Remembering Mort Walker: Updated

[Update: here’s an excellent article in celebration of Mort Walker, by Jason Whiton]

I met Mort Walker, and some of his wonderful family, when I went to my first Reuben Awards in New York in 1986. To me, Mort was a bit “larger than life”. He was one of the first professionals to welcome me into the National Cartoonists Society. He was attractive, outgoing, jovial, and busy. Beyond his work as a comic strip artist and author, Mort seemed to be involved in anything that would promote, preserve and legitimize comic art and cartoonists in North America. He believed cartoons should be respected and cared for. How thankful we are for his foresight.

Before I met Mort in person, I had read his book “Backstage at the Strips“. If you are an aspiring cartoonist…or even if you just want to dig into this treasured text, this book is a bible. Mort and his friends got together to talk about writing, drawing, and living in the world of comic art. I don’t think such a how-to book for cartoonists had ever been published before, but “Backstage” was a thorough analysis–seriously written, but in a funny way. This book not only taught cartoonists, it legitimized what we do.

There is, for example a comic art “shorthand”. One of many examples is the small graphic icon we recognize as a “pleud” (Mort’s word)–pleuds are those water drops emanating from a character’s head as he sweats in embarrassment. Another “icon” can be a dark cloud floating above someone’s head–suggesting he’s in a gloomy mood. We instinctively know what the author intends through this iconic language. Thought balloons have a bubbly edge and refer to the thinker with tiny bubbles; speech balloons, around audible speech, have a solid edge, either curved or rectangular. The point, which refers to the speaker, is solid and direct, like a thin triangle. These examples take far too long to describe in writing, so Mort in his generosity compiled them all in this book, along with info that only a pro could provide. My copy is tattered with use. Mort would consider that a compliment.

A few years after joining the National Cartoonists Society, I became president. One meeting was held in Conneticut, and Mort and Cathy Walker were kind enough to host it at their home. Their house had been Gutzon Borglum‘s studio. He was the sculptor who designed the massive faces on Mt. Rushmore. There were unique features everywhere: a stairwell to a mezzanine where you could look down into the living room, a grand piano, and ceiling-to-floor windows providing perfect studio lighting. There was a bathroom done entirely in mirrors, giving you a new perspective on your own artistic frame as you considered yourself in…relief. But, the best thing was the bar, just around the corner from the living room. On the front of the bar was a perfect replica sculpture of Mt. Rushmore…except that one of the founding fathers was Beetle Bailey himself.

Brian and Greg Walker insisted I go with them to see the Cartoon Art Museum, which was not too far from Mort and Cathy’s house. It was an historic building; a strikingly ornate edifice which the Walkers called “The Castle”. Once a private home, the museum had lots of nooks and crannies–enough to make it both a wonderful place to visit, and a unique gallery to display comic art. This had been, as I understood, a project which the Walkers devised and supported financially, in an effort to both protect comic art treasures and to promote them AS art. Sadly, and this remains true to today, comic art is not considered “art” by many in the “art world”. (Sorry, I have to take a break here and compose myself.) I rather subscribe to the old chestnut: “I don’t know much about art but I know what I like.” Well, there are enough of us out there who like cartoons and other forms of graphic art to warrant actual exhibitions–and now, there are several comic art museums to enjoy. The old building that the Walkers so lovingly sustained is not one of them, but photographs still herald it as being one of the first museums of its kind in North America. If you can find photos of the bathrooms, the walls were covered in cartoons…and might have been preserved. I’ll have to find out!

If you are a member of the National Cartoonists Society, you become part of an extended family. I have known the Walkers and many other cartoonist families for over 40 years. Our relationships with each other are personal and emotional and supportive and kind. A few years ago, I was asked if I would be the one to present the Reuben Award at our annual celebration. I was shocked. This honour had always gone to a senior member, one who had won the award themselves and/or had also been a past president. Someone who was famous. For years, Charles Schulz and Mort Walker had been our presenters. Sparky Schulz died. Three years ago, Mort had been too ill to attend. I never expected the board to ask me. I wasn’t ready. For one thing, I didn’t think I was that OLD!!!

So, now it’s my turn to walk across the stage, read the Reuben winner’s name and give the funny, awkward, and heavy award to someone who has worked hard in a difficult field and won admiration from all. Just before this final award is given, however, we sit for a while in silence as the two big view screens light up, and we remember those who have died during the past twelve months. We watch as the faces of friends smile at us from behind their desks and drafting tables. Some, we have all known well, and some we’ve known by their work and their reputation. All the images make us realize how fast time flies by, and how much we mean to each other. This May, we will watch the screens and we will mourn the loss of Mort Walker. He was an unforgettable character. He was a good friend. Not only was he one of the most prolific and diverse cartoonists on the planet, he was one of the most influential. Because of Mort and others like him, comic art is considered art. It is worth protecting, and its value goes well beyond a commercial “price”. Cartoons are a chronicle of the planet’s history warts and all. They are a record in pictures. They are the jest in truth.

I was so lucky to have known Mort and his talented family. They will be mourning his loss, but they know where he is. He’s laughing somewhere with the guys he started out with, and saying that he’d do it all again!