Beetle Bailey enters information age with computer geek character

Tuesday, June 25th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BALTIMORE (AP) _ Comic creator Mort Walker knew he was on to something when he brought a computer technician into Beetle Bailey's world and asked fans for their input.

He got 84,324 replies _ mostly e-mails, of course.

Walker, who started drawing Beetle, Gen. Halftrack and Sarge in 1950, soon understood just how much computers have permeated our lives. Many fans had ideas for gags, including the old joke of struggling for hours to repair a computer that _ surprise! _ is unplugged.

Walker thought he could come up with a new cache of jokes, all centered on the frustrations of figuring out upgrades, gadgets, CD-ROMs and Internet surfing.

And he was looking for a new character who would epitomize the expanding technology. So he asked readers to submit names, and he came up with a winner: "Chip Gizmo" will appear July 4 at Camp Swampy.

The suggestion came from those who know the subject well _ information technology specialists at the State Department, where Walker made his announcement Tuesday.

Walker, an Army veteran, said that when he made his choice, he didn't know who had made the entry. He had help in picking the winner from 10 chief information officers from the military and the U.S. Department of Labor, who bared all to Walker in a meeting in Washington, he said.

They showed off their equipment belts _ with dangling cell phones, pagers, tape recorders, Palm Pilots, BlackBerrys and hand-held Global Positioning Systems.

He found the techs to be earnestly nerdy, proud of their jobs and their work, he said. However, the king of Army pranks discovered that these military employees did not necessarily want to be made into a joke.

So Walker shifted his concept of Army Specialist Chip Gizmo, making him more of a likable character than an annoying know-it-all. And he gave him lots of gadgets. Spiky-haired, cross-eyed, rumpled Gizmo appears with phone antennae, curling wires and earpieces poking out of his Army fatigues.

He's around 30 and will live in his own world _ with a mind swirling in cyberspace. At the same time, the other characters will live more like Walker, reflecting the generations of World War II and Korea.

"I have so many friends like this _ no matter how many times you explain to them _ they have this blank expression on their face," Walker, 78, said in an interview from his home in Stamford, Conn.

So goes the humor that will follow Chip Gizmo into Camp Swampy, as the computer specialist faces off with old-fashioned Gen. Halftrack. For example, when Gizmo warns Halftrack not to use his pop-out CD-ROM holder for a coffee cup holder, the general relents. Next, Gizmo finds him using it to hold his martini glass.

This is not the first time Walker has introduced new characters or injected timely story lines into Beetle Bailey. Lt. Jack Flap made his appearance in 1970, a time when blacks were not seen in white comic strips. The last new addition was Cpl. Yo, an Asian character, who debuted five years ago.

Both characters were called stereotypes by some readers. However, Walker said that comics are filled with stereotypes and he likes to find humor in all characters. He also likes to jar the characters occasionally: He once sent Gen. Halftrack (ogler of blonde bombshell Miss Buxley) to "sensitivity training."

"I like to keep doing something new and different, so people can't say I'm doing the same thing all the time. I like to challenge myself," said Walker, whose strip now appears in 1,800 newspapers worldwide.

Walker hopes those who have grown up with computers will be attracted to Chip. But even readers who have been turning to Beetle Bailey since the 1950s will get the computer jokes, he said.

Earl Hemminger, one of the four State Department workers who used their lunch hour to come up with Chip Gizmo's name, said he's not offended by the stereotype. Even the jokes at the military's expense don't ruffle Hemminger, a 12-year Army veteran.

"It's fun to have something once in a while that sort of pokes fun at the whole system without being irreverent," he said. "It's a reality check sometimes, and I've never felt insulted by it."

And, he said, the character rings true.

"If I wore my uniform and spiked my hair, I would look just like that guy," he said, laughing. "We're all computer nerds."