By: Chanel Palacios ’14
With the creation of movies such as “The Dark Knight Rises” and “Superman,” comics have gained popularity in recent years. Yet few people really know much more about the comics than what’s shown in theaters. Few people know there is a comics class on campus this semester, taught by Christopher Couch. In order to teach the Trinity community more about comic strips, Trinity hosted an important person in the world of comics to let people know that no, “Garfield” is not the first comic and there is a difference between a comic strip and a graphic novel.
On Wednesday, Nov. 14, Trinity hosted a public talk on the history of comic strips. Brian Walker, creator of the comic strip “Hi and Lois” and author of the book The Comics: A History, was the guest speaker. His talk on the history of comics began with his own career and involvement in the world of comics, followed by a discussion of comics before and after 1945.
In Walker’s own words, he was “born with ink in my veins.” His father is Mort Walker, who created the comic strip “Beetle Bailey.” Walker grew up watching his father create comics in their home, and was surrounded by various other cartoonists and cartoon creators. One such person was Dik Browne, creator of the comic strip “Hagar the Horrible.” Mort Walker and Dik Browne eventually partnered up to create a spin-off of the “Beetle Bailey.” That comic strip was “Hi and Lois,” which would eventually come to be written by Brian Walker and drawn by Dik Browne’s son, Chance. Brian’s own life was so influenced by comics that Dik Browne even did his wedding ceremony. However, Brian Walker did not grow up wanting to be a cartoonist.
Walker differed from his WWII veteran father, protesting the Vietnam War and travelling to Africa at age 20. He graduated from Tufts in 1973, with a degree in East African Studies. (Walker knows Swahili too.) His major was self-designed, and would serve useful in his comics career. In his career, Walker would put together several books on comics, and the skills he gained while creating his own major were put to use when he had to gain the rights and permissions for all the images he used in his books. After graduating, he returned home and began painting houses. He did not immediately go into comics. When Dik Browne wanted to start a museum, Walker cleaned the location and painted it. The Museum of Cartoon Art opened in August of 1974, and was the first museum on cartoon art. It had over 60 exhibitions, including work from Walt Disney, and featuring various comics and cartoons such as Bugs Bunny, Superman, and Batman. This was Walker first involvement in the comic world, despite having created cartoons during his high school and college education.
Walker began working on comics in the mid 80’s. He worked with his brothers on the comic strip “Betty Boop and Felix.” It lasted three years. He then helped his father on the comic strip “Beetle Bailey” to help bring the comic strip into a new age, where sexist humor was no longer appreciated. He then took over “Hi and Lois” in the mid 80’s. He collaborated on the comic strip with Dik Browne for a few years.
Aside from all the comics Walker has worked on, he has also worked as a historian and curator. The Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, CT hired Walker for a 100th comics anniversary exhibition. He would then be hired by museums in Belgium, Florida, as well as other places. In 2000, his comics editor recommended him to Abrams Books to create an updated comics book. The result was two books: The Comics Since 1945 and The Comics Before 1945. While looking at the books now makes him exhausted, the four to five years it took to create the two books resulted in a truly comprehensive look at comics, because previous comic history books has such bad reproduction qualities and were not objective enough. Walker’s books were written from an objective historian’s perspective, and used the original source material. Working in art museums gave him an appreciation for originals, and gave him the drive to track down the originals of all the comics he used in his books. The end product is widely considered one of the best comic history books.
Aside from his own accomplishments, he also discussed the various issues within comic history. “The Yellow Kid” is widely considered the first comic strip. Walker, along with Professor Couch, participates in an internet discussion group called “The Platinum Group,” to discuss with other comic historians and define why “The Yellow Kid” is the birth of the comics, because its success gave birth to newspaper comics.
Walker discussed the crusade against comics in the early 1900’s, and various other comic strips such as “Buster Brown,” “Calvin and Hobbes,” “Popeye,” “Li’l Abner,” and also “Peanuts.” When asked his favorite comic, he could not answer. However he could name his favorite comics as “Billy DeBeck,” “Robert Crumb,” and of course, “Dik Browne.”
The purpose of the talk was to show how interested Trinity is in comics, and to teach all interested about the foundations of American comic strips. Brian Walker’s own life is an example of living history, and his accomplishments and contributions to comic history help bring much deserved attention to an important field of American history that is often overlooked and disregarded.