Meet the Beetles
by T. Hodler
Friday, November 5, 2010
When Titan’s recent collection of Beetle Bailey landed on my doorstep a few weeks ago, I don’t think I’d read more than half a dozen strips of the title in almost two decades. But throughout my childhood, I pored over the strip (along with everything else in the funnies section) on a daily basis. Considering how long Beetle Bailey & co. have been a part of my mental furniture, I have had a surprising amount of difficulty thinking of what to write about the strip. (Hence my linking to that terrible, terrible cartoon yesterday, for which I apologize.) After all, whatever you may believe about its quality, Beetle Bailey is undeniably one of the most influential comic strips of all time; debuting one month before Peanuts, and six before Dennis the Menace, BB joined forces with those titles to usher in a new era of newspaper funnies. (Usually somewhere in that sentence, a writer would feel obligated to utter that old incantatory phrase, “for better or worse,” but it would be more accurate to say that their influence was for better and worse.) As a sixty-year-old strip still boasting the involvement of its original creator, it is one of our only living links to a now vanished golden age of cartooning.
So why is it so difficult to find something worth saying about it? There’s no question that BB is a very formulaic work. There are few strips included in this collection—which includes every strip published in 1965, the year Beetle Bailey became the second comic in history (after Blondie) to appear in more than one thousand newspapers—that could not appear in today’s paper without making a reader blink an eye. Sgt. Snorkel is still fat and lonely, Pvt. Zero is still unutterably stupid, Pvt. Killer still has an eye for the ladies (and still boasts a Clark Gable mustache), and Gen. Halftrack is still an amiably sexist fool. The gags collected here are slick and much more consistently executed than they’ve become in recent years, but they are still the exact same jokes you’ve read many times before, revolving around bad food, girl chasing, underling stomping, institutional stupidity, and potato peeling, unexceptional and (with the exception of the retrograde sexual attitude) unobjectionable. But that, let’s call it consistency, should make it easier to critique Beetle Bailey, not more difficult.
Beetle Bailey lacks the virtuoso drawing and composition of the aforementioned Dennis the Menace, as well as the poetry, breadth, and unconventional ambition of Peanuts*, but it boasts a central concept and milieu that is inherently rich and potentially quite powerful. While acclaimed television shows such as The Sopranos and the films of Scorsese and Coppola have popularized the mafia as our leading metaphor for life in the age of American empire, it could be argued that Beetle Bailey’s stateside Camp Swampy is an even more apt symbolic stand-in for our contemporary culture, populated as it is by unfulfilled low-level drudges performing meaningless tasks under the direction of hapless and/or self-centered and oblivious leaders, all in service of a distant, never-mentioned-aloud wealth-devouring engine of mechanized death. This is the true story of Beetle Bailey, or at least one of the true stories, and every once in a while, Mort Walker lets the reader know he sees it too.
For example, the strip from January 17, 1965. Beetle reads a newspaper with the headline, “RUSSIA HAS NEW WEAPON”, and asks aloud, “I wonder what life is like in Russia.” “No freedom. People are told what to do,” replies Pt. Plato, the camp’s resident intellectual. “They can’t go anywhere or do anything without permission. They have to be walled in and guarded to keep them from escaping. Russia is a place where life is hard and full of fear, and pleasures are few.” In the final panel, Beetle and Plato walk in the foreground, and over their shoulders we see a trash-bestrewn, potholed eyesore of a yard walled in with metal fences, barbed wire, and armed guards, while a corpulent sergeant berates two drones into digging a useless hole. Beetle makes the obvious connection. “Oh … Camp Swampy East.”
Here’s another, from September of the same year, and recently voted one of the best BB strips of all time:
But exceptions such as these are few and far between, and fairly mild in any case. Let’s face it, Willie & Joe Beetle Bailey isn’t, much less The Good Soldier Švejk.
And maybe, though I couldn’t have explained it then, that is why, even as a child I remember feeling vaguely disappointed by Beetle Bailey. This despite the fact that I always found the idea of the title character—a lazy, unambitious, low-level grifter and benevolent rebel—very appealing. In an interview, Walker once explained his appeal:
Beetle Bailey seems a lot more positive than either George Baker’s Sad Sack or Bill Mauldin’s Willie and Joe.
Yeah—there was a bitterness about them. Sad Sack was just completely mauled constantly, and while you were sympathetic with him, pretty soon it became rather perverse and you’d think, wow can’t that guy ever win? But Beetle never gives up, and he’s constantly winning over Sarge. He’ll be lying in a heap on the floor, look up at Sarge and say “give up?” He’s always getting Sarge in trouble, because Sarge has a certain naivete—he isn’t very well versed in anything except weaponry and marching and things like that. Beetle runs rings around the other guys—he’s really the smartest one in camp. He knows how to use the system to benefit himself, so he gets more sack time and goofs off and gets away with it.
Ultimately, the problem with Beetle Bailey is that, despite his subversive promise, Walker never really lets him go all the way. When compared to a similar character such as Huckleberry Finn, Bailey appears as nothing more than a sanitized facsimile, watered down so as not to offend mainstream sensibilities. It is ironic that the strip first gained fame when the Tokyo Stars & Stripes banned it, in fear that it might inspire disrespect towards authority. Because these strips don’t inspire rebellion, but instead offer consolation. This is humor of the grin-and-bear-it variety, designed not to inspire anger and action, but amused resignation to fate. For every potentially cutting strip such as the ones above you can find others that in devoted service to conventional piety. (E.g. the strip from May 27, in which a limo-riding General Halftrack asks the chaplain if he can give him a lift. “No, thanks,” the clergyman replies, and gestures towards the church. “Can I give you one?”)
But in the end, maybe it doesn’t matter whether or not Mort Walker followed his premises to their natural conclusions, because in a serial story that lasts as long as this one has, the readers will do that on their own. Because while Beetle Bailey re-enlists over and over again, never taking the path so obviously right for him, there’s another Beetle Bailey, one who exists only in the longtime reader’s mind, who does. Even in the strip that does exist, Beetle mostly manages to avoid investing in society’s illusions about what matters. In the strip from February 5, 1965, the religious authority represented by Chaplain Staneglass stands over a Beetle Bailey resting in bed, and questions his direction in life: “Beetle, what do you want out of life? Fame? Wealth? Power?” “None of those, sir. Why?” Beetle looks up from his book to reply. “Because you’ll never get those or anything else by lying around in your free time!” The implication, of course, is that Beetle should be working harder for the military-industrial complex, and he will be rewarded in turn. Beetle, idling, is unconvinced by the chaplain’s plea. “But this is what I want!”
Bailey may be a watered down and inadequate substitute for Jaroslav Hašek’s Švejk or Joseph Heller’s Yossarian or, most pertinently of all, perhaps, Melville’s Bartleby, but the untold stories that are only implied by comic strips are sometimes more powerful than the lame gags that get them read in the first place. It may be that millions of readers, exposed on a daily basis to the bland Beetle Bailey of their morning papers, live with another Beetle Bailey in their heads, a Beetle Bailey who, unlike not only his print incarnation but most of us as well, finally puts down his potato peeler and his uniform and his gun and escapes Camp Swampy forever. Or at least I like to think so.
*Incidentally, Mort Walker was the cartoonist who nominated Charles Schulz for membership in the National Cartoonists Society, but according to Schulz biographer David Michaelis, he didn’t entirely understand what his fellow artist was up to. “His work puzzled me in the beginning because he didn’t have any gags. He was doing something different, and it was hard to understand. I’d read Peanuts some days and at the end it was just ‘Sigh.’ I’d think, that’s not a gag line. What’s he doing?”
Labels: Mort Walker