Beetle Bailey (begun on September 4, 1950) is an American comic strip created by cartoonist Mort Walker. Set in a fictional United States Army military post, it is among the oldest comic strips still being produced by the original creator. Over the years, Mort Walker has been assisted by (among others) Jerry Dumas, Bob Gustafson, Frank Johnson and Walker’s sons Neal, Brian and Greg Walker. The latter is currently credited on the strip.
Beetle was originally a college student at Rockview University. The characters in that early strip were modeled after Walker’s fraternity brothers at the University of Missouri. On March 13, 1951, during the strip’s first year, Beetle quit school and enlisted in the U.S. Army, where he has remained ever since.
Most of the humor in Beetle Bailey revolves around the inept characters stationed at Camp Swampy (inspired by Camp Crowder, where Walker had once been stationed while in the Army), which is located near the town of Hurleyburg at “Parris Island, S.C.”. Private Bailey is a lazy sort who usually naps and avoids work, and thus is often the subject of verbal and physical chastising from his supervisor, Sergeant Snorkel. The characters never seem to see combat themselves, with the exception of mock battles and combat drills. In fact, they seem to be in their own version of stereotypical comic strip purgatory (initially basic training, they now appear to be stuck in time in a regular infantry division). The uniforms of Beetle Bailey are still the uniforms of the late 1940s to early 1970s Army, with green fatigues and baseball caps as the basic uniform, and the open jeep as the basic military vehicle. Sergeant First Class Snorkel wears a green Class A Army dress uniform with heavily wrinkled garrison cap; the officers wear M1 helmet liners painted with their insignia. While Beetle Bailey’s unit is Company A, one running gag is that the characters are variously seen in different branches of the Army, such as artillery, armor, infantry and paratroops.
Beetle is always seen with a hat or helmet covering his forehead and eyes. Even on leave, his “civvies” include a pork pie hat worn in the same style. He can only be seen without it once—in the original strip when he was still a college student. The strip was pulled and never ran in any newspaper. It has only been printed in various books on the strip’s history. One daily strip had Sarge scare Beetle’s hat off, but Beetle was wearing sunglasses.
One running gag has Sergeant Snorkel hanging helplessly from a small tree branch after having fallen off a cliff (first time August 16, 1956). While he is never shown falling off, or even walking close to the edge of a cliff, he always seems to hold on to that same branch, yelling for help. This gag may have spawned the segment of the children’s show Between the Lions featuring a person named Cliff Hanger, who, like Sergeant Snorkel, is hanging from a cliff in each feature.
For the most part, Walker’s relationship with the real-life U.S. Army has been cordial. But not always. During the early 1950s, the strip was dropped from the Tokyo edition of Stars and Stripes because it allegedly encouraged disrespect for officers. The civilian press made a huge joke of that, and the ensuing publicity gave the young strip its first big boost in circulation.
As with most other American comic strips, Beetle Bailey has been censored from time to time. In 1962, the comic strip was censored because it showed a belly button, and in 2006, the description of Rocky’s criminal past was replaced with a non-criminal past.
Sometimes Mort Walker creates strips with raunchy subject matter for his own amusement. This is done at the sketch stage, and those strips are never meant to be published in the USA. They “end up in a black box in the bottom drawer”, according to Walker. These sketches are sometimes published in Scandinavia, however, with a translation underneath. In Norway, they’ve appeared in the Norwegian Beetle Bailey comic book, Billy, with the cover of the comic marked to show it contains censored strips. To offset any possible negative reaction, the publisher experimented with “scrambling” the strips in the mid-1990s. To see them, the reader had to view them through a “de-scrambling” plastic card. This was discontinued soon afterwards, and the strips today are printed without scrambling. In Sweden, some of these strips were collected in the “Alfapocket” series.
A TV version of the strip, consisting of 50 six-minute animated cartoon shorts produced by King Features Syndicate, was animated by Paramount Cartoon Studios in the USA and Artransa Film Studios in Sydney, Australia, and was first broadcast in 1963. The opening credits included the sound of a bugle reveille, followed by a theme song specifically composed for the cartoon:
He’s the military hero of the nationThough he doesn’t always follow regulationAt the sound of reveilleHe is here for you to seeAnd we know you’ll laugh at Private Beetle Bailey—(Beetle Bailey!)Ask the General, Colonel, Major and the Captain,The Lieutenant and the Sergeant and the Corporal,They will tell you with a shoutThey would gladly live withoutA certain Private by the name of Beetle Bailey—(Beetle Bailey!)(BEETLE BAILEY!!!)
The repeat of the name of Beetle Bailey is heard by an angry Sgt. Snorkel.
Beetle was voiced by comic actor and director Howard Morris with Allen Melvin as the voice of Sarge. Other King Features properties, such as Snuffy Smith and Krazy Kat, also appeared in the syndicated series, under the collective title: Beetle Bailey and His Friends. June Foray did the voice of Bunny, plus all of the female characters involved.
25 pages/strips Beetle Bailey 1954
313 strips Dailies 1955
313 strips Dailies 1956
30 strips Dailies 1964
21 strips Dailies 1966
113 strips various