Chapter 14

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Mort Walker invented "diversity", long before you or I ever heard the word.

Mort Walker was the originator of the Beetle Bailey comic strip. The BB strip was all about contrasting personalities, and the personalities in the strip were complete and coherent and sophisticated and real in ways never approached by any other comic. Remember, this was the Fifties, and people who were educated were very educated.

Beetle was of course the ordinary guy distinguished by nothing but laziness. Sergeant Snorkel was the big loud lug who was an okay guy but never much got to display it because he had to spend so much time shouting his soldiers into line. Killer was the ladies' man, always looking for a hot date. Cosmo was the wheeler-dealer, rolling dice and reading the stock reports. Plato was the brain, reading obscure books; who knows where he'd end up in civilian life. Rocky was a Fifties rebel guy, probably had a hot rod back home, probably been in a rumble or two (In the Sixties Walker made him an activist). Zero was the dummy, he could do stupid things and we could all laugh without scorn because he was just a nice dumb guy. Cookie was the cook, big and hairy, always a cigarette in his mouth (until that was censored away), always proud of his work and sensitive of criticism. It goes on, there were plenty more: General Halftrack, the old one-star general in charge of a lame little camp, sitting in the bar and realizing that that is as far as he is going to go in his once-hopeful career; Julius, Dr. Bonkus...

As the years passed, new characters entered. When the Japanese roared to the top of the commercial world, and all America was saying "Who are these guys?", Walker introduced the character Yo, an annoyingly ambitious Oriental. Sergeant Louise Lugg joined the camp; she was big and loud and wanted herself a man, and Sergeant Snorkel was for her the perfect target. Miss Buxley, Walker's most sensitive portrayal, was a hot babe who innocently endured the warped environment of the nice girl who, through no fault of her own, grew up to be excessively distracting. Lieutenant Jack Flap was, heaven forbid, a black guy who lived out elaborately-dressed black culture when not in uniform. You should have seen him in the disco days. By the way, he was the first black guy in a white strip. That hit the fan; there were a lot of newspapers who cancelled the strip for that.

You can bet the strip got heat for these characters. In an age when we are surrounded by Orientals far more ambitious than we Americans are, how dare Mort Walker portray an ambitious Oriental? Or treat a nice-but-much-too-pretty girl as if she were a normal human being? And God forbit anyone ever even acknowledge the existence of black American culture? While other, clumsily-drawn and personality-free strips received praise for their adolescent ideological cliches, Mr. Walker brought us subtle and deep examinations of the various breeds that comprise the peculiar thing we call the human race.


Don't bother looking at the strip now. Mort Walker is at retirement age, and the strip has been taken over by other people who are not nearly as smart and kind and funny and insightful as Mr. Walker was.* Which is not so much of a bust on them; very few people ever were.


*The worst part of this dumbification was the complete inability of the new writers to recognize the subtle and realistic portrayal of Miss Buxley as a normal nice girl doing the things that a normal nice girl does. They thought that she would be better as a crudely-portrayed semi-bitch, and so she became. The world lost something when that happened.

Following in Mort Walker's footsteps is the excellent Luann comic, produced by Greg Evans. It is a cast of characters as vivid as Mr. Walker's were. Unfortunately, they are all enclosed in an extremely affluent suburban bubble, and they are grotesquely Politically Correct, hopping onto every feel-good cause that floats into the mainstream.