Mort Walker remembered

One of my favorite duties during my 25 years as editor of The Capital Times wasn't making weighty news decisions or deciding what investigation to pursue or the positions the paper would take, but picking which comics would appear on our pages.

It's true and, frankly, it wasn't as simple as it may sound. Like most daily print papers, we had room for about 18 out of the roughly 50 nationally syndicated columns available. All but two ran in dedicated space in the old features section. Dilbert ran on the business page and Doonesbury in the editorial section.

Sales representatives for the syndicates would stop by regularly to pitch a new "sure-fire" comic they had commissioned and they often demanded a quick decision because they were "sure" if I didn't buy it, the State Journal would. Although I made a few good choices over the years, my biggest boner was to drag my feet on Calvin and Hobbes, which the State Journal did indeed buy. It only became the most popular comic strip in America before the artist called it quits.

At one point I had to enlist the help of Attorney General Bronson La Follette to threaten the Milwaukee Journal with an antitrust suit because it claimed to have the rights to Doonesbury for the entire state, informing the syndicate that it couldn't sell Gary Trudeau's popular and often controversial comic to The Capital Times. The Journal eventually gave in.

One of the downsides of selecting a new unproven comic was that one of the existing ones would have to be dropped to make space. This always resulted in hand wringing and once the decision was made, a handful of angry readers who had, naturally, decided it had been their favorite strip.

The one comic I never thought twice about was Beetle Bailey, which Cap Times editors before me had purchased shortly after it was introduced in 1954. It wasn't an intellectual strip like Doonesbury was, but slapstick comedy to which anyone who had served in the military could relate. Every few years we'd invite readers to rate the comics and Beetle always ranked near the top. It wasn't an accident that at its height, the comic appeared in 1,800 newspapers around the world.

I recalled all this when I read the sad news a few days ago that Mort Walker, Beetle's creator and the de facto dean of the comic creators' world, died at the age of 94.

He based his Beetle, who for more than 60 years never rose above the rank of private and never left Camp Swampy, on his own Army experience. He had a real sergeant who resembled "Sgt. Snorkle" and had run into a general whom he characterized as the absent-minded and bumbling "Gen. Halftrack."

But Beetle wasn't without controversy as America's culture evolved. He had invented a particularly busty character he named "Miss Buxley," who served as the general's civilian secretary. Soon many women complained that Walker's portrayal of Miss Buxley was sexist and demeaning. Many editors, including me, sent our and our readers' concerns to the syndicate, King Features.

Walker's answer? He removed Miss Buxley from the strip — except on Wednesdays, where she continued to be part of the gag, only tamed down a bit. I've noticed in recent strips that she's aged quite a bit.

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In a lengthy obit, the New York Times recounted the career of the cartoonist, who was hailed as one of the pioneers of the modern comic. It added that his two sons would continue drawing and writing it in an effort to keep it going for the next generation of military vets.

The paper added that when the Defense Department congratulated Walker on his 80th birthday, he said: "Human frailty is what humor is all about. People like to see the foibles of mankind. And they relate to the little guy, the one on the bottom."

Beetle's mantra was avoiding work at all costs, so he was always on that bottom rung in the Army — a private. He delighted readers and old editors for decades and, hopefully, will continue doing so even if Mort Walker is now gone. After we stopped our print paper 10 years ago, the Wisconsin State Journal picked it up. You can still read Beetle there, every day.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. dzweifel@madison.com and on Twitter @DaveZweifel. Zweifel is the co-author, along with John Nichols, of the new book "The Capital Times: A Proudly Radical Newspaper's Century Long Fight for Justice and Peace," published by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press. It's available on the Historical Society website, and at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

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Dave is editor emeritus of The Capital Times.