PERHAPS YOU HAVE noticed and perhaps you have not, but in the past few weeks a change—appalling to some, overdue in the opinion of others—has occurred in a venerable corner of the nation's funny papers. The change involves a character in Mort Walker's comic strip Beetle Bailey, and I'll come back to it in a moment.
Mort Walker has been a nationally syndicated cartoonist for three and a half decades. He is the creator not only of Beetle Bailey (1950), which currently appears in some 1,500 newspapers in forty-three countries, but also of Hi & Lois, Boner's Ark, Sam & Silo, and The Evermores. He is one of the founders of the Museum of Cartoon Art, in Rye Brook, New York. He displays a historian's interest in the craft, art, or profession (whichever it is) of cartooning, and has assiduously sought to ensure its healthy future. In 1970 Walker helped to decisively breach the color barrier in the comics by adding a hip, Afro-sporting black, Lieutenant Flap, to the cast of regulars at Camp Swampy.
There have always been barriers of one sort or another in the funnies; as times change, and as old barriers are torn down, new ones invariably go up. Taboos do not gladly suffer a vacuum. I spoke with Walker about this very matter a year ago, in the studio at his Connecticut home—the omphalos of his comics empire.
"When I first started, you couldn't mention divorce or death," Walker said. "You couldn't show smelly socks. You couldn't show a snake. They took a skunk out of my strip one time. In certain parts of the country you couldn't show anybody smoking. In Salt Lake City, if a guy was shown smoking a pipe, they'd simply white it out and leave the guy with his hand stuck out in the air for no reason at all. They would paint out cigarettes. Belly buttons were a big battle of mine. Down at the syndicate they would clip them out with a razor blade. I began putting so many of them in, in the margins and everywhere, that they had a little box down there called Beetle Bailey's Belly-Button Box. The editors finally gave up after I did one strip showing a delivery of navel oranges.
"There's still quite a lot of feeling about violence. In Dick Tracy, if someone is shot and the strip shows blood, there are editors who will paint it out. And there are still taboos about sex and sexual inferences.
"In 1971 I gave General Halftrack a sexy secretary named Miss Buxley. The feminists have been after me about her quite a bit. According to them, Miss Buxley is a stereotype of a dumb blonde secretary. Actually, I patterned her after Marilyn Monroe. I tried to keep an air of innocence, as if she doesn't know what she's got. She just wears these little dresses because she feels good in them, and even though they reveal a lot she doesn't notice she's revealing anything. There are a lot of feminists around now and a lot of them work on newspapers and a number of them got their editors to drop my strip—I think about seven papers went through this—or to leave it out when Miss Buxley was in it. My argument is that I'm really showing how silly the General is when he acts in a male-chauvinist fashion."
The criticism of Miss Buxley, which originated in the pages of The Minneapolis Tribune, in 1981, soon crept into Vogue and onto Today. It did not let up.. A number of newspapers polled their readers specifically on their reactions to General Halftrack's secretary. Although these surveys consistently revealed that most fans did not give a hoot, a vocal minority of readers demanded or endorsed censorship. ("Do away with the strip altogether," advised Ms. VT., a member of the psychology department at Winthrop College, in Rock Hill, South Carolina; "I am sick and tired of this humiliating garbage," wrote Ms. M.D., of Tallahassee, Florida.)
Finally, Walker decided to throw in the towel. He decreed that Miss Buxley, the succulent ingenue, should undergo a subtle metamorphosis; from her pupa would emerge a competent professional secretary. Walker made his decision last July. But because he had already written and drawn three months' worth of strips, the revamped Miss Buxley did not make her debut until November.
The old Miss Buxley was a lissome airhead. In one strip Amos Halftrack described her as "just my receptionist, an ordinary, sweet, young, personable, nice-looking, long-haired, dark-eyed, well-built, soft-skinned, bouncy little ... "—the General slobbered into incoherence before he could complete the résumé. If called upon to take dictation, Miss Buxley would typically forget her notebook. "Oops. I'm just not all here today," she once apologized. General Halftrack, watching her wiggle out the door, confided to an aide: "If there was any more of her here I don't think I could take it." This episode was the first to be yanked by the offended editors of the Tribune.
The new Miss Buxley, as Mort Walker describes her, "wears clothing appropriate for the office." He says that she's still a dish, "but she's a covered dish, and beneath that beautiful body there's a brain." No more pouty insouciance. No more blithe acceptance of General Halftrack's salacious glances. Miss Buxley will be taking courses to improve her secretarial skills, and when asked by the General about what she has learned, will reply with a line like "How to file a sexual-harassment complaint." Walker's daughter Margie, to ensure that her father's commitment to heightened awareness continues, will review any episode of Beetle Bailey in which Miss Buxley—perhaps soon to be Ms. Buxley—appears. The cartoonist's fondest wish at this point is for "the feminists to get off my back." As it stands right now, he says, "they want me off the face of the earth."
Maybe feminists should get off Walker's back and, perhaps more to the point, maybe they actually will. But let's be frank: by the standards being applied, Mort Walker has a lot more than Miss Buxley to answer for. Beetle Bailey, after all, did not poke fun solely at old goats and buxom office workers. It also made light—and still does—of being overweight, dumb, plain, drunk, and lazy, which may at times offend some people, like me, in three or four different ways at once. Beetle Bailey ridicules bureaucrats and brown-nosers, losers and lotharios, bulldogs and bald people. It mocks, with relish, both authority and resistance, duty and irresponsibility, intelligence and witlessness. It treats America's men in uniform with disrespect.
Where, pray, shall we draw the line? It would be best, I think, to leave the drawing (of both the line and the comic strip) up to the cartoonist, and to recognize his role for what it is. Lord Byron wrote, "And if I laugh at any mortal thing/'Tis that I may not weep." In a perfect world comic strips would not be very funny. But such a world, to my mind, would thus be far from perfect.
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