Every two weeks they gather for a “gag session.” Spread on a big table before them are 40 or so sketches to be rated 1 (best) to 3. Brian Walker, 34, passes one sketch to brother Morgan, 29, who in turn passes it to brother Greg, 36, and then on to brother Neal, 25. Dozens of passes and a few hours later (“Our discussions tend to meander,” admits Greg), the biweekly quota of at least 14 funny ideas (plus a couple of just-in-case spares) is reached. “Like Dad says,” explains Morgan, “you gotta agonize over those gags. You gotta suffer.”
The Walker brothers actually enjoy their work, which happens to be cartooning. Through collective brainstorming they produce the comic strip Betty Boop and Felix, now appearing in more than 75 newspapers worldwide. Their father, Mort Walker, 63, is the creator of Beetle Bailey, the long-running (36 years so far) saga that pits the Army against Camp Swampy’s laziest private. It was Mort as well who thought up the Walker family’s latest project, rescuing Betty Boop and Felix from obscurity. The duo had seen hard times as their movie cartoons of the ’30s suffered from waning popularity. Three years ago Mort had the idea of uniting them in a single strip as a new vehicle for satirizing the rich and famous. After King Features Syndicate ironed out the copyright problems, Mort put Neal, Greg, Brian and Morgan to work on the strip.
At the start Mort presided over their joint effort, but gradually, Neal says, “he’s stepped away to let us do our own things.” These days Brian and Morgan come up with most of the ideas for Betty Boop. Greg does the inking and lettering while Neal, the only brother to work full time on the strip, does the bulk of the drawing. Completed strips float by Mort’s drawing board on their way to publication, and Dad reserves editing rights.
Until Betty Boop, Mort had never even suggested that any of his brood take up his craft, and his three other children have not (Polly Embree, 33, is a commercial artist in Oklahoma; Margie Hauer, 26, is a media planner in New York, and Roger Walker, 18, is a freshman at Syracuse University). But Mort’s work was a significant factor in all their lives. “One big advantage of having a father in cartooning was his working at home,” says Greg. “As a kid you saw him a lot.” Adds Morgan with only slight exaggeration: “After toilet training, we were taught all about block lettering.”
Growing up in Greenwich, Conn. helped too. “Many cartoonists are based around here because it’s close to the New York publishing world,” says Morgan. “Also, there are a lot of golf courses.” Regular visitors to the Walker household include John Cullen Murphy (Brian’s godfather), who draws Prince Valiant, and Dik Browne (Greg’s godfather), who writes Hagar the Horrible and collaborates with Mort on Hi and Lois. Charles Schulz (Pea-nuts) is also a family friend. “There was always good humor around here,” says Greg.
“I don’t know many families who have tried to levitate their mother,” boasts Morgan, recalling a time when Jean Walker stretched out on a bed surrounded by all the little Walkers concentrating their telepathic powers. In the Walker home, explains Greg, “we learned a healthy disrespect for the conventional.”
Though the cartooning Walker brothers all live within easy driving distance of the Greenwich homestead, their life-styles are distinctly different. Greg, a Syracuse grad (journalism), is married with three children. Brian, with a degree from Tufts (East African studies), is married and is exhibit director of the Museum of Cartoon Art (founded by his father) in Rye, N.Y. Morgan, who graduated from Hampshire College (ethnomusicology), is a songwriter and singer and has just finished a rock video; a bachelor, he keeps a cockatiel and four-foot python as pets. Neal, another Syracuse alumnus (photography) and also a bachelor, is a keen sailor.
Even for a quartet of rising young cartoonists, life is not an endless string of yucks. Their parents divorced last year, a topic that causes only pained silence. And while the brothers have made a good start with Betty Boop, 75 newspapers is just that—a start (by comparison, Beetle has over 1,700 outlets). “This business is a crapshoot,” says Brian. “The syndicate wants immediate success or you’re old news.” Their father provides benevolent protection from the pressures, but even that can sometimes be a bother. “I have this desire to create my own strip,” admits Brian, “but people will always say, ‘Mort taught him everything he knows.’ ”
Then there are the rewards. “In so many professions you toil in dark corners for years,” says Greg. “In cartooning you get fan mail.” When your father is Mort Walker, you also get his sense of a cartoonist’s mission. “Earning a living making other people happy,” says Neal, “is a pretty admirable thing to do.”