A family scrapbook on the comics page
Published 1:05 pm, Wednesday, July 15, 2015
Back in the mid-1980s, Brian Walker was sitting on his couch, sifting through three decades of comic strips for a “Best of Hi and Lois“ collection. His father Mort created the strip with artist Dik Browne, and he and his older brother Greg were already contributing to it before they would make it their own a few years later. As Brian flipped through the pages, his life whizzed by in black and white, with flashes of primary colors.
He paused at a strip from the 1960s that offered a cartoon account of the day he tried to break the dress code at Greenwich Central school by wearing jeans. He and his six siblings knew their antics inspired strips, but it finally hit home that their dad was “stealing gag material right out of our mouths.”
“Now it’s the same with my kids,” Brian says.
After Browne’s death in 1989, his son Chance took over the artwork for “Hi and Lois,” (his son Chris produces “Hägar the Horrible,” which Dik created in 1973, and Eric Reaves now collaborates with Chance on the “Hi” art). Mort decided the time had come to fully pass along the writing duties to Brian and Greg. More than 60 years after the Oct. 18, 1954 launch of “Hi and Lois,” a strip about a typical American family that has never aged, the children of its creators have maintained it in some thousand newspapers.
Drawing a crowd
The New Canaan Historical Society will host a presentation by Brian Walker at 2 p.m. July 26. Walker, part of the “Beetle Bailey” and “Hi and Lois” creative team, will give a Powerpoint presentation about growing up and working in the cartoon business, and will field questions and sign books.
There will be a lemonade and cookies reception and an opportunity to view “The Cartoonists of Silvermine: Past and Present,” the current exhibition in The Historical Society’s Silvermine Gallery. Curator Mary Anne Case will be in the gallery to answer questions.
The New Canaan Historical Society is at 13 Oenoke Ridge Road. For more information, call 203-966-1766.
Greg was 4, two years older than Brian, when Mort started working on a backup plan in case his 31/2-year-old “Beetle Bailey” strip lost momentum after the end of the Korean War. (The punchline is that “Beetle” marches on at 64, making it the oldest strip still produced by its creator. He now draws it with Greg.) As “Beetle” was inspired by his days in the service, he stuck with what he knew: Suburban family life in Greenwich.
He and an editor started searches for “the best cartoonist in the country” to draw the new strip, separately zeroing in on Browne, who was working for an ad agency (he created the Chiquita logo).
Sixty years later, and a quarter century years since his death, Dik Browne seems to remain the soul of the strip. Mort Walker says, “the strip really prospered” because of Browne’s art. Brian calls him “one of the greatest cartoonists of all time,” citing the 1960s strips as the “real high point” of “Hi and Lois,” as Browne brought a cinematic approach to his canvas.
The strip struggled to find readers in the early days. Determined to distinguish his creation from other family comics, Mort Walker started revealing the thoughts of baby Trixie, inspired by the Sinclair Lewis novel “Main Street: The Story of Carol Kennicott.” He uses a word only a man who writes in balloons would summon to describe the reader response: “BANGO, we went from 25 papers to a thousand.”
Few strips rival “Beetle” and “Hi and Lois“ for representing American traditions, yet there is something meta about their reflection of their creators. Lois is Beetle’s sister, having been introduced when the U.S. Army private visited his family. The spin-off may be a common television crutch now, but it was a novelty then, in any medium.
And while the Browne and Walker offspring inspired the Flagstone children (teenage Chip, twins Dot and Ditto, and Trixie), the creators like to sneak in doppelgangers of friends and settings from lower Fairfield County (it’s harder to get them past the guards at Camp Swampy). Greg and Mort Walker reside a mile from each other in Stamford. Chance Browne and Brian Walker live in Wilton, which inspires many of the settings. When Orem’s Diner or Scoops ice cream shop make appearances, Chance ensures authenticity before creating their cartoon versions. Another frequent setting is Silvermine Golf Club in Norwalk, where Mort Walker continues to play at age 91.
Such strips, and many others, hang in homes and businesses throughout the area.
“My father always says our job is to create refrigerator art, “ Brian says. “The ultimate compliment is to create a strip that resonates enough to put it on a wall or cubicle.”
Hiram, Lois and the kids have not changed a great deal across the 22,000 or so strips that have appeared in the last six decades, though the creators used “Then and Now” gags during the anniversary in October to comment on gas prices, toys and technology.
The strip hovers under the radar. While it has inspired few products and no screen adaptations, it has outlasted hundreds of rivals. “It does not attract a lot of attention, “ says Mort Walker, who only sees the strip these days as a reader. “That worries me a little, but I’m not complaining.”
While “Beetle” strays into surreal territory (just consider the typical image of the beaten title character), “Hi and Lois“ remains what Brian calls a “functional family in a dysfunctional world.” It has, however, inspired punchlines in alternative comics.
Just a month ago, “Pearls Before Swine” creator Stephan Pastis framed a strip with the introduction that he was asked to ghost a “Hi and Lois.” In his version, Hi comes home with another woman and tells Lois he may have picked up a disease. The final frame depicts Pastis on the phone asking Brian, “Not the right tone?”
Previously, Pastis produced a strip with the punchline “Just think of us as Hi and Lois’ on mescaline. Lots and lots of mescaline.” It was too provocative for the syndicate, which pressed Pastis to change it, but it was fine with the Walkers. Brian now owns the original.
If the anniversary of “Hi and Lois” is passing quietly, it may be because the Walker and Browne families were more occupied with other milestones. Back on Oct. 9, 1981, Dik Browne performed the ceremony when Brian married his wife Abby at Waveny Park in New Canaan. “He had a way of being very cosmic and funny,” Brian Walker recalls of Browne’s speech that day. So when Brian’s daughter, Sarah, was wed Oct. 12 at Cranbury Park in Norwalk, it seemed only fitting to have Chance provide some of what Brian deemed “cosmic relief.”
The deep history has provided the Walkers with reflex gag lines to questions they frequently face after living around — and in — comics for their entire lives. Brian likes to say he was “born with ink in his veins.” Greg insists, “I always wrote the strip,” referring to the boyhood comments Mort documented in newsprint.
Greg, Brian and Mort all have a habit of predicting questions (“the question I’m always asked is . . .” they each said to me last week). You can’t blame them after years of inquiries about how far ahead they work or where they find inspiration.
The answer to the first is several months. The second answer is obvious, as Brian himself discovered three decades ago while flipping through strips that served as a family scrapbook.
“They are like real people to me,” Brian says of the characters. “And I think of Beetle as an older brother who went off to the army and sent a comic strip home every day for me. Hi and Lois are relatives.”
John Breunig is editorial page editor of The Advocate and Greenwich Time. He can be reached at John.firstname.lastname@example.org; 203-964-2281; http://twitter.com/johnbreunig.