Just like any other creative industry, cartooning has always had dynasties. Tom Heintjes talks to four creators who followed their cartoonist forebears into the family business, with all the pitfalls and advantages the career path has offered them.
When you think of Barrymores, Guthries, Redgraves and Peales, the word that springs to mind is dynasty. Generations enter a creative field and flourish, carrying the family tradition until the next branch of the family tree is mature enough to ensure the cycle remains intact. In this respect, cartooning is no different and has seen generations working in the business into which they were born. John Dirks ably followed in his father Rudolph’s footsteps, as did Tom Johnson (Ferd’s son), Cullen Murphy (John Cullen’s son), John Saunders (Allen’s son), Chip Sansom (Art’s son), Dean Young (Chic’s son) and others. Who can say what leads boys to follow in their fathers’ shoes? Is it genetic, environmental or simply a case of being born to a unique family enterprise? Hogan’s Alley editor Tom Heintjes sat down with some of today’s cartooning scions to talk about the ups and downs of dedicating their careers to their ancestors’ creations. Jeff Keane moved behind the drawing board when his father Bil turned the keys to The Family Circus over to him, Mason Mastroianni took over B.C. following Johnny Hart’s death, and Brian and Greg Walker are Mort’s sons and work primarily on Beetle Bailey and Hi and Lois, although they have participated in a number of strips that came out of the Walker studio.
(Left-right) Jeff Keane, Mason Mastroianni, Tom Heintjes, Brian Walker and Greg Walker
Tom Heintjes:You all have a unique perspective on the comics industry: You grew up around it, and now you work in it. I wanted to get your thoughts on changes you’ve seen, given your unique vantage point. What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the industry?
Greg Walker: The biggest change I’ve seen is the smaller number of newspapers. It used to be that every town had competing newspapers, and if you didn’t sell one side of town, you’d sell to the other. That was a healthy competition, and it drove up prices. Now, you’re lucky if a big city has one paper.
Brian Walker: Newspapers are really struggling right now, and you kind of wish they’d look to comics as something they had that is truly unique. They’re cutting back on newsprint, shrinking the size of the sections, firing political cartoonists. We’re kind of the barnacle hanging onto the side of the ship.
Heintjes:The comics used to be used as a sales tool. When do you think that was no longer the case?
Greg Walker: It still is to some extent.
Brian Walker: I don’t think they use it to their advantage at all. The Sunday comics used to be wrapped around the outside of the Sunday paper, and now the Los Angeles Times completely hides it under layers of advertising and really requires you to search to find it. Kids today don’t think of the Sunday paper in the way we did. For us, the Sunday paper was, “Ooh—the comics page!”
Mason Mastroianni: I have a different perspective. Before I worked in comics, I was working in computer graphics. It was taking off, and everyone wanted to be in it. The jobs were right there. I’m a year into working in comic strips now, and the impression I’m getting is that the industry is getting more competitive because in a way it’s dying. I know my grandfather had been losing papers for a decade.
Brian Walker: Certainly, we have the advantage of the papers holding onto the established, proven products, so that makes it harder for new cartoonists to break in and to attract new readers. The ideal solution would be to allow more space for everybody, so every paper could have new, edgy comics and older, more established comics, and story strips and everything. That would be the ideal situation.
Greg Walker: Do you think it’s changed all the much, in that sense? It’s always been a competitive industry. In the old days, you also had more comics competing for the space, like when you had three versions of the Katzenjammer Kids competing for space.
Brian Walker: What used to happen a lot in the boom years of the ‘30s was that a syndicate would come out with Buck Rogers, so King Features would say, “Now we need a science fiction strip,” and they would introduce Flash Gordon, and NEA would come out with something else. Each syndicate would have a version of a successful concept that they sold to the five or six papers in a town.
Heintjes:Did we see a version of that sort of stampede in the wake of The Far Side’s popularity?
Jeff Keane: I think every syndicate looked at The Far Side and said, “We should get a version of that, too.” The hardest thing for those single panels to do is be something different. A lot of them got lumped together, like “Oh, there’s a dinosaur, or a cow, so it must be like The Far Side.”
Mastroianni: I guess I can get away with using dinosaurs [laughter].
Brian Walker: And I love that Family Parallelogram strip! [laughter]
Keane: I’ve always been a little surprised that no one else tried to create a circular panel. I think the genius of my dad was using the circle where everyone else was using squares. It was very recognizable and now is synonymous with the strip.
Heintjes:One of the biggest challenges is to stand out on the page.
Keane: Yes, it’s helped us stand out.
Greg Walker: At the same time, you have to wonder what people are reading. I work on Hi and Lois, and I get people saying, “I really like that thing you do with the dashed line behind the little boy.” [laughter]
Brian Walker: When people meet you, they want to comment on something they remember about your work. So they tell you something they remember, and it makes you want to do it more, because people like it. But you have to keep in mind that it’s not that they necessarily like that thing, but that they remember it.
Keane: I get that all the time. People say, “Oh, I love it when you have Not Me in the strip,” and they have the impression that Not Me is in the strip all the time! But we hardly ever use Not Me anymore. We probably use him once a year. Or I’ll get criticism for using Not Me all the time. But it’s because it’s so recognizable, like the dotted line. We get compliments on the dotted line, which is good because it takes forever to draw!
Greg Walker: How do you draw that? One line that you put white on later, or do you draw the dashes?
Keane: No, it’s one continuous black line, and I put the white on it.
Greg Walker: We get the same thing in Hi and Lois with Trixie in the sunbeam. Some people say, “Oh, I love Trixie in the sunbeam,” and other people say, “Get her out of the sunbeam!”
Brian Walker: Those are actually hard gags because you want to do a different take on it. We’ve had the sunbeam coming through venetian blinds, or the sun going behind a cloud, every single variation on something that simple has been done in 50 years.
Keane: But I think if you do it in a different way, it’s all right.
Greg Walker: This is something we run into that other people don’t run into. There’s a historical aspect to the strips, and we have to know what’s been done before.
Heintjes:The challenges facing the comics pages are well known. But have there been any positive changes in the time you’ve been working as cartoonists?
Keane: No. The whole thing’s a failure [laughter].
Mastroianni: I know that political correctness has taken its toll on what we can do, but I feel that there’s an edginess that I can get away with. Look at Pearls Before Swine.
Brian Walker: I would agree. Starting with The Far Side, you began seeing humor that you might have seen in Playboy before that. Not in a raunchy way. I read a variety of comics, and I don’t want them to be all the same. I want a newspaper to have a variety of strips. They shouldn’t all be old strips, and they shouldn’t get rid of strips just because their old. I know when I read the paper, I change my reading habits. There are times in my life when I’ll start reading a strip again even though I stopped reading it earlier.
Greg Walker: But in our case, don’t you feel like our readers expect something? I’ve worked on brand-new strips, and there are different expectations. When you’re reading Hi and Lois or Beetle Bailey or the Family Circus, you expect certain things. You cant’ get too edgy.
Keane: That’s what I think makes a good newspaper page: the juxtaposition of our material with edgier material.
Greg Walker: But we always have to remain conscious of that edge and not go over it.
Heintjes: Since you are all working on strips that have certain audience expectations, is there any room for personal expression on your part?
Brian Walker: One thing that [former King Features comics editor] Jay Kennedy used to tell us all the time is that no strip can remain static. A strip like Hi and Lois, which has been around for 50 years, has gone through coonskin caps and hippie beads, stuff like that. When we started getting involved, we started making changes subtly, almost so people don’t even notice it. That’s a pretty challenging thing. Now we do a lot of stuff with cell phones and computers. And even though they have uniform clothing, we’ve struggled with clothes, too. We’ve tried to make the shoes more like sneakers. The kids in Hi and Lois used to basically wear Beetle Bailey shoes; they were like Army boots, almost.
Keane: You change the surroundings, but families don’t really change. The stuff around them changed. Now you have flat-screen TVs instead of the big consoles.
Greg Walker: You lost that iconic image of the square TV with rabbit ears. You can’t draw that anymore
Keane: Exactly. But the gag or the feeling doesn’t change.
Brian Walker: I think styles of humor change, too. When I started writing for Hi and Lois, Calvin and Hobbes was really big. And here’s this image of a kid going over a cliff in his wagon. If I had Ditto do that, people would freak! People would say, “He’s going to kill himself—you can’t have him go off a cliff on his sled!” Particularly with Trixie—we couldn’t have Trixie hanging off high-tension wires.
Greg Walker: But we’ve had people suggest that [laughter].
Brian Walker: So even if you try to make the humor edgier and more in line with up-and-coming strips, you can’t get away with it.
Heintjes:How do you turn around that battleship of expectations to make the strip more of your own? Do you always try?
Greg Walker: We do try to push the envelope, but we can’t do it too far, too fast.
Brian Walker: I think your own personality inevitably creeps into it.
Mastroianni: I try to maintain the personality that my grandfather gave the strip.
Keane: I think you’ve got a challenge. You have the older readership that’s expecting a certain strip, but if you update the humor, they’re going to get mad. But you have to update for younger readers to make them take a look at it. So how do you get them to take another look at B.C. when they think they know what it is, even though you’re putting a fresh spin on it?
Mastroianni: We’re actually in a fortunate situation in that we have two strips: B.C. and the Wizard of Id. We kind of decided early on with B.C. that we were going to take a little more of a risk and integrate a punchier and edgier style, like my grandfather was doing back in the ’70s. With the Wizard, we decided to maintain the status quo and really maintain the look of that strip as it has been for a couple of decades and see what the reaction is. I’m pretty active on blogs, and so far there hasn’t been negative stuff said about B.C.
Greg Walker: I’ve seen positive comments about B.C.
Brian Walker: We have a similar situation with our two strips, Beetle Bailey and Hi and Lois. My father is still very much the creative force on Beetle, even though there are four of us coming up with ideas for it. But he’s had very little to do with Hi and Lois since the mid-’80s, over 20 years. And they’re very different strips to write for: Hi and Lois is a reality-based strip, with true-life observational humor, similar to Family Circus. Beetle Bailey is more surreal: Beetle can be broken up into little pieces one day and back the next. It’s much more visual and slapstick. It has a biggest cast of characters. So you have to constantly switch hats to write for them.
My father will say, “We need to get some new life into Beetle Bailey. We need some contemporary humor to keep it up to date.” So Greg and I will write a gag that includes the name of a current slang phrase, and he’ll look at it and say, “I’ve never heard this phrase” or “I’ve never seen this TV show,” and it’s back to the drawing board [laughter]. It can get frustrating. Chance Browne and I still talk about how we feel like we’re still striving for the perfection that our dads established, and that we’re still in their shadows. He says that when he’s at the drawing board he tries to channel his father [Dik Browne]. And I still feel that I’m learning, even after all these years. And we work with Jerry Dumas, who’s been doing this for 50 years. He’ll look at a gag and say, “Beetle would never say that,” and I’ll say, “Really? I thought it was pretty funny.” And he’ll say, “Yeah, but it’s just not him. Beetle is smarter than that,” or whatever.
Greg Walker: That’s what’s interesting about our situation, where you’re working with a dedicated group of writers. We’re not freelance gag writers who send stuff in. I feel like they’re family. I feel like Beetle Bailey is my family and Hi and Lois is my family. You have to have that feeling of ownership so it isn’t just canned gags. I’ve been writing gags for this strip since 1968, so I’ve been involved with this for 40 years, which is more than half the life of the strip.
Keane: I’ve been writing gags for longer than that. I’ve been writing gag since I was 2 [laughter].
Greg Walker: But you weren’t getting paid for them [laughter].
Keane: I thought my dad liked me. He just liked my gags [laughter].
Brian Walker: Do you still get called “kid”? I still get called “Mort Walker’s kid.”
Greg Walker: I get that all the time. And people say, “Oh, you’re Chip, aren’t you?” Well, I guess I am.
Heintjes:Was working in the family business something you’d always envisioned for yourself?
All [in unison]: No.
Heintjes:How did it happen that you all started working where you do?
Mastroianni: I was an illustrator and an animator, and I always suspected there was a possibility that my grandfather would one day pass away. I thought in the back of my mind I might someday be involved with the strip. But I never suspected it would be so soon. My situation is probably somewhat unique in that I had never drawn the characters before he died, and he died rather suddenly after winning a battle with cancer. The next day I flew home, and we talked about our options. We said we could sell the strip, or I could give it a try. I said I would see what I could do.
Brian Walker: How long did it take you to work on it until you felt you could put it out there confidently?
Mastroianni: At first it was just a lot of looking at his art and copying it. That was several weeks.
Brian Walker: How far ahead was he?
Mastroianni: All of three weeks.
Mastroianni: We ran six weeks of classic [material]. I forget how that decision came about. I think my family decided right away they were going to do that.
Brian Walker: So you had nine weeks. That’s a huge buffer [laughter].
Mastroianni: Well, I’m an artist, and I know how to draw.
Brian Walker: And the drawing looks fine. I think it looks great. Johnny’s drawing changed over the years, but it always tended to be sort of flat and linear. You’ve added a roundness, a depth and a perspective, to it. I tell people to look at it.
I got in a big argument with Bob Harvey, because he wrote something that said if a creator dies, his strip should go with him. I said in the case of Wizard of Id, Brant [Parker] hadn’t been doing it for, what, 10 years?
Mastroianni: About 15 years.
Brian Walker: And it looked OK then. Why should it go away now [with Parker’s death]?
Mastroianni: That’s a tough argument, and I can see both sides.
Greg Walker: We were conscious of that with Hi and Lois. For a long time, we didn’t tell anybody we were working on it. We didn’t want people to say, “Look at this thing—it’s not as good as it used to be!” When we started putting our names on it and people said that, we said, “Well, we’ve been doing it for 10 years, so when did this change happen?”
Heintjes:So if none of you envisioned yourself in the family business, how did you come to do what you’re doing?
Greg Walker: I wanted to be a filmmaker. I had a job at a film company, and I was commuting into the city every day. I was writing comic books on the side. I was writing for my dad’s comic books, and somebody said, “This kid can write.” So I started writing Rocky and Bullwinkle comics and Flintstones comics, and the artist drawing one of the books says, “I don’t want to draw this anymore.” I said, “Well, I can quit, or I can draw it or hire people to draw it.” I actually hired Chris and Chance [Browne], and they did some beautiful stuff. After a while, I said, “I think I can draw this,” so I started drawing. So I had this film job, then on my lunch hour I’d be off to Western Publishing to drop off my work. So I’d work all day and then go home at night and do the comic book work. It was a way to earn some extra money. But meanwhile, I’m commuting every day. I’m sitting on this train, and it’s a sunny day, and I’m thinking, “My dad’s playing golf today” [laughter].
Brian Walker: It’s a very appealing way to make a living, being at home and around your kids. Where we live, in Connecticut, you have dads and moms on business trips and nannies watching the kids. Families are separated. The way I’ve always thought of it is, sure, we were presented with a huge opportunity as the offspring of these famous creators. That’s not an opportunity that everyone gets, and I’m very aware of that. A certain amount of luck goes into play with that. But in this business, nepotism will only get you so far. That strip is going to appear in the newspaper, and the reader doesn’t care if Bil Keane or Jeff Keane or Mort Walker or Brian Walker is doing it. The product’s quality has to be there, day in and day out. It’s not like dad had an auto repair shop and I’m sitting in the back room drinking beer.
Keane: The problem is the same. We all start with a blank piece of paper. So whether I’m doing it, or my dad is doing it, it doesn’t matter. And you don’t really know if the person whose name is on the strip is really doing it anyway. I know that what I’m doing now is more than what my dad was doing 30 years ago, because he had a couple of cartoons he was doing at the same time. But then he was only doing Family Circus, and he would pencil it and letter it, and somebody else would ink it, and somebody else would color it on Sundays. But I’m doing the penciling, the inking, the lettering and the coloring, only because I want the quality to be as good as I can make it myself. So if someone says, “Oh, you have it easy,” it isn’t. I guess I could make it easy and not do anything, but I know what it’s supposed to be like. When I first started it was scary, because I didn’t even know how to ink. I could pencil, because I could use an eraser. But the guy who was inking Family Circus left, and Dad said, “Why don’t you try to ink it?” And I said, “He uses a brush!” But I taught myself to use a brush. It took me a lot longer. And the dotted-line cartoons are so complicated because you need perspective. At first I said, “I could never draw that!” But you start this thing and you go along, and you’ve got this finished product.
Brian Walker: You’ve got this tremendous obligation. When you start a new strip, there’s no expectation. But when you work on a strip that’s been around for 40 or 50 years, you feel an obligation to the readers—and to my father—to continue this level of quality. I find it’s helpful to think of it as an open-ended apprenticeship. You never say, “OK, I got it. I’m better than he is.”
Keane: In terms of my own personal journey through this, I look at it as, I’m a lot better than I used to be, and a lot quicker. [To Mastroianni] Your experience would be totally different. With you, it was, “Here, start doing this strip.” [laughter]
Greg Walker: My experience was different too, because I got my start in the comic books back when they had the humor comics. I did Flintstones, Underdog. I could be bad in the comic books because people don’t take as close a look at them. And then the opportunity came along to do a spin-off of Beetle Bailey called Sarge Snorkel, and that’s where I really got my apprenticeship.
Brian Walker: I want to say something on behalf of Chance Browne. Dik Browne is one of my all-time favorite cartoonists. At the peak of his powers he was as good as anyone. And Chance is always feeling like, “I’m not worthy!” He’s got all these books of Dik’s work that he refers to. And he’s gotten to the point where he is really a great cartoonist, and I don’t think he gets the credit he deserves. He’s been doing some unbelievable Hi and Lois Sunday pages with perspective, fall foliage in the background, whole neighborhoods…
Mastroianni: Your point about the pressure you place on yourself is a good one. I know this is the greatest job I’ve ever had, and it’s been a real advantage coming onto something established.
Brian Walker: I can still remember the excitement of opening the paper and seeing a strip I had written published in a newspaper! I think it was the Denver Post.
Mastroianni: I know that five, ten years down the road, if B.C. and the Wizard still run, it will be because of me. That’s immense pressure. I know there’s an expectation for me to fulfill.
Greg Walker: We’ve got to do quality work, or papers will drop us like crazy. We did come in with a nice list, but there’s the pressure to maintain it.
Mastroianni: Sometimes I feel that I can only go down instead of up. When you start out at the top, there’s only one way to go, and I’ll have to endure that loss, that pain.
Brian Walker: It’s going to happen, with the demise of newspapers.
Heintjes:What were the biggest obstacles you had to overcome to work on your strips? Was it something technical, or was it something less observable, like understanding one of the characters?
Keane: I think it was the writing.
Mastroianni: Definitely the writing.
Greg Walker: The writing always seemed natural to me. But the actual craft part of it was hard, holding the pen. We still do it the old-fashioned way, with a crow quill. And the brush, too—you see these guys who’ve been using them for years, and they can go whoosh and make a perfect circle! It takes a long time to learn to do that.
Brian Walker: Yeah. Our father’s like, “What’s taking you so long? I did a week’s worth of dailies while I was sitting on the can!” [laughter] It’s a running joke. “I wrote 20 gags while I was in the doctor’s waiting room!” Yeah, great.
Greg Walker: The great thing about pencils is, you can be free and loose and just let yourself go. But with inking I’m like a watchmaker. In Beetle, there are very few lines, and every one counts. If you’re even a little off, it just doesn’t look right. You can’t just cross-hatch your way around the mistake.
Brian Walker: I actually draw sketches when I write. We call them gag sketches. And with Hi and Lois, Chance follows them pretty closely. I’ll do circular inset panels or panoramic panels in my gag sketch. And the characters don’t look fully realized like the ultimately will in the finished art, but they have to be there, with the kind of clothes they have on, if they’re driving in a car. I’m not just typing screen instructions—it has to be drawn in there.
Greg Walker: Some people do it that way, but we don’t. We think about how it’s going to look visually when we’re writing it.
Brian Walker: Writing gags is really tough. It’s about pacing and being as economical as you can, squeezing out as many words as you can.
Keane: I don’t really write gags. I might make suggestions, but my dad does all the writing, so I guess I’m safe.
Greg Walker: Have you thought about the transition on that?
Keane: Yeah. Well, to me, the Sunday pages are the most difficult, and the ideas that my dad comes up with are so creative. I think, “That’s a great idea! I would never be able to think up something like that!” Now, the dailies are different. I rarely write them, but I edit. I’ll suggest another way to say a line, or leaving a word out because it’s somewhere else in the gag. I come from a theater background, so I read the line like an actor, and when I read it, I not only want them to read the gag but look at the picture. A lot of the time, you’ll see a gag and you don’t even to have to look at the picture. But you want both.
Greg Walker: This is a change we’ve seen in comic strips over the years: more talking heads. You could pretty much cover the art up sometimes and not miss anything in the gag.
Keane: That’s the biggest difference. Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, we would put in all this detail and draw every single toy that you could possibly have, because you could read it. But now, they squeeze the strip to the point that it’s sometimes the Family Oval because they’ve done something to it.
Greg Walker: [writing on a piece of paper] “The Family Oval…” Hmm…I’ll bet there’s a syndicate that might be interested in that! [laughter]
Keane: But Family Circus has become more talking heads over the years. Now, we’ll do a close-up of Jeffy or Billy with a word balloon, because if you overdetail it, you can’t see it. But it becomes a vicious cycle, because it makes it easier for papers to reduce you further. They think, “Oh, you can read this well when it’s reduced, so we’ll reduce it more, and you can still read it.” So drawing for reduction is a problem on a number of levels.
Brian Walker: You have to use only so many words, and you can only work in this small space, and it has to be visual, and it has to be contemporary, and the characters have to be recognizable. It’s like putting a puzzle together. Sometimes I’ll spend a whole day in the studio, and at the end of the day my brain feels like a raisin from squeezing every ounce of creative juice I can get out of it.
Mastroianni: My general feeling is, I hope I’ll be good enough to work on B.C. If I ever feel that I am good enough, I’ll probably quit [laughter]. That’s why I’ll never quit: I’ll always feel that I’m working to the point where I’m good enough to work on B.C.
Heintjes:How have taboos changed over the years? Are there things you used to get away with that you can’t today, and vice versa?
Keane: A lot, actually. It’s weird. It goes both ways. For example, you cannot show a kid in a car without a seatbelt. And certain people look for it. If we rerun a week for some reason, I’ll redraw them to put a seatbelt in, because you don’t want to deal with it.
Heintjes:Is it the same thing with bicycle helmets?
Keane: I would put a helmet on them because it’s the way kids look now, not necessarily because of safety. But seatbelts are a real bugaboo. And you can show toilets now, so that’s a good thing.
Mastroianni: In the area of political correctness, we run into a lot of things. We like to use risky words. My grandfather would get in a lot of trouble, too.
Heintjes:I remember one strip where Johnny has an Asian character refer to UCLA as “UCRA.” You could never do that now. And Thirsty, from Hi and Lois, used to be a total alcoholic.
Greg Walker: And we had to remove his reddish nose. The Los Angeles Times sort of requested that.
Keane: And grandma in Family Circus was a lush, but we took that out [laughter].
Greg Walker: In Beetle, the soldiers used to stand on the street corner and whistle at girls, and there was the general and the secretary.
Brian Walker: Anything that can be thought of as sexist gets you in a lot of trouble. I was reading Rose Is Rose, and what I really liked is that you really feel a physical attraction between the husband and wife. And Hi and Lois are married and have four kids, so you can assume that they’ve had sex at some point in their lives, Quite a few years ago—I think it was during the Olympics—I did a Sunday page of the Hi and Lois Olympics. Lois was shopping and driving the kids around. In the beginning it was like she was running a marathon, and at the end she was just dragging herself to bed. And Hi was lying in bed saying, “Want to go for the gold tonight?” It didn’t show anything, she wasn’t in a negligee, they weren’t under the covers humping away or anything, but Jay Kennedy said, “You can’t do this.” He said it was a Sunday page. I thought it was suggestive in a very sweet, wholesome way, but we had to change it.
Greg Walker: You’ve got newer cartoonists coming along. I was walking to Terri Libenson, who does The Pajama Diaries, and she’ll have her characters go to bed together, along with some sexual innuendo that’s not even that subtle sometimes.
Brian Walker: Jerry Scott can do stuff in Zits that we can’t do in Hi and Lois. You get kind of envious of that sometimes. What’s the difference between Miss Buxley in Beetle Bailey, whom we’ve had to change and tone down over the years, and Boopsie in Doonesbury? She’s also a dumb blonde. But the strip started later, people have different expectations—they expect Garry to do stuff that pushes people a little bit. We have to work within a safer realm. It can be very frustrating, but it comes with the turf.
Greg Walker: A few years ago, I did a strip with Guy and Brad Gilchrist called The Rock Channel. They were doing Muppets at the time, and Muppets was under similar constraints. But we had the greatest time writing stuff for this new strip! It was a nice release.
Brian Walker: Jerry, Mort, Greg and I meet once a month for Beetle Bailey, and somebody will inevitably bring in this off-color gag that is way out there. And my father will say, “We’ll send this to Sweden.” Alf [Thorsjon] actually publishes some pornographic Beetle Bailey material.
Heintjes:I’ve seen some of those!
Brian Walker: They’re pretty out there, but at least we have some sort of outlet for that kind of offbeat material. And they’re often the funniest gags we do! [laughter]
Mastroianni: We had a strip where B.C. dumped oil on a seal, which probably would have been tasteless in any era, but we got a lot of mail on that one.
Heintjes:You didn’t anticipate a reaction?
Mastroianni: I thought there might be some. But on the oil it said it “quiets noisy seals.” I guess I should have expected it. It was pretty bad.
Brian Walker: We did a Hi and Lois gag set in the wintertime; there was a lot of snow. Hi was getting out of bed, saying, “I’ve got to shovel the walk and start the car.” And Lois said, “You should be thankful that we don’t live in the tropics,” and the last panel showed the family on top of the house with a monsoon raging. And we did this months before the tsunami hit. Chance just about had a heart attack—he was FedExing stuff all over the place, trying to stop it. But it ran, and we had press releases drawn up to apologize for it. It looked like the ultimate in bad taste. And we didn’t really get that much reaction, just a few letters. You get the feeling that there are people just lurking, waiting for you to stumble like that. It’s King Features, and they say, “You guys have to be careful, because those guys from Universal Press Syndicate are standing outside the editor’s door with a briefcase full of samples.”
Heintjes:Seeing the changes in the entertainment and newspaper industries, would you encourage your own children to go into the cartooning profession?
Greg Walker: I’d just encourage them to do what they want to do. Newspaper cartoons…I don’t know.
Brian Walker: I just tell them it’s not a growth industry.
Greg Walker: Even when it was a healthy industry, when somebody comes up and says, “I want to be a cartoonist,” you have to be honest with them and tell them it’s a tough industry. It’s always been competitive. It’s such a long shot to have a major success.
Brian Walker: I think my wife sees some of the problems that arise in the family business, too, like the frictions that can happen between me and my father or me and my siblings. It’s not like we’re at each other’s throats or anything, but it’s a challenge outside the creative part of it. It’s a family business. We’ve got siblings who are in the business and siblings who are out of the business, and the younger ones didn’t get the same opportunity we had. As I’ve gotten more confident of my abilities, I’m willing to disagree with my father about a lot of things. In the end, as long as the work gets done, everybody is very professional about it, but do you really want to wish that on your kids?
Mastroianni: It’s a very tough call.
Brian Walker: If they said, “This is what I really want to do,” start their own strip or take over a strip, I would support them.
Heintjes:But you wouldn’t dissuade them.
Brian Walker: I would be honest about it.
Keane: If I was good at predicting the future I wouldn’t be doing this now [laughter].
Brian Walker: One of the things about a classic strip—it’s not worth continuing a strip that isn’t super-successful. We’re talking about Johnny Hart, Mort Walker, Bil Keane, Dik Browne—these guys are gods in the industry, all Reuben Award winners, all top-level people. For every one of those people, there are 100 really talented cartoonists who had a shot but never got the break they needed, couldn’t keep up with the deadlines, or for whatever reason fell by the wayside. But I think it’s very hard to start a career as a newspaper comics strip artist right now.
Mastroianni: I would tell him to learn Maya [a computer animating program]. If you want to be an artist, your best bet is to do it with a mouse. That’s the advice I would give to my kid if I had one and he expressed interest in cartooning.
Greg Walker: But there’s still an opportunity to make a living doing comic strips, and it’s a lot better than shoveling horse stalls.
Heintjes:Do you have any philosophical sympathy for those who say a comic strip shouldn’t be carried on by anyone but its creator, or do you see it as simply filling a need in the marketplace?
Brian Walker: I’ve had this debate endlessly with Bob Harvey, who’s a good friend of mine. And I always come back to my “different strokes for different folks” theory. You can’t make rules in this business. For example, they decided to run “classic Peanuts” after Sparky died. I can’t think of too many other strips that would work with. Lynn Johnston is struggling with that. It works for Peanuts. I actually enjoy reading classic Peanuts in the paper. The idea of assistants, some people have problems with that. And Sparky and Patrick McDonnell are the ultimate gold standards of a creator doing it exactly his way and molding every panel and pen line, but that’s not a typical situation. I should qualify that by saying it’s not typical with top-level strips. If you’re a new creator, you can’t afford to hire an assistant. But if you’re in over, say, 1,000 papers, there’s some sort of assistant, gagwriting, answering fan mail, inking, or sometimes there’s a whole team of assistants being supervised by someone who’s not creative at all. With each strip, it works a different way—there’s a different chemistry. And that’s how it should be; there shouldn’t be any rules about how you produce a comic strip. It should be about what readers like, and it’s very difficult to figure out what readers like.
Mastroianni: I have tremendous respect for the arguments that the guys coming up make, because I can only imagine what that must feel like. As I said, I feel very fortunate to have a gigantic foot in the door, and these guys have every right to feel anger. I would be angry. But on the other hand, we live in a free market and that’s the way the world works.
Keane: It happens in every business. I agree with both arguments. The reality is what it is. I haven’t seen newspapers not pick up popular new strips that come out. I guess the argument is that the new strip is going to replace another newer strip instead of an older strip, but if people are reading it, they’re reading it. When Calvin and Hobbes, or Zits or Baby Blues came out, they all of a sudden got into a lot of papers.
Greg Walker: And people will say, “Those strips have been around a while now.” But look at Lio—it’s in a few hundred papers already, out of nowhere!
Brian Walker: A lot of it is timing—when Bill Amend retires FoxTrot from the daily paper, it opens up a lot of slots, and editors are looking for the best new strip.
Keane: It’s just one of those things. It’s not fair. But it’s also not wrong.
Greg Walker: I was talking to Brian Bassett about this, and he had a really good point. He said, “If you have a TV show on the air and you get 15 percent of the audience, you have a hit TV show. So if you’ve got a comic strip and you’re appealing to 15 percent of the readership, you’re doing pretty darned good. So do you can your strip because someone else is handling it? It’s about characters. If you’ve got iconic characters and people like the characters and the situations, why shouldn’t it go on? If you’ve got a certain group of people who like that material, give it to them, and give the other people some other material that they like. The comics page should always be a mix…classics, new stuff, milder, edgy, whatever.
Keane: I’ve never understood the argument of, “Just get rid of whatever’s old.” I wouldn’t read the comics if it was all new strips! I want a mix of old strips and newer ones. That’s the way I read the paper. I skip some strips, but I don’t get angry because the things I skip are there. I guess I would be angry if what I liked was no longer there. Anyone who thinks the comics page should be one specific way is, I think, making a mistake.
Brian Walker: I have basically three comics pages every day: Daily Ink, which is an e-mail subscription service from King Features, and My Comics Page, which is out of uClick. I also read the New York Daily News, which has three pages of comics, and I read the strips I like there, although they recently dropped Family Circus [laughter], so I read Family Circus on Daily Ink. So I can follow the strips I like, and I can try new strips out. Sometimes I’ll say, “God, this sucks,” and with a click of the mouse it’s gone, and I don’t have to read it any more.
My father has been asked millions of times why he doesn’t retire, and he says, “Why should I retire? I’ve got millions of readers who enjoy my strip!” Why should he retire just because he’s getting old? When he started out, in 1950, he was competing against Pogo, Li’l Abner, Dick Tracy, Little Orphan Annie. None of those guys quit to make room for him—he scratched and clawed for every one of those 1,800 papers.
Greg Walker: When we started doing the Betty Boop strip, I talked to Garry Trudeau, and I said, “I don’t know if we’re getting a fair shot at this—they’re not selling it.” And he said, “If you’ve got quality, it’ll rise to the top.” And that’s the way you have to approach it: do the best work you can and give it a shot.
Brian Walker: There’s no guarantee when you sign up that you’ll get a certain number of papers. Like Jeff said, there’s a lot about it that isn’t fair. There are editors at certain papers who have certain prejudices. There are editors who don’t like Beetle Bailey because of Miss Buxley, and it doesn’t matter what we do.
I wanted to mention about how our strips appear to be fair game for parody. Up-and-comers like Stephan Pastis like to poke fun at the “dinosaurs.”
Heintjes:You don’t see that as part of being an iconic property?
Brian Walker: Oh, yeah.
Keane: I find it funny.
Heintjes: [to Keane] I know your dad finds the parodies of Family Circus funny.
Keane: If it’s funny, I like it. If it’s not funny, I wonder why they’re doing it. My dad and I find them funny because sometimes those are gags we would have done, but we’ve got to be true to the feature. In the early days, my dad did a lot of gags that were a lot more crazy. Stephan calls me to tell me the parody gags he’s writing and tells them to me!
Greg Walker: They’re flattering, in a way. [To Keane] What about the Dysfunctional Family Circus?
Keane: They still have versions of that online. We didn’t have a problem with it until we learned that kids were seeing it. If it could have been isolated to adults, we wouldn’t have had any problem with it. Most of them were just stupid, but every once in a while there was one that was really funny, but just putting in a four-letter word here and there doesn’t necessarily make it funny.
Greg Walker: I’ve seen some strips where they’ve reworded Hi and Lois into pornographic strips. We had to say no, or else it looked like we were implicitly endorsing it, but we also wanted to say “we do find them funny.” [laughter]
Brian Walker: It’s interesting that parodying other strips is almost a theme with Stephan in Pearls Before Swine. He’s doing this new thing with crossovers that are planned ahead of time with other strips. Here’s this guy doing this super-edgy, gothic strip, and no one would ever think that you’d talk to this guy on the phone or have anything in common with him.
Bill Griffith has done some stuff with Hi and Lois in Zippy the Pinhead, and it’s always about how this is the ultimately banal thing. It’s the same thing with Nancy; it was a touchstone for people who wanted to say that this is as dumb as it gets. But for most of the artists who do that, Ernie Bushmiller is their god! [To Keane] You work on a strip that has so many iconic things: the dashed line, Not Me, it’s so well known that it’s fair game.
Keane: To me, if the strip wasn’t consistent, you couldn’t make fun of it. But it has a quality.
Brian Walker: It’s not sacred.
Keane: We have a sense of humor, and as long as the parodies are funny, I’m happy with them.
Brian Walker: As long as they’re not taking any of our space away from us.