. It's a great American tale of success.
 
Peanuts creator Charles Schulz, however, does not beam. His biography mirrors Walker's in several regards, but Schulz's sadness (a near-eternal sadness, if David Michaelis's biography is accurate) drove Peanuts. Charlie Brown painting a black blob in art class is darker than Beetle Bailey (even at its most lascivious) is naughty. Depression helped drive Peanuts to the artistic highs it achieved while Beetle Bailey was invading (figuratively, because the troops never saw action) foreign papers. Both strips are popular, but Peanuts is genius. It's hard to consider that and not think artists must suffer to be truly great.
 
But not everyone can be a genius. So while the content is a little too familiar at times, and while the lack of poignancy over six decades in a strip about the military is surprising, Beetle Bailey isn't bad. So stop griping about the comics page. You're in the minority anyway. | Gabe Bullard
 
Catch up on current Beetle Bailey strips at http://www.kingfeatures.com/features/comics/bbailey/about.htm.
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