Growing up in Kansas, Walker’s mother was the staff illustrator at the Kansas City Star, sometimes illustrating her husband’s poetry for the paper. That influence may be why Mort decided by age 3 that he wanted to be a newspaper cartoonist. His first comic was published when he was 11. By 12, he made his first comic sale: $5, and he was hooked — he dropped out of the fifth grade. But he went back to school to learn writing, “because writing is [critical] to cartooning.” By 14 he was regularly selling comics to magazines, and by 15 he had a regular strip in a weekly newspaper in Kansas City. At 18, Walker talked himself into a job at a greeting card company, Hall Brothers, as the chief editorial designer; he guided the company in a major transition. “Their greeting cards weren’t funny; they were pretty and had flowers and nice scenes and cute cuddly bears. I helped change the industry” by creating cards featuring amusing gag cartoons, which really pushed things forward: a few years later, the much-more-successful company changed its name, to Hallmark Cards. Walker then went to the University of Missouri, but his education was interrupted by World War II, where he served as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Army Air Corps, a stint Walker later described as “almost four years of free research.” For example, when the war ended, Lt. Walker was ordered to help oversee the destruction of war goods in Naples, Italy. He later said his task was to ensure none of the goods — like binoculars and watches — were stolen before they could be destroyed, and “I began to realize that army humor writes itself.”
Once discharged, Walker returned to school, got his degree in arts and sciences, and started a panel cartoon about a lazy college student for the Saturday Evening Post. In 1950 he expanded that to a multi-panel strip, but that strip struggled, even though it was bought by King Features’ top boss: William Randolph Hearst. In 1953, with the Korean War gearing up, Walker had his lazy student join the Army. The Army didn’t like the strip: Beetle Bailey was about a lazy soldier who didn’t respect officers, and it was banned from the military newspaper, Stars and Stripes, for a decade. That story was so delicious that King Features ensured it got huge publicity, which assured the strip’s success. The military paper banned Beetle again in 1970, when Walker dared to introduce a new recurring black character — as an officer, no less! But Lt. Flap proved to be very popular, and the second ban boosted circulation again; even as late as 2013, the strip was syndicated to 1,800 newspapers in 52 countries. Walker drew the strip for 68 years, making it the longest ever any comic strip was drawn by its original creator. That would be enough for any career, but in 1954 Walker introduced Beetle’s sister, Lois — and Hi and Lois debuted as a separate strip, written by Walker and illustrated by Dik Browne (who later went on to create his own popular strip, Hägar the Horrible). With the two strips, Walker is credited with shifting daily comics from serial adventures to stand-alone gags, just as he had done at Hallmark. Walker also experimented with at least eight other strips, but none succeeded as well as those two. By 1990, even the Pentagon came around, awarding Walker a Certificate of Appreciation for Patriotic Civilian Service. “As hard as it is to find anything at the Pentagon,” Walker said at the time, “they finally found a sense of humor.” Beetle Bailey “gives expression to our resentment by ridiculing traditional authority figures and by demonstrating, with Beetle, how to survive through the diligent application of sheer lethargy and studied indifference,” says comics historian R.C. Harvey. With Walker’s death — on January 27, from pneumonia, at 94 — Beetle Bailey will continue to be drawn by Walker’s sons, Brian and Greg. Hi and Lois is still being written by Brian and Greg, and illustrated by the late Dik Browne’s son, Robert. Both strips are still being aided by Mort Walker’s writing: he claimed before his death that he had 80,000 unused gags in storage.