- Posted by Johanna on October 20, 2010 at 8:17 am
- Category: Graphic Novel Reviews, KC
- CREDITS: by Mort Walker
- PUBLISHER: Titan Books; $19.95 US
Review by KC Carlson
In 1965, Mort Walker’s Beetle Bailey, a popular newspaper comic strip about army life, had reached an important milestone — it became the second strip in comics history (the first was Blondie) to appear in over 1,000 newspapers. This is the starting point for Titan Books’ new hardcover Beetle Bailey: The Daily and Sunday Strips, 1965, collecting the strips and hopefully starting a new series of collections. This volume collects all of 1965’s daily and Sunday strips (in black & white) in chronological order.
However, it should be pointed out that 1965 was not the first year of the strip. That would actually be 1950. And the strip was radically different upon inception. Back then, the strip was loosely based on Walker’s college experiences (something that Walker was also exploring in even earlier “spot” gag cartoons for The Saturday Evening Post), and Beetle (renamed from “Spider” in the gag cartoons) was a goof-off college student. The strip revolved around Beetle and his fraternity buddies. This version of the strip was not successful (the syndicate actually prepared to drop it after its first year), until Walker decided to change the premise — by having Beetle enlist in the army. Well, as they say, this changed everything! These early strips were collected in Beetle Bailey: The First Years: 1950-1952, published by Checker in 2008.
This earlier book puts Titan in a tough position. They can’t start their book series with the start of the strip, because of this previous volume, but conventional wisdom says you should start a series from the beginning. I don’t always buy that, especially when you’re dealing with something as long-lived as an incredibly popular newspaper strip. The earliest years of the strip are fascinating for scholars and historians, because you can watch the strips evolve and grow (and often watch the artwork evolve into something radically different that what the artist first intended). More casual fans may not be interested in this evolution at all, leading to a lot of “these aren’t the characters I remember” feelings and comments.
So, why not start a strip series in its prime? It makes perfect sense from a commercial point of view — lead with your strengths! Which is the case here, as the strip, already rolling along for 15 years, has firmly established many of the running jokes, like Beetle getting clobbered or characters hanging from cliffs. Also, most of its major characters are already “in character”, although Miss Buxley and Lt. Flap, both created in 1970, are not yet present. One very helpful special feature in the book is the Beetle Bailey Roll Call, which identifies all the main characters (including many of the infrequently used first names).
Speaking of special features, also included in the book are a forward by Mort Walker, a short history of the strip by Brian Walker, and a “celebrity gallery” featuring tributes to both Walker and his strip by such comic notables as Milton Caniff, Charles Schulz, Jack Davis, and Mort Drucker. Known primarily as a gag-a-day type comic strip, this volume also contains one of the rare extended Beetle Bailey storylines — when Beetle and the whole platoon drive across country to have Thanksgiving dinner with Beetle’s parents.
Beetle Bailey is one of America’s classic humor strips, read and enjoyed by millions of people around the world. I’m very happy to see that it’s finally back in print, in complete, chronological runs so we can see the the formative years of this long-running strip. Similar in size and format to Fantagraphics’ acclaimed Peanuts collections, Beetle Bailey: The Daily and Sunday Strips, 1965 is 224 pages of fun, collecting the entire year’s run. My only complaint is the feeling that for such a long-running strip, it should be collected in bigger bites — like two years’ worth at a time. The publishers instead opted for keeping the cover price affordable. But at $20 for a year’s worth of strips, it’s a tough comparison with Fantagraphics’ Peanuts books (slightly less than $30 for two years’ worth of strips) — something that need to be taken into account for the long-range strip collector. On the other hand, the Beetle dailies are reproduced slightly larger that the the Peanuts dailies (although it could be argued that’s a matter of format). For “size matters” collectors, these new Beetle collections have a slight edge. (The publisher provided a review copy.)