Thrift Store Finds: We’re All in the Same Boat, Beetle Bailey

This week, we’re looking at We’re All in the Same Boat, Beetle Bailey, a comic strip collection published by Grosset and Dunlap under their Tempo Books banner back in 1973.

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There’s no cover price on the book, (perhaps this copy was sold at a book fair) but I paid fifty cents for it at our local St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store.

The United States was embroiled in The Korean War when Beetle Bailey first his newspapers in 1950 and since then, Mort Walker (and a cadre of co-writers) have been taking gentle aim at The Army with the strip’s titular shiftless layabout and the extended cast of characters that inhabit Camp Swampy for over fifty years. During that time, the U.S. has been involved in many military skirmishes abroad. While in Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury, B.D. was over in Iraq loosing a leg in service to his country… Beetle Bailey was taking a nap under a tree for a gag or two.

Now Beetle Bailey and Doonesbury are two VERY different comic strips and I’m not suggesting Mort Walker (and his sons who co-write the strip) should relocate to Afghanistan or anything. What I am saying is I have always been interested in how Walker and company handle real life wars in their comic strip. Seeing as this paperback collects strips published during one of the most divisive wars in American history, I thought it might be interesting to see how Beetle Bailey weathered the Vietnam War.

The answer is that the strip doesn’t address the war at all. At the very least, the comics collected in this book are content with giving a winking nod to Vietnam while carrying on with jokes about the bad food in the mess hall and dirty barracks. The most direct connection I can find to Vietnam in this book is this strip

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…which is, admittedly, a bit vague. Why would army troops need to get out of an army base? Are they pooping into garbage cans? It’s sort of a cheeky reference to current events that doesn’t hold up to any kind of scrutiny but… again, Beetle Bailey is probably not the best vehicle for “ripped from the headlines” realistic stories of warfare.

One of the most interesting things about this collection and it’s tenuous connection the real world is the inclusion of Lt. Flap, a relatively new character to the cast who distinguishes himself by race. He’s the first African American soldier to reside at Camp Swampy and Walker seems to focus an inordinate amount of energy on wringing jokes out of Flap’s giant Afro. Having said that, I’m going to give Walker some credit here. Lt. Flap might be a bit of a “token” character but Walker used him to make the most trenchant observations within the scope of the strips collected here. I thought this strip was pretty good as it dealt with race inequality (albeit from a joking distance, of course).

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…or this strip which deals rather directly with Black Power

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Walker also does a pretty good job at developing a relationship between Lt. Flap an Lt. Fuzz. Beetle Bailey isn’t exactly the kind of comic where the relationship mean much of anything beyond “Sarge beats up Beetle” so to see Walker trying to establish an honest-to-goodness bond between two of his characters is somewhat jarring

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Or there’s this one

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That’s one of THREE gag strips in this collection where Lt. Flap makes a joke about wanting to live in the suburbs when he gets out of the Army, by the way. I want to give Walker credit for using the character as a vehicle to illustrate how important military and government service has been to creating an African American middle class… but I’m not going to go that far.

Outside of Lt. Flap, another very important character is introduced in the pages of this collection: Miss Buxley, the voluptuous secretary who fast became a reader favorite.

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We don’t get much of Miss Buxley in this collection (nor her antiquated sexual harrass-y relationship with General Halftrack) but this is her first appearance so I wanted to note it.

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