Post College

Mort Walker moved to New York City after he graduated from the University of Missouri in 1948. He had been selling single panel gag cartoons to a number of the major national general-interest magazines, including The Saturday Evening Post, while he was still in school. Now he was able to show his work directly to editors during the traditional Wednesday rounds.

Here are two samples of cartoons he sold during this period.Gag cartoons

While struggling to survive as a freelancer, Mort got a job as an editor at Dell Publishing Company. His boss there was Chuck Saxon, who later became a successful cartoonist for The New Yorker. Among the magazines Mort worked on were 1000 Jokes, Hollywood’s Family Album, Film Fun, Western Stars and Sport. His starting salary was $45 a week.Dell Mags

Mort continued to sell his freelance cartoons to magazines until John Bailey, the editor of The Saturday Evening Post, noticed a character that appeared in a few of the cartoons. “Spider” was a college student who wore a hat that covered his eyes. Bailey suggested to Mort that he feature the character on a regular basis.Spider Gags

The Saturday Evening Post published some of these cartoons until Mort decided to develop a newspaper strip with Spider as the star. When King Features bought the strip, Spider’s name was changed to “Beetle Bailey.”

The rest is history.

– Brian Walker

BB: The King is gone, long live the King

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We cartoonists are very lucky in that we get to do something that we genuinely love. Many late nights, bending over the drawing board, we sometimes wonder if it’s worth it. Is this little piece of board (or, these days, a computer screen and electronic file), ever going to be seen, read and appreciated by anyone? We scribble our lines and just hope that it brightens someone’s day.

Until we get a response: an email, a post online, an actual letter, or just a comment from someone in passing, we can’t be sure if we’re reaching our audience. Then something happens that surprises and amazes.

As a guitarist myself, I listen to, and marvel at, those who master the instrument. I envy those who have the talent to make those strings sing, even though I’ve had guitarists tell me “you do your thing, I do mine… I wish I could draw.”

When I heard B.B. King was coming to town several years ago, it seemed like it might be a good chance to catch a concert and get a book that I owned signed by the legend (the B B King Treasury). I went to the theater and gave the book to the stage manager and asked if he could possibly get it to Mr. King. He promised nothing. To sweeten the deal, I drew a picture of Beetle and inscribed it “from one BB to another”, hoping that might encourage him to sign.

After an amazing concert, I went backstage and, incredibly, soon found myself on B.B.’s touring bus. As I sat down in his private compartment and he offered to sign a picture, I noticed the envelope with the drawing off to the side of the table. I said, “I see you got my drawing.” Mr. King replied, “You did that, you’re pretty good.” I answered, “Well, that’s what I do.” The Great One gushed, “You do?! I’m a big fan!” Wait, seriously, did the blues legend just said he’s MY fan?! He reached across and grabbed my hand and pulled me over next to him. My friend jumped up on the bench seat and took this picture. As you can maybe tell, I was completely awestruck.

I guess, at times, musicians on the road get bored and pick up a newspaper and read the comics. Meeting Mr. King was one of my most treasured moments.

Sometimes this cartooning gig can get really interesting.

As you have probably heard by now, B.B. left us after many decades of prompting us to tap our feet to his distinctive music. I feel incredibly fortunate to have had him touch my life in several ways.

Early Disappointment

While Mort Walker was still enrolled at the University of Missouri, he submitted his first strips to the syndicates. In 1947, he went to New York with two ideas he had worked up with his old high school buddy, Dave Hornaday. Bo Wander was a semi-illustrative story strip about a writer. The text was written in the style of a novel and appeared beneath illustrations of the character’s adventures. They thought it would definitely sell.

The second was a strip starring a teenager, similar to Archie. Here are four samples that Mort saved from this presentation.1947 Strip Idea

“Most of the editors were polite but not interested,” Mort remembered. “One syndicate manager was harshly honest, calling our work ‘sophomoric’ and ‘stupid.’ Dave came out of the office with tears in his eyes. I vowed that I’d never show that editor another strip. Sylvan Byck, at King Features, was the most helpful and encouraging.”

Mort wrote down the comments and criticisms from the editors in a notebook. Among Sylvan’s suggestions were: “Don’t try to be too different. Do the same thing that’s being done but do it better. Keep your work keyed to the masses. Keep the humor visual.”

Mort was determined to return someday with a strip idea that Sylvan would buy. Dave Hornaday never tried to sell a strip again but went on to work successfully in other fields of cartooning.

– Brian Walker