There’s a moment in Mort Walker’s “Beetle Bailey,” from decades ago, when the innocent Zero asks the intellectual Plato why he owns so many books. Plato explains proudly that “all the wisdom of the ages” can be found between their covers. Zero responds, “What happens if a couple of pages get stuck together?”
Mort’s own answer might have been, “Well, we’ll always have comic strips.” Millions of people knew Mort, who died last week at the age of 94, as one of the pre-eminent cartoonists of his era — and one of the central figures among the remarkable group of artists (my father, John Cullen Murphy, the longtime illustrator of “Prince Valiant,” was another) who populated southwestern Connecticut in the peak years of the American century.
But in his way, and without putting on airs, Mort was also a historian.
“Beetle Bailey,” the strip for which he was most widely known — though he created several others, including “Hi and Lois” — was slyly but gently subversive, in a manner that wears well in America. “Beetle” was built around a cast of misfits at a military base, Camp Swampy, and Army humor, as Mort often said, writes itself. He told me once that when he was stationed in occupied Italy during World War II, he was ordered to run over watches, radios and other equipment with a tank in order to avoid the paperwork that would have been required to send the stuff back home.
He was a funny man. But a historian? In his golf sweater and khakis, Mort looked like the dad in a ’50s sitcom. Still, there was a quirkily thoughtful dimension to his mind that I’ve found to be virtually the rule among cartoonists. He explained to me on one occasion that the idea of having Trixie — the baby in “Hi and Lois” — convey her innocent but often searing observations exclusively by means of thought balloons, came to him after observing how Sinclair Lewis had handled interior dialogue.
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