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Cartoonist Mort Walker died last week at the age of 94, and Beetle Bailey, his most famous creation, has in all likelihood run in newspapers for longer than you’ve been alive. If you think of it at all, it’s probably as a bland, inoffensive legacy newspaper strip, like Hi and Lois (another Walker co-creation), but in the Army. You probably don’t think of it as anything that would make anybody angry.
You’d be wrong, though. The first institution that soured on the strip was the U.S. military itself, which banned the strip from Stars and Stripes, the armed forces’ in-house newspaper, in 1954. The reasons are obvious: Beetle is a slacker, his commanding officers incompetents or brutes, and the military he serves a bureaucratic mess. To find the origins of this attitude, look no further than Walker’s own surreal World War II service in Italy, where he guarded confiscated enemy watches and binoculars to make sure nobody stole them before they could be destroyed, and oversaw a P.O.W. camp where the Germans escaped at night and returned during the day, Hogan’s Heroes in reverse. “I’ve always thought that I would like [Beetle Bailey] to be a representative of somebody who’s caught in the system that they have to resist in order to exist,” he told the Comics Journal in 2009.
This has been the inevitable part of an obituary where I try to convince you that the deceased was more complex than you ever imagined. But despite all that, Beetle Bailey isn’t particularly subversive, and while Walker may have been a contemporary of Joseph Heller, Beetle Bailey is no Catch-22. Beetle, originally the star of a campus humor strip, joined the Army only because he ducked into a recruiting office in an attempt to avoid running into the women he was two-timing. It was 1951, but Beetle wasn’t sent to Korea, just as he hasn’t seen action in any of the other wars the U.S. military has fought since; instead, he’s remained at home in a perpetually shambolic peacetime army.
“Being controversial has never appealed to me,” Walker wrote in Backstage at the Strips. By the Nineties, much of the strip’s humor would be indistinguishable from office-based strips, and Walker admitted to taking inspiration from Dilbert, another strip that throws punches at people in power without trying to examine how power structures work. Beetle Bailey may be anti-authority, but its message is less “fight back against the man” than the classic American “get a load of these idiots, they’ve got a lot of nerve telling me what to do.”
One of the things the idiots who were actually in charge of Walker tried to make him do was keep even the barest hint of sex out of Beetle Bailey. In a 1984 interview with the Atlantic, Walker told Cullen Murphy (himself a writer for Prince Valiant — comics are a small and interconnected business) about his ongoing battles with newspapers over the depiction of belly buttons, male and female, which were routinely excised with a razor blade. Behind the scenes, he drew much more racy Beetle Bailey strips, featuring full-on nudity — which ended up being sent to Sweden, where they found a more receptive audience. (Scandinavia, where most countries until recently had compulsory universal military service but haven’t fought a war in decades, is perhaps understandably receptive to Beetle Bailey‘s charms.)
Walker told Murphy that people complained about the violence, too — a classic Beetle Bailey “joke” involves Sarge pounding Beetle into a puddle of goo for some minor transgression. But much of the pushback went beyond mere prudery or squeamishness to focus on a particular pairing in the strip: General Halftrack, Camp Swampy’s doddering commanding officer, and his chesty, miniskirt-wearing civilian secretary, Miss Buxley. (All the names in Beetle Bailey, from the music-loving Rocky to the tech specialist Chip Gizmo, are extremely on the nose.) The central joke here is that Halftrack lusts after Buxley, mostly keeping it to himself, though strips where he would, say, have her get files out of the bottom drawer so he could watch her bend over were certainly par for the course. Buxley was introduced in 1971, and by the Eighties public criticism had largely shifted from her depiction being too sexy to its being too sexist. Walker insisted that the joke was on Halftrack for being a dirty old man, not on Buxley for, as he put it to Murphy, “wear[ing] these little dresses because she feels good in them.” But watching a young woman being treated as a sex object by her boss once a week, every week, was too much for some people, who campaigned to get the strip pulled from papers.
In the Eighties, Walker leaned in to the controversy in a way that will be familiar to anyone who’s watched a less-than-woke comedy pro caught up in the modern outrage cycle. He briefly introduced Rolf, a sexy tennis pro that the strip’s women openly lusted after, presumably to show that “both sides do it” when it comes to being horny. He cashed in with a book called Miss Buxley: Sexism in Beetle Bailey? that featured the most controversial published strips. He even (in a sequence described in his Comics Journal obit but sadly not to be found anywhere on YouTube) appeared on an episode of The Phil Donahue Show, where, in classic Phil Donahue Show style, he was ambushed on set by an angry feminist.
But a funny thing happened over the next decade or so: The General got enlightened. Even in the midst of the pushback, that 1984 Atlantic interview was part of a campaign to rub some of the edges off the controversy: Miss Buxley, who had to that point been depicted as a clueless airhead, was going to become a more competent secretary, and show less cleavage to boot. But the big news came in 1997, when Halftrack was sent by the Army to sensitivity training and apologized for his behavior to Miss Buxley and her flat-chested co-worker, Private Blips. And when I say big news, I mean it literally, with reports appearing everywhere from the New York Daily News to CNN. The Quad-City Times even reported breathlessly that it got the strips faxed over in advance. After apologizing, the General declared that “I’ve decided to no longer view any woman as a sex object, just as a friend,” and when congratulated on his change in attitude, he added, “Well, my wife isn’t totally thrilled.” (This checks out, as the Halftracks’ mutual loathing is now accepted strip canon.)
At the time, Walker was upfront about his motivation. “I read about the military rape cases,” he told the Daily News. “They sickened me. And I decided these jokes didn’t belong in the strip any more.… I was looking recently at turn-of-the-century comics, and all the humor was ethnic Irish, German, Italian, Jewish with everyone speaking in dialect. That was funny then. You could never do it today. Nor, I think, should you.”
In retrospect, the decision might’ve been more of a collective one. Walker’s New York Times obituary quotes his son Greg saying that the storyline arose from the syndicate’s pressure to retire Halftrack altogether. Rather than jettison a character who was integral to the strip’s rhythms, Walker changed course and mined the course change for laughs: “That became a whole theme that we could use,” said Greg. The “we” there is important, because, for years now, Walker’s sons, as well as the son of his Hi and Lois co-creator, Dik Browne, and an army of paid artists and gag writers that on my comics blog I jokingly refer to as Walker-Browne Amalgamated Humor Industries LLC, have churned out a widely syndicated and presumably highly profitable stable of strips for syndication.
Brilliant auteurs like Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes) and Gary Larson (The Far Side) might be remembered the most fondly by comics aficionados, but both of them stepped away after just over a decade or so in business. Beetle Bailey, by contrast, will presumably keep being produced until the newspaper industry collapses completely, or the Earth is swallowed up by the sun. Nobody is going to mistake the strip for being progressive — it still features occasional appearances by Corporal Yo, an Asian soldier with literal slants for eyes. It’s even hard to single out Miss Buxley’s original incarnation for special condemnation, arising as she did from a culture where, as comics artist Shaenon Garrity points out, Private “Killer” Diller could make cruel, misogynist jokes in American newspapers, but the depiction of a woman consensually enjoying his oral sex skills had to be banished to those perverts in Sweden.
But it’s strangely telling that a corporate product like Beetle Bailey offers a good model for gracefully climbing down from a defensive crouch and recognizing the difference between defending free speech and defending terrible ideas. “Readers are customers,” Walker told the Daily News in 1997. “I’m the storekeeper. If I don’t stock what they want, I don’t stay in business.” Say what you will about hacks who are only in it for the money, but unlike some supposed geniuses, they know how to read a room.