Depending on your PoV, the sixty-year success of Mort Walker’s “Beetle Bailey” either displays the vital comic life of its clearly drawn characters or demonstrates how you can sustain a career in comics telling the same jokes over and over. I’ve swung between both points over the years, but I have to admit to getting a kick out of Titan Books’ year worth of strips, Beetle Bailey: 1965. It helps that the volume collects daily and Sunday strips from its peak teen years — when some of the jokes are a wee bit fresher and the Walker/Jerry Dumas big foot art contains enough hints of its period to provide a pleasing retro glow.
Much of the series’ basic cast had already been established by 1965 (two notable exceptions: the always-good-for-a-horny-guy joke Miss Buxley and the seemingly unflappable black Lieutenant Flap), with at least one character, oldster soldier Pop, on his way out. As in more recent strips the battle between slacker Bailey and his thuggish nemesis Sgt. Snorkle provide a recurring source of gags, so we get the requisite Beetle-ducks-out-of-work strips, plus panels where the latter hauls off on the former. Some set-ups remain evergreen: I’ve always dug the strips where Sarge hangs off the side of a cliff, clasping onto a bush with the world’s toughest roots, and the squeaky chair battles between Snorkle and the terminally dweebish Lt. Fuzz.
Slightly more stuck in their time are strips devoted to Private Rocky, the former hood turned rock-‘n’-roller, and a series of strips about beatnik protesters that closes out the volume. (A few more years and they’d be hippies.) Too, an extended sequence where Beetle and the gang travel across country for Thanksgiving provides a refreshing change of scene from timeless ol’ Camp Swampy – and some nice simple cartoon images of small-town America. Per Mort’s son Brian, some readers “who were accustomed to getting their laughs in daily installments” apparently didn’t like the more extended sequences, but it works in book form.
As a joke-teller, Walker and his assistant Dumas had a working rhythm firmly established by ’65. Per the book’s intro, each week began with the two of ‘em bringing in ten gags apiece for “Bailey” and “Hi and Lois” (Walker’s other successful strip at the time) then culling 14 for the week ahead. (That doesn’t take into account the more disposable jokes that were often included in the first two panels of the Sunday strips.) Seven-out-of-ten-jokes doesn’t leave much margin for un-funniness, yet Walker and his assistant managed to make it work for a lonnnng time.