Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum goes to the dogs

‘The Dog Show,’ curated by Brian Walker, opens at the OSU campus museum this weekend

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Otto from "Beetle Bailey"

Though Brian Walker didn’t actually have a dog as a kid, he did grow up alongside a cartoon canine: Otto, a bulldog who played a pivotal role in “Beetle Bailey,” a comic strip created and drawn by his father, Mort Walker.

“[Otto] goes back to the mid-1950s, but in the beginning he was just a bulldog walking around on all fours, wearing one of those coats with the sergeant stripes on it,” said Walker, the curator of a new pooch-themed exhibit dubbed “The Dog Show: Two Centuries of Canine Comics,” which opens at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum on Saturday, June 19. “Then, starting in the 1970s, and probably inspired by Snoopy donning all of these personalities, like Joe Cool, all of a sudden Otto has a full [military] uniform, and he has a little desk where he works next to Sarge, and he starts acting very human-like.”

This included adopting very human emotions such as jealousy, as evidenced by a strip that appears in “The Dog Show” in which Otto laments his seeming second-dog status, saying, “We can’t all be Snoopy.”

Of course, even this was a loving jab, as Mort Walker, who also created the comic strip “Hi and Lois,” was a friend of “Peanuts” creator Charles Schulz, who would visit with the Walker family on the occasions he made trips to New York City, and who by request provided Brian Walker an original drawing of Snoopy the year that Walker’s middle school celebrated a “Charlie Brown Day” in the early ’60s. “They hung [the sketch] up in the foyer, and the principal called me into his office, so I thought I was going to get in trouble,” Walker said, and laughed. “And then [the principal] said, ‘This is really great, I appreciate what you did for the school with this.’”

Walker, who started work on “The Dog Show” in the days before the coronavirus shut down the state in March 2020, was initially overwhelmed by the sheer volume of available materials, even as he focused his efforts on illustrations of dogs created in the mass media era (noting that the earliest images of canines were scratched out on the walls of caves thousands of years ago). 

The exhibit pulls in famous comic dogs (Snoopy, Marmaduke and an emotional series of “For Better or for Worse" strips drawn by Lynn Johnston in which the family’s dog, Farley, dies), New Yorker caricatures and even a Civil War-era political cartoon in which prominent figures of the day are depicted as mutts. In addition to representations of more than 100 canines, “The Dog Show” also features a video montage of animated dogs that will play on a loop and includes everyone from Droopy, created by Tex Avery in 1943, to Slinky Dog from Pixar’s computer-animated “Toy Story” series.

Walker, a cartoon historian and the former director of the International Museum of Cartoon Art, who also continues to manage the two strips created by his father, said that the prevalence of dogs within the world of illustration could be attributed in part to the human characteristics the pups can exhibit, which can make them feel closer to actual members of the family than pets.

“I don’t want to get cat lovers mad at me, but dogs have more accessible personalities. They aim to please … where cats are more aloof,” Walker said. “In the comic strips, I think the dogs are characters on their own, really. They have personalities, or some kind of quirk, or something they do that makes them distinctive.”

This point hit home in adulthood when Walker, along with his family, got his first dog, a wheaten terrier named Jezebel. “And she basically became my dog, and went everywhere with me in the car, and I was the one who eventually had to put her down and I just loved her,” said Walker, who added the experience meant it hit somewhat harder when he later revisited the “For Better or for Worse” strips in which Farley dies.

“It doesn’t happen very often, and it’s kind of a bold move for a cartoonist to kill off one of their characters,” said Walker of the four-week sequence, a bulk of which will be on display at Billy Ireland. “[Johnston] had people send her things like a tombstone engraved with Farley’s name. … But it’s a very moving story, and the original strips are beautiful to look at because Johnston is a really great artist.”

The strips, along with countless others on display in “The Dog Show,” affirm the connection many have felt to canines throughout recorded history. “Right from the beginning, you see images of dogs and humans interacting,” Walker said. “As dogs became domesticated, and I’m not a scientist, but through evolution they found they could get what they wanted by imitating human expressions, so the dog has that classic look where its eyes get big and its lip quivers a little bit and you say, ‘Ah, OK. I’ll get you another bone.’ They just know how to steal your heart.”