Born in 1923 in El Dorado, Kan., Walker published his first comic when he was 11. He sold his first cartoon at 12, and at 14 he was selling gag cartoons regularly to Child Life, Inside Detective and Flying Aces magazines. At 15, he was comic-strip artist for a weekly metropolitan newspaper. At 18, he became chief editorial designer at Hall Bros., ushering in a light, playful style for the company's Hallmark Cards line. The following year, 1943, Walker was drafted into the Army. He served in Italy as an intelligence and investigating officer and was also in charge of a German POW camp. He was discharged as a first lieutenant four years later, and graduated from the University of Missouri in 1948. While at M.U., he was editor of the school magazine.
He then went to New York City to pursue his cartooning career. In order to survive he worked as editor of three magazines for Dell Publishing Company. His first 200 cartoons were rejected, but he persisted, and editors started to recognize his talent and in two years he was the top-selling magazine cartoonist. His first big break came in 1950, when King Features picked up "Beetle Bailey" for syndication. Beetle, who was originally called "Spider," began as a college cutup. When he stumbled into an Army recruiting post in 1951 during the Korean War, circulation began to climb.
The comic strip experienced two other notable jumps in circulation. In 1954, when the Tokyo edition of Stars & Stripes dropped the strip because it supposedly engendered lack of respect for officers, the U.S. press had a field day attacking the maneuver, and 100 more newspapers enlisted "Beetle Bailey." Then in 1970, when Lt. Jack Flap first marched into Sarge's office, "Beetle Bailey" became the first established strip to integrate a black character into a white cast. Stars & Stripes and some Southern newspapers quickly discharged the strip, but 100 other newspapers joined up.
King Features now distributes "Beetle Bailey" to roughly 1,800 newspapers, to over 50 countries with a combined readership of over 200 million every day. Walker's comic strip "Hi and Lois," which he created with Dik Browne, began in 1954 as a spin-off of "Beetle Bailey," when Beetle went home on furlough to visit his sister Lois and brother-in-law Hi. Walker also created "Boner's Ark" in 1968 under the name "Addison," and created "Sam & Silo" with Jerry Dumas in 1977. Walker has been recognized not only for the wide and enduring popularity of his work but also for his stylistic innovations and his leadership in the comics field. His use of high-contrast, deceptively simple imagery and compact gags became the standard for a generation of cartoonists and endures today.