Beetle Bailey mustered into the army 60 years ago this month. He's still a private, still taking guff from Sarge, and his creator Mort Walker says neither he nor Beetle is likely to fade into retirement anytime soon.
Walker, who turned 88 a few days ago, has been drawing the perpetual private since he was a young married man earning $8,000 per year working as a magazine editor in New York City. He sold cartoons on the side to make a few extra bucks. Beetle was his big break. Walker's own experience in the military came during World War II, when he was drafted and served in Europe. He was released from active duty as a first lieutenant in 1947.
The comic strip is syndicated in more than 1,800 newspapers, and continues to be one of the most popular strips worldwide. Walker creates Beetle Bailey daily in his Connecticut studio. The business is a family corporation, he says. "I divide my income among my seven children -- even if they don't do anything, they get something, I thought, I'm paying such high taxes when I do the strip by myself, I might as well let them in on it -- cut down on the amount of taxes I pay."
Inspiration comes from monthly meetings, where four members of the team come up with gags, each participant presenting 30 jokes. "We're very selective about it. We discuss them, then vote on them. Then I take over. I rewrite some of them as I work on them. I try to make them as good as I can," Walker says.
Besides working on Beetle, Walker is deeply involved in turning his 250,000-image cartoon museum over to Ohio State University, where he hopes it will get lots of viewers. "Cartoons are the most popular art in the world," he says. "More people see Mickey Mouse, Popeye and Beetle Bailey than will ever see the Mona Lisa."
The dream of a cartoon museum has frustrated Walker for more than 35 years. He says he's spent millions on the project, including an ill-fated 15-year run in Palm Beach, Fla., that ended badly. "It nearly wiped us out," Walker says.
Now his collection will be a key part of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum at OSU. "I'm kind of glad to get that responsibility off my back, but it was sad seeing it taken away from me that way," Walker says.
But Walker isn't wasting any time getting on with other projects. He recently started a new magazine in his Connecticut town -- one of his sons is running it. He just published a humor book, "The Tallest Man in History," and he's thinking about another one to be titled, "I've Got an Idea -- Oh, God, Not Another Idea."
He's not giving any thought to retirement planning. "I'd have a tough time retiring," Walker says." I couldn't sit still. I go to the beach and I sit there for about two minutes and then I'm up doing something. If I retired. I'd drive my wife crazy."