I am happy to offer good news in my continuing series picking on one of the world’s most successful comic strips for having difficulty rendering animals in its particular style. This Sunday saw Zero feeding a squirrel that I accept as a successful depiction of a squirrel, within the bounds of the evolved Mid-Century Cartoon Moderne style that the comic uses.
I’m also glad to bring the news that a butterfly, rabbit, a blue and a red bird were depicted successfully. I think the opossum was depicted successfully too, but I accept that people might in good faith have a different opinion.
I’m sad to say that the groundhog situation isn’t looking good. This is a bit peculiar as groundhogs are a kind of squirrel. But the poses and volume of tail are different and that affects styling.
Yes, a white rabbit the size of a blue-grey squirrel is improbable, but this isn’t Mark Trail. Photorealism is not the standard. “Is styled compatibly to the regular characters” and “is recognizably the animal it’s supposed to be” is.
And so last Friday we had the hope of a new entry to the roster of animals definitely seen or not seen by whoever it is draws Beetle Bailey these days. The credits say Greg Walker, but the credits also say Mort Walker, who died fifteen months ago now. I know there’s people who work ahead of deadline, but, this far ahead of deadline? I have my doubts.
Anyway last Friday’s installment allows us to say: we have no idea whether the guy who draws Beetle Bailey has ever seen a raccoon. I apologize for the inconvenience.
Speaking of inconvenience, the Comics Kingdom redesign. While it’s getting less bad, it’s still bad. Besides ignoring the top row of the Sunday comics, they haven’t shown any new Vintage daily strips since Friday. And it’ll show the Vintage comic strips in a random order that’s not alphabetical and not the order I set for the comics to appear, or anything else. Yes, every web site redesign is about making things work less well, but they really overachieved on this one.
When I was growing up there was one author and one comic strip on the pages that was just the comic strip, the thing so great it was kind of the reason newspapers were made, so it could carry this. That was Charles Schulz and Peanuts, naturally. But it’s not like that was the only strip I read. I read all of them, at least except for the story strips, which always looked like these dark, muddy things about realistically-drawn adults saying they’d have to talk about stuff. But the rest of the comics page was exciting stuff.
I knew there were better and worse strips, yes. But I also recognized there were some strips that just seemed central. Comics that all the other comics were kind-of-like. Some that drew closer to the Platonic Ideal of the 1970s/80s comic strip. So if you read the subject line or the comics news the past week you know what strips I’m talking about.
And yet I was kind of a dumb kid; it took a newspaper article about an upcoming visit Beetle Bailey was going to pay to Hi and Lois for me to realize they were made by the same guy, or were set in the same universe. Still, that was mindblowing, in the way that Muppet Show where they have to do the show from a train station because the theater was being fumigated was. It revealed to me something comic strips could do.
Beetle Bailey and Hi and Lois were the Mort Walker strips I always saw, of course. But somewhere along the line I realized that Hagar the Horrible had some connection to all this (Dik Browne, co-creator of Hi and Lois, created it). And now and then, in out-of-town newspapers, I’d see other weird alien comic strips clearly from the same hand, like Boner’s Ark or, rarely, Sam and Silo. And I do remember at least excerpts of Walker’s Lexicon of Comicana, about graphic design elements, appearing in newspapers and being read. (I have a particularly strong memory of reading one at the house of my aunt in Connecticut, on a family visit that I think coincided with when they took the toll booths out of the Connecticut Turnpike and the roads were torn up for that. I may be collapsing memories together.) I think that his last original comic strip, Gamin and Patches, might have run in a newspaper I read, but I’m just not at all sure.
Oddly, for all that I recognized Mort Walker had this style that everybody was roughly imitating, and for all that I liked reading any of these strips, I don’t remember doing stuff like redrawing characters from it. Garfield, Popeye, Snoopy, sure, but somehow not these. Seems like a shame; I suspect that, like, Sarge or Beetle are pretty fun to draw. There’s something in their line.
Yes, I’m aware Mort Walker drew some “adult” installments of his strips, for the naughty fun of it. Not interested in them. I’m also aware there was an animated cartoon based on Beetle Bailey in the 60s, and a half-hour pilot made in Like 1989. I’ve never seen those but a a little curious. Apparently there was a musical, too, created in the late 80s because every comic strip made a musical in the 80s for some reason.
Comics Kingdom has among its vintage comics Beetle Bailey and Hi and Lois from the early 60s. They also have Boner’s Ark, from the early 70s, running. There’s some interesting stuff in them, not least the running thread that the Pentagon told General Halftrack not to call them anymore and hasn’t sent any orders in years. One of the snark community’s recurring jokes is that Camp Swampy is this nonsense pretend camp the actual Army would be embarrassed to be affiliated with. I’m amused that Walker had that joke a half-century sooner. And the vintage strips are, mostly, better than their contemporary versions. There’s more detail to the art and the characters and scenarios are 55 years less worn down. It can be easy to forget that comic strips that seem old and fusty — things that have been running in every newspaper since the glaciers receded — mostly got there by being novel and exciting, and staying so for a good long while.
Art moves on, and styles pass from fashion. Mort Walker-touched comics aren’t as dominant in setting the style of newspaper comics anymore. So it happens. There’s a lot of art, and a lot of what people thought art could be, that he guided. It’s amazing work.
Also I’m reminded of a Mort Walker quote in some Peanuts retrospective about how, yeah, his comic strip took off in the newspapers way earlier than Schulz’s, starting nearly the same time, did. But when Schulz’s came out in book collections those books just started selling and never stopped. This point can’t fit in the essay at all logically, but I don’t want it to go to waste either, so here it is, in a paragraph after the end of the essay.
Before I get into writing way too much about way too small a point, I want to mention my mathematics blog, where I had some more comic strips to write about yesterday. I’d like to say a little more about that, because I want to include an image of a comic strip with alarming art in it.
And if I pad the text enough before including the image, then WordPress makes it appear below the little block on the left with the dateline and tags and so on, then the image is larger, and that’s better.
And I need like one more line before it works on my computer to come out right.
Maybe one more.
One more, I think.
No, don’t need that one.
OK, so, yeah, since about 1950 comic strips have relied on this Mid-Century-Modern-influenced styling. Every comic strip develops its own non-representational but, hopefully, expressive design. And trying to fit something very different into that design can be difficult. Charles Schulz never figured out how to put a cat he liked into Peanuts. But this … I mean … what the heck?
I’m not saying I can do better. My own squirrel-drawing abilities are sharply limited. I would probably give you a better squirrel if I handed a canvas and ink brush to a raccoon and asked her to draw something. She would refuse, because it’s really crummy to ask an artist to draw something for free. I would offer the onion we kind of forgot we’ve had in the refrigerator since May as payment. She would insist also on getting the block of year-old cheddar that’s going a bit off because we’re not eating as much cheese as we expected. I would say she could have the parts that are starting to go dry, but not the salvageable part. And there we would reach an impasse. In any case, we wouldn’t get some Apartment 3-G nightmare like that. That’s what I’m saying.
Another Blog, Meanwhile Index
The index rose a starting 23 points over the day to close at 400, a new high number and a nice, round number too. Everybody’s in quite the giddy mood, pondering, what can they possibly do to top this? Someone came in from consoling Lisa with the suggestion of “401”, but was called a mad fool and a dreamer.
2012 Rolex and Bamford Watch Department created a Beetle Bailey Rolex watch.
And I just don’t even remember what I was getting worked up about before that. I think it was trying to understand my completely irrational annoyance that Hagar the Horrible mentioned potatoes this week. But I just … you know, I just … I don’t know.
Over on my mathematics blog I had a fresh collection of mathematics-themed comic strips to talk about, and I want to make sure people who missed that had some kind of warning about it. So, ah, warning.
For those who weren’t so interested in that, I offer the above installment of Mort Walker’s Beetle Bailey, from the vintage comics collection at comicskingdom.com. One of the wonderful things about the Internet has been that comics syndicates have made the ancient runs of comics more available. At its best, this lets you see now-stagnant comics in their prime and understand why (say) Hi and Lois became part of the default comics page. When it’s not doing that, you can at least get interesting observations such as (a) apparently General Halftrack had a niece, at least in August of 1957, and (b) this comic strip originally ran three days after the Soviet Union launched the world’s first successful intercontinental ballistic missile.