BEETLE BAILEYMedium: Newspaper comics
Distributed by: King Features Syndicate
First Appeared: 1950
Creator: Mort Walker
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It's hard to say precisely when and where Beetle Bailey first appeared — or even what his name was back then. His origins lie in hundreds of cartoons his creator, Mort Walker, drew for
many different magazines during the late 1940s, about a lazy, apathetic young man named "Spider". Only one thing was certain — the character's occupation. Spider (no relation) was a college student.
Walker adapted his feckless hero into comic-strip form, and effortlessly sold it to King Features Syndicate. It made its first appearance (in only 12 newspapers) on Sept. 4, 1950. The syndicate made only one alteration — the protagonist's name was changed to "Beetle" Bailey, possibly because spiders are deemed too industrious to represent such a character. On March 13, 1951, Beetle quit college, joined the Army, and was posted to Camp Swampy. Thus he began a decades-long relationship with Sgt. Snorkel — and an equally long relationship with the comics-reading public. The strip now appears in more than 1,800 papers, all over the world.
Other characters, conforming to the types commonly found in Army camps, quickly followed — Killer, the ladies' man; Cosmo, the huckster; Plato, the intellectual; Zero, the uneducated country boy; Lt. Peachfuzz, the junior officer who substitutes statutory authority for mature common sense. Some, like Lt. Flap, the strip's first black character, introduced during the 1960s, represent the shifting landscape of today's Army.
Another way the strip represents societal changes occurred when Camp Swampy's commanding officer, Gen. Halftrack, was packed off to sensitivity training. The general had long been notorious for his offensive way of ogling his secretary, Miss Buxley. In 1997, he was accused of sexual harassment and sent away to have his consciousness raised. (It's our guess, however, the old goat's consciousness is still at gutter level, and he's just become more cagey about his visual self-indulgence.)
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 & 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.
In 1954, Beetle and several of his friends made a two-week visit to Beetle's sister, Lois. They were soon back at Camp Swampy, but Lois and her family were spun off into a strip of their own — Hi and Lois, written by Walker and drawn by Dik Browne (who, incidentally, inspired the character "Plato").
Beetle Bailey also appeared in comic books, from 1953-80 (with a few brief gaps), first from Dell Comics, then Gold Key, King, Charlton, then back to Gold Key. Harvey Comics ran a second series from 1992-94. However, he was never a big star in that venue.
He was also never a big star in animation, although two attempts were made to make him one. The first occurred in 1962, when Famous Studios (which had long since sold Casper the Friendly Ghost, Litle Audrey, and its other characters to Harvey Comics and hadn't succeeded in generating any new stars) featured him in its "Beetle Bailey & Friends" TV series, with Howard Morris (Atom Ant, Winnie the Pooh's friend Gopher) in the title role and Allen Melvin (Magilla Gorilla) as Sarge. Other King Features stars, such as Snuffy Smith and Krazy Kat, appeared in the series. The second was in 1989, when Beetle appeared in his only animated TV special.
Nor did he ever make it big in the merchandising arena. Like the character himself, the Beetle Bailey strip seems to just sit on the comics page, inert. But also like the character, its job — staying in the public eye and making people laugh — seems to get done.