The sad news of the passing of cartoonist Mort Walker, creator of “Beetle Bailey”, prompted discussion of the character’s British interpretation in TV Comic in the 1960s.
Mort Walker died on Saturday at his home in Stamford, Connecticut. He was 94.
Mort had the longest tenure of any cartoonist on an original creation, according to King Features, which began its syndication of “Beetle Bailey” in 1950. A comic strip about a US Army private who malingered his way through seven decades at Camp Swampy to the consternation of his commanding officers, the strip was and remains a delight to his fans in the armed forces and beyond.
It took much hard work to make the world’s most famous work-shirking private a success, a strip later drawn by Mort with assistance from his sons, Brian and Greg Walker. Mort deservedly earned his rank as the world’s most prolific cartoonist, along with many prestigious honours and awards.
Quite how “Beetle Bailey” published between 1964 and 1969 arrived in TV Comic, is a bit of a mystery, but he wasn’t the only character from US comics to find a home in the weekly title. The popularity of Popeye’s animated antics on ITV led TV Comic to secure a licence to produce UK-originated strips, and it introduced Popeye with a front cover story, drawn by AW ‘Chick’ Henderson, in 1960.
Popeye remained with TV Comic, making over 1200 appearances, until it folded in 1984 and while “Beetle Bailey” didn’t have the same longevity it’s perhaps safe to assume that the British publishers, having confirmed their ability to handle Popeye, had no problems securing a licence from King Features to originate their own “Beetle Bailey” strips, too.
Perhaps the character was added thanks to the success of The Phil Silvers Show, a comedy centring on Sergeant Ernie Bilko which, although first shown in the UK in the 1950s, was repeated throughout the 1960s on the BBC from June 1961 to March 1967. Rival weekly The Dandy also had its own incompetent army character, “Corporal Clott”, so perhaps his continued success spurred TV Comic to find their own similar character.
While TV Comic did reprint some of the Beetle Bailey Sunday newspaper strips, much of the strip was originated. Mike Noble – better known for his adventures strip work on Fireball XL5, Zero X, Captain Scarlet and, later, many strips for Look-In – drew both Beetle Bailey and Popeye for a time in 1964, but, according to an interview for the book True Brit: A Celebration of the Great Comic Book Artists of the UK, they were not strips he enjoyed working on.
An article on the Cartoon Museum web site notes Mike Noble replaced Chick Henderson on “Popeye” in, roughly, 1964 (Issue 659) during a slump of work where he was first asked to contribute to “Beetle Bailey”. Unlike Henderson, Noble did not sign his work, deeming it inappropriate since neither Beetle Bailey or Popeye were his original conception, which makes it difficult to discern which episodes he drew. According to comics archivist Shaqui Le Vesconte, his art included “smooth colouring almost immediately identifiable, standing out from the flat colour other artists used before and after.’’
Roland Davies is credited as the artist on “Beetle Bailey” from 1965, leaving the comics field entirely in 1970, to purse a successful career in painting. (Previously, he’d drawn strips based on the children’s hour detectives “Norman and Henry Bones”, and created the SF superhero “Red Ray the Space Ray-nger”, complete with club and badge).
It was Davies – perhaps best known for his wonderful newspaper strip “Come On, Steve” – was a highly skilled artist, able to adopt any style, and is most associated with Beetle Bailey’s British appearances in TV Comic. The late Roger Perry regarded him as one of the most versatile artists in the business, a talent which came to the fore with the New Adventures of Huck Finn storybooks published by Century 21 Publishing, where he had a realistic style for the live cast, and the rest as the Hanna-Barbara cartoon style.
Perry’s sentiments are echoed in Denis Gifford’s obituary in 1993 for the Independent, noting he was “the epitome of the commercial artist, never happy unless he was drawing or painting.
“His long career covered sports cartoons, topical cartoons, strip cartoons, animated cartoons, children’s books and boys’ weeklies, and towards the end superb paintings which were sold in art galleries to collectors who never knew of his once famous comic horse, ‘Steve’.”
Not only did Beetle Bailey feature in the comic but he appears both inside and the covers of a number of TV Comic annuals, rubbing shoulders with numerous other popular characters from the comic and TV of the time.
Without the brilliant Mort Walker, of course, there would have been no Beetle Bailey in TV Comic at all, but it’s interesting to delve a little into the character’s alternate, British stories, in celebration of this much appreciated and much-missed cartoonist.
Beetle Bailey and Popeye © King Features | TV Comic © Syndication International/ Mirror Group Newspapers
With thanks to Paul Scoones, Lew Stringer and Shaqui le Vesconte