Mort Walker 1923 – 2018
January 27, 2018
Left: Mort Walker in 1955. Right: caricature by Tom Richmond
I am sad to report that beloved cartoonist and NCS Honorary Chairman Mort Walker has passed away at his home in Stamford, CT at the age of 94.
Mort was a born cartoonist and had sold 300 cartoons by the age of 15. He was the chief designer for Hallmark Card Company at the young age of 18 (Imagine having a title like that at such a renowned company while still a teenager!)
After graduation, Mort began working on Spider, a one-panel series for The Saturday Evening Post, about a lazy, laid-back college student. Mort decided he could make more money doing a multi-panel comic strip, and Spider was transformed into Beetle Bailey in 1950. His signature strip was eventually distributed by King Features Syndicate to 1,800 newspapers in more than 50 countries for a combined readership of 200 million daily.
Mort created the ever-popular Hi and Lois with Dik Browne in 1954, and seven other syndicated strips followed over the years.
Mort Walker received the “Reuben Award for Cartoonist of the Year” for 1953 and over the years he garnered pretty much every award a cartoonist can receive, including the “Silver T-Square” in 1961, “Best Newspaper Strip” in 1966 and 1969, the “Elzie Segar Award” in 1977 and 1999, the “Gold T-Square” in 1999, the “Gold Key” in 2006, and the “NCS Medal of Honor” in 2016. Mort also served as NCS President from 1959 to 1960.
In 1974 he founded the International Museum of Cartoon Art, the first museum devoted to the art of comics. It was initially located in Greenwich, Connecticut, then Rye Brook, New York, before moving to Boca Raton, Florida in 1992. The museum merged with the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum at Ohio State University in 2008.
Mort Walker was the living definition of the word “cartoonist”. He lived and breathed the art every day of his life. He will be sorely missed by his friends in the NCS and by a world of comic strip fans.
Following is a tribute from NCS member Mark Evanier, posted on his blog, www.newsfromme.com.
L-R Arnold Roth, Al Jaffee and Mort Walker before all being presented with the National Cartoonists Society’s Medal of Honor at the Society of Illustrators in New York, April 2016.
One of the world’s most-read cartoonists, Mort Walker died early this morning at the age of 94. He was a professional cartoonist for eighty years.
That’s right. I said he was a professional cartoonist for eighty years. He was selling ’em from the age of 14 and drawing them years before then. In September of 1950, he launched his first of his many syndicated newspaper strips, Beetle Bailey. Originally set at a college, the feature didn’t really take off until a few months later when he shifted it to an army setting, drawing on his own military experiences.
It soon became one of the most popular comic strips of all time and Mort could have had a very fine, lucrative life just producing it until he could draw no longer. Instead, he began expanding. He and his friend Dik Browne began Hi and Lois in 1954 and then he and Frank Roberge started Mrs. Fitz’s Flats in 1957. In 1961, Mort and Jerry Dumas gave us Sam’s Strip, which only lasted two years but which was revived (somewhat changed) as Sam & Silo in 1977.
There was also Boner’s Ark, which Walker started in 1968, signing it with his real first name, Addison. There was also The Evermores, which he started in 1982 with Johnny Sajem. There was also Gamin & Patches which “Addison” launched in 1987. Some of these strips didn’t last long but Mort still had an amazing track record…and Beetle Bailey, Hi and Lois and Sam & Silo still persist to this day.
They will not suffer the loss of Mort because for years, they were produced by a squadron of Walker friends and relatives, with Mort writing and drawing as his health allowed. King Features Syndicate distributed all but Gamin & Patches, and Mort’s output was so much a part of King’s offerings that the New York office referred to his Connecticut studio as “King Features North.”
Mort himself was a cheery, affable fellow who was also very involved in the National Cartoonists Society (serving as an officer and winning many awards from it) and in 1974, he opened the Museum of Cartoon Art, said to be the first museum devoted to the art of comics. The times I encountered him, he was delightful to be around and always willing to draw Beetle or Sarge for any of his fans. He sure had a lot of them.
If you’d like to know more about this extraordinary fellow, I would recommend a book he wrote in 1974 called Backstage at the Strips. It’s kind of an autobiography up to that point, and a look at how he and others produced their strips back then. Here’s an Amazon link to a paperback version that’s still in print. It’s also a love letter to the cartooning profession — a profession that served him well (and vice-versa) for, like I said, eighty years. That’s right: Eighty years!