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Mr Media Interviews by Bob Andelman

Mort Walker is the dean and -- in some ways -- the curator of American cartoonists.

Best known for his long-running strips “Beetle Bailey” and “Hi & Lois,” Walker, 84, is also a bedrock member of the National Cartoonists Society, and he’s the founder and energy behind the National Cartoon Museum.

This is the third time I’ve had the pleasure of Mort’s company over the last 20 years. I enjoy interviewing him because he says what’s on his mind, and what’s on his mind is never dull.

But just in case my questions aren’t sharp enough for this American comic strip master, I’ve called in reinforcements.

Ray Billingsley, creator of the “Curtis” strip and an old friend of Walker’s, kindly contributed questions today. So did a newer member of the fraternity, Mark Tatulli, creator of “Heart of the City” and America’s fastest-growing new strip, “LIO.”



Mr. MEDIA/BOB ANDELMAN: Mort, welcome to Mr. Media.

MORT WALKER: Good morning.

ANDELMAN: Did I get your age right?

WALKER: Yeah, very good.

ANDELMAN: Sorry. Should I not have brought that up?

WALKER: It always sounds old to me, but like I say, I’ll have to get used to it.

ANDELMAN: No, I don’t think you ever have to get used to it as long as you don’t act that way. I don’t think it’s an issue.

WALKER: They call me the Energizer Bunny around here. You wake up in the morning and say, “Hey, I’ve got an idea,” and they say, “Oh God, not another idea.”

ANDELMAN: The boys are probably waiting for you to slow down a little bit.

WALKER: Yeah, well, I hope I never do.

ANDELMAN: Well, I want to ask you about that. Before we get to the questions from Mark and Ray, I’d like to hear about how you spend your days at the studio. What’s your level of involvement with your strips alongside your sons and, of course, your late partner Dik Browne’s boys?

WALKER: Well, one thing, you have to start with an idea so I’m always doing ideas. At breakfast, I usually get two or three gags. I have to have my pad with me, my clipboard with me all the time. Yesterday, my wife had to go to the doctor, and I went with her, and I was sitting in the waiting room, and she was in getting an MRI for an hour. I got 19 gags while I was waiting for her. So you never really waste any time. Then I get back and start doing my strips. I do all the penciling on the strips, and my son Greg does the inking. I usually can get those done in the morning. My work doesn’t take me an awful lot of time so that gets me involved in a lot of other things. I got a brand-new business I started.

ANDELMAN: What’s that?

WALKER: It’s a magazine. It’s called Mort Walker’s The Best of Times. And I got started because we have a lot of weekly magazines and newspapers around here, and I usually pick them up. They’re at the exits of the grocery store, the delicatessen, or wherever you’re in, and they’re piled up in a corner somewhere. And I looked at them, and I said, “They really don’t have much in them that’s very interesting.” Most of it is a repeat of what’s in the daily newspaper. So all of a sudden I thought my paper here in Stamford, Connecticut only uses about 10 of the King Features. King Features is the largest syndicate in the world. It’s syndicated all over the world. They have 140 features that they syndicate, and my local paper, as I said, only uses ten of them. That leaves 130 features that are available, and they’re all famous writers and cartoonists and puzzle writers and so forth. I thought, I could put out a great newspaper using all the excess that the local paper doesn’t use. And so I started this newspaper, this magazine. It started as a newspaper. Now it’s a magazine. And it’s full-color, 40 pages, and we sell advertising to make money.


WALKER: Each issue brings in about $20,000. Well, that’s not bad.

ANDELMAN: Sounds like something you could spread out around the country, too.

WALKER: King Features puts it all together for me. I just tell them where the ads go.

ANDELMAN: Now, you don’t sound like a guy who has any intention of slowing down.

WALKER: No. I thought of a new comic strip yesterday morning, and I haven’t even got anybody to look at it yet so it’s not doing us any good.

ANDELMAN: Oh my goodness.

WALKER: I did about 15 gags of it for us, and I’m still waiting for my editors. I have a son that works with me here in the office. His name is Neal. He also does all my drawings for the foreign markets. I give him the gags, and he does the drawing. They print them. Beetle’s the number one comic book in Scandinavia, and they just can’t get enough work. They reprint everything I’ve got, and they need at least that much more to fill up the comic books. So I have to have somebody working on those things all the time.

ANDELMAN: You came up with a new strip idea. How different would a strip by you be today than it was 40 or 50 years ago?

WALKER: I don’t know. I just sort of do what I like and wait and see if anybody else likes it. I don’t know that this is ever going to come to fruition because it seems like I’m always thinking. I’ve got about 10 comic strip ideas in my drawer right now that have either been rejected by me or rejected by the syndicates.

ANDELMAN: The young guys who are gonna hear this interview are gonna be shocked that a guy with your experience still gets rejections from the syndicate.

WALKER: Yeah. I took some stuff in to the syndicate a few years ago, and the editor says, “Mort, we got enough of your stuff.” And I said, “But my stuff is the stuff that’s selling!” “Beetle,” “Hi & Lois,” you take “Blondie” and “Hagar the Horrible,” which I worked on. Those are the top-selling strips they’ve got. And all the new ones that they try last for maybe a year or two, and then they die. I said, “Why don’t you get along with my stuff?” Well, they look at my age, and they think How many more years do we have for you? So I don’t know. I can’t stop it, though.

ANDELMAN: Well, what hope is there for a new cartoonist coming up if an experienced veteran like yourself can’t get a new strip going?

WALKER: Well, look at the strip called “Zits.” That’s a brand-new strip and boy, it’s going great guns. I like it very much. Very well drawn, gags are good, everything. If you got the stuff, you’ll make it.

ANDELMAN: I wasn’t gonna go that way right now, but that was something Ray wanted me to ask you about. What do you think of the direction that present-day cartoonists are headed? Are there any particular strips that you like right now?

WALKER: There are a lot of them I like, but I guess about half of them I don’t. And usually, it’s because they’re hard to read, I don’t get the gags, the drawing is confusing, or it’s something that I’m not that interested in. I think a lot of them make the mistake of doing gags about animals or robots or something like that, or bugs. People are interested in people. And I try to create characters that everybody can relate to. Everybody knows a Beetle Bailey. Everybody knows a Sarge. Everybody knows a General Halftrack or Miss Buxley. And it’s funny how often in my fan mail, like yesterday, I got a letter, and somebody said, “Your favorite character is Cosmo. Can you send me a picture of Cosmo?” And I’m thinking, Cosmo, I only use him maybe once a month. I don’t know. It’s interesting.

ANDELMAN: You mention “Zits.” Are there others that you like particularly?

WALKER: Well, of course, “Hagar” is one of my favorites. And “Mother Goose and Grimm,” I always get a laugh out of that. Boy, I’d hate to start on all my favorites cause I got a lot of them.

ANDELMAN: Let me ask you about a couple of them specifically. What about “Get Fuzzy?” Is that one of the ones…you mention animals. I’m guessing maybe that’s one that you’re not so crazy about.

WALKER: I read it about half the time, and I don’t get that much out of it. I know a lot of people like it. Then I argue with people about it while they just say you just don’t get it. So I think that there’s an appeal level that some people have for certain strips that I don’t have or other people don’t have. It’s an individual thing.

ANDELMAN: What about “Pearls Before Swine”? That’s a very different strip, generationally speaking.

WALKER: I read it. A lot of times I get a laugh out of it. I find it a little confusing, and I don’t relate to it as well as I do a strip like “Zits.” Altogether we have 10 children. It’s a second marriage for both of us, and we have 15 grandchildren. I can see all my children in that strip. That’s the way they act, and it’s amusing to me the way they treat their parents and everything. I can relate to it.

ANDELMAN: Does it bother you in “Pearls” that sometimes the attacks on like “Family Circus,” for example, or other strips? Does that bother you, or does that amuse you?

WALKER: I don’t think it’s an attack cause he’s used Beetle Bailey in his strip. I always write him and thank him.

ANDELMAN: Mark Tatulli, this is one of the things he had wanted me to ask you. He wondered if you had ever read “LIO” and what you thought of it.

WALKER: I don’t see it.

ANDELMAN: Oh, you don’t?

WALKER: I get three papers everyday, and it’s not in any one of those. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen it.

ANDELMAN: Mark will be disappointed, but I appreciate you being honest about it.

WALKER: Well, I’ll look for it. I just got back from Ohio, and it wasn’t in that paper. So I just don’t know.

ANDELMAN: Let me ask you about something that’s pretty close to your heart, and then we’ll move on to some of the questions that Ray had for you. Since the Cartoon Museum closed in Boca Raton a few years ago, I know you’ve devoted a great deal of time and energy and money, for that matter, to finding a new home. The last time we spoke, which was probably about three years ago, maybe four, it looked like you were heading toward the Empire State Building. And I was wondering if you could update us on what the status of the project is.

WALKER: We got killed there, and it was very unfair. We had a contract to go to the Empire State Building, and as a result of the contract, we went out, and we hired a staff of people and fundraisers. And we spent about half a million dollars preparing to move in there. Suddenly, we got a notice from the owner, who I’d been dealing with, that they had to cancel the contract because they have another attraction on the second floor called “Skyride,” which is a simulated helicopter ride over Manhattan. They sell their tickets. They were gonna sell our tickets. Instead of rent, we would split the profits. They figured that each one of us, they’d make three and a half million, and we’d make three and a half million. I said, “No more fundraising for me!” It was a perfect deal, I thought. And the Skyride people said, “We don’t want the competition. If you sell the museum tickets, we’ll sue you.” And so they cancelled our contract. They said, “But we’ll give you a cut rate in rent, and we’ll only charge you $850,000 a year in rent.” They just killed all of our sponsors, all of the people that were gonna give us money. They just figured we’d never make it, and so we’re out of business. Not only that, but they kept our $185,000 in security deposit.

ANDELMAN: You must’ve been crushed when that fell apart.

WALKER: It just killed us. We had no more people who were gonna give us money and no place to go. I had lent the museum $400,000, and I just couldn’t go on doing that.

ANDELMAN: Wow. And so where does the project stand now? Is there anything you can tell us?

WALKER: We have a new home for it, but I can’t announce it yet.

ANDELMAN: Okay. But there is something in the works.


ANDELMAN: Do you know when you might have something to reveal?

WALKER: They’re supposed to have a meeting on the 15th to discuss it. We’ve looked at the new headquarters, which are beautiful, and we haven’t had a board meeting on it yet. So that’s the reason they told me not to announce it yet.

ANDELMAN: Let’s go to some of the questions that Ray Billingsley had. You guys have known each other a long time.

WALKER: He used to hang out. When he was a kid, he used to hang out at the museum.

ANDELMAN: Is that right?


ANDELMAN: Oh, so you do go back a ways with him.

WALKER: Oh yeah. He was just a teenager, and he was a very talented young man and very nice and everything. We formed a friendship, and we’ve been together. I’ve made speeches in his behalf and so forth. He’s a very nice guy.

ANDELMAN: Ray sent me an email and said, “You’ve got to talk to Mort for Mr. Media.” Ray’s interview was one of the most popular that’s ever run on the Mr. Media site so I have to bow to his advice on this. One of the things that Ray wanted to know was who was your first influence as a cartoonist?

WALKER: I think that it was probably “Moon Mullins.” Frank Willard was the cartoonist. We used to get the Sunday paper on the front porch, and my father would ask me to go down and get it. And I’d bring it back, and I’d get in bed with him, and he’d read the funnies to me. And when he read “Moon Mullins,” he started to laugh until tears came down his cheeks, and I just got the biggest kick out of that, seeing somebody laugh like that. And I can even remember specific strips that he read to me. And I think it influenced me and influenced my style of humor and characterizations and everything. I think that was my earliest influence.

ANDELMAN: Do you think you’ve always been trying to make your dad laugh?

WALKER: Yeah. Well, it’s a nice thing to do for people. In fact, I do it all the time anyway. I go to the grocery store, for instance, and Cathy goes down one aisle, I go down another aisle. Then I can’t find her again. I’m looking around, and the manager comes up and says, “Can I help you? What are you looking for?” And I go, “I’m looking for my wife. What aisle do you keep wives in?” And my wife says, “Can’t you ever go out without trying to make everybody laugh?”

ANDELMAN: Or trying to develop material for a strip?


ANDELMAN: Would we recognize your dad as a character in any of your work over the years or other family members for that matter?

WALKER: I don’t think my father was in there, but a lot of my friends were. Beetle Bailey’s based on my old high school buddy and college roommate, and his name was David Hornaday. And he was a big, lanky, lazy kind of guy, and everybody liked him and everything like that. And he was just goofing off all the time. I remember I went by to pick him up to play golf one day, and his mother said, “David’s still in bed. You gotta go wake him up.” I went up, and I shook him in bed, and I said, “David, David, wake up! We’ve got a tee-off time at nine.” He just grabbed his pillow, turned his back to me, and went on sleeping. I took his bed, and I turned it upside down. He fell out on the floor and just reached out and got his pillow and went on to sleep. I said, “David, you ought to be in a comic strip.”

ANDELMAN: So does he collect residuals on that?

WALKER: Well, he’s dead now.


WALKER: They used to play him up in his paper back in St. Joseph, Missouri, all the time on the front page. And I said, “Does it bother you?” He said, “A little bit, but I like it okay.” I don’t know that you’d really like being compared to Beetle, but…

ANDELMAN: Well, he’s gonna live on in some way, right? Did I read that Lt. Fuzz was actually closest to you at the time?

WALKER: I based it on my experiences when I first became a lieutenant in the Army. And I was so impressed with myself being an officer, and I was only 19 years old at the time. So using my official status, I walked into our sergeant’s office, and it was all cluttered with used coffee cups and papers and litter on the floor. And I said, “Sergeant let’s get this place cleaned up,” and he looked at me. Instead of saluting, he said, “Oh, knock it off, Lieutenant.” So I based some of my experiences of trying to be an officer on Lieutenant Fuzz.

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© 2007 by Bob Andelman. All rights reserved.

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