havnt done a entry for a while so lets take this at a bunny slope level, hahaw
the other week I bought a little stack of used books -including “Shape Up or Ship Out Beetle Baily”, with the classic image of beetle Bailey being beaten into an image of a pretzel on the cover-( get it?)
With its glib 1970′s simplified form, its tempting to forget that this goofy slacker/wiseguy strip is a direct desendent of exemplary comics like Barney google, Mutt and Jeff Krazy Kat and the other Big-Foot strps of the the 1930′s. While its a diminished moment in the comic strip’s descent from the early 20th Century peak down to the nadir at the end of the tunnel a hundred years later, I was surprised by how much i like Beetle Bailey. The jokes in this book are pretty funny and, at the risk of making Dik Browne puke, they have a graceful logic to them, like the work of a poetic clown.
I mean Mort Walker, not Dik Browne. Fuck. now this blog is ruined.
At the same time they are surprisingly reflective of their time. This book came out 36 years ago,when the Vietnam war was in its terminal stage and the post -segregation era was in full swing . This book illustrates that the racial dialogue in America iwas clearly at a provocative stage with the superfly Lt. Flack being forced to bear thefull weight of the strip’s subtextual social consciousness.
In one of the stronger jokes Lt Flack is asked how to get promoted and he answers,” I just keep my nose to the grindstone.” The camp idiot “Zero” overhears this and thinks to himself” wow, and here I thought there was equality between blacks and whites.”
Weird, pretty funny, sort of provocative, not terribly sensitive by todays standards and arguably not something you would see today at all.
Also, something that is referred to in a series of jokes spanning a month of strips is the famous “New Army” re-strategizing of the Nixon administration in 1973. This was the point at which the army became an all volunteer army, anda moment in which the army declared their intent to “unlearn the tactical lessons of Vietnam.”I remember encountering references to the new army when i was a kid but didnt understand the historical context then.
Tom Hart remarked to me in a comment below that a precedent towards addressing Vietnam was set in the 70′s by strips like Doonesbury. The difference is that Beetle Bailey is rooted in fantasy, like Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy,and its growth is retarded. I’ve always considered it to be like wallpaper, a merchandising property thats stays in print for the sake of the merch rather than for the sake of creativity.Bushmiller’s Nancy is a fantasy world in which poverty, a disgruntled working class, old age and broken familes remain just out of view and sometimes enter the strip. there’s something that borders on being genuinely interesting when real world comes to the brink of this weird world that Dik Browne creates. Fuck, I mean Mort Walker.
There’s a thin line sometimes between a good dumb immature comic and one that deserves to be hated for not maturing. Certain bands were never meant to do mature work. Im reminded of music writers who would bemoan the very idea of a band becoming post-hardcore or post-punk. Social-economically the comparison between garage bands and BB probably does not fly, but aesthetically it does. Certain strips have vitality and verve based on sticking to their simple cartoon roots. BB in the 70′s is one of those strips.
In terms of it’s value as entertainment and story, there is a machine like efficiency with which the characters are introduced, and an impressive inventiveness behind the variations the cartoonist manges to discover behind each theme. Sarge is fat and violent. Sarge’s dog is as smart as a human,Beetle is a slacking dickwipe. Zero is on acid. MS Buxley is hot. General Halftrack loves golf and is inept. Thats not even mentioning ”Killer” the ’70′s era lady’s man, and the blond haired non- commissioned officer whose name I forget, and Cookie the disgusting unhygenic chef.
So, to summarize, keep your eyes peeled for these old books. The art of printing cartoon collections cheaply and in a small digestable format is a dead thing -in this age of 25 lb 800 page hardcover reprint books . And thats it. More reviews to follow