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Comic Artist and "Renaissance Man" Jerry Dumas Dies at 86

Nov 17, 2016

Legendary comic strip artist Jerry Dumas died last week in Greenwich at the age of 86. Despite a two-year battle with cancer, Dumas continued to work on comic strips like "Beetle Bailey" until just recently.

The story of how artist and writer Jerry Dumas got into comic strips starts with a road trip in 1956.

Fresh from studying painting at Arizona State University, he was encouraged by a professor to move to New York and study abstract expressionist art.

"He drove out from Arizona to pursue his career in the New York City area, and he got a tip that Mort Walker was maybe looking for a new assistant," said Brian Walker, son of Mort Walker, the legendary artist behind the comic strips "Beetle Bailey" and "Hi and Lois."

"And he just turned up in his driveway one day, and said, I 'd like to work as a cartoonist, and Mort hired him on the spot," Walker said.

Mort Walker's hunch about the young artist was spot on. Dumas and Walker worked side by side in Greenwich for the next 60 years, turning "Beetle Bailey" and "Hi and Lois" into two of the most popular comic strips of all time.

Brian Walker said their collaboration worked so well because they learned early how to play to each other's strengths.

"Jerry had sort of a wittier, clever approach to his writing, and what he contributed, that balanced out with the sort of slapstick visual humor that my father loved so much," Walker said. "So I think the combination of those two things had a lot to do with the success of 'Beetle Bailey.'"

Dumas was intellectual at heart, said Walker. It was that side of him that spawned an experimental and visionary project called "Sam's Strip," where the main character, Sam, ran his own comic strip. Every week, iconic characters from other comic strips, like Donald Duck, Dagwood, and Popeye, all meticulously drawn by Dumas, would stop by and become part of the plot.

"There was a lot of self-referential humor. There were characters from other comic strips that would come to visit," Walker said. "It was kind of ahead of its time in terms of the humor. It had a lot of social comment and political comment, and it never really took off."

"Sam's Strip," May 3,1962.
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"Sam's Strip" lasted less than two years before it was pulled in 1963, but historians credit it as one of the first high-concept, post-modern comic strips.

Sam made a comeback of sorts in 1977 when King Features Syndicate asked Walker and Dumas to create a new strip featuring Sam. "Sam and Silo," the ongoing story of a small town sheriff and his deputy, was born and is still in circulation today.

"Sam and Silo," by Jerry Dumas.
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Jerry Dumas was a painter, athlete, and writer. He wrote essays for the The Atlantic Monthly and The Washington Post. He also wrote a weekly column for The Greenwich Time.

Brian Walker said he'll remember Dumas as a well-read and funny man who had strong opinions on a variety of subjects.

"He was always very interesting to talk to, and we'd talk about books, and movies, and politics, and everything else," Walker said. "We'd just have these rambling conversations, and I'm gonna miss those."

Walker said Dumas was at his best at the monthly "Beetle Bailey" gag conferences, where everyone involved in the strip brainstorms ideas for the coming weeks. After the session, the entire crew goes to lunch, where the discussions continue. Walker said Dumas missed the September and October gag conference.

For the last few years, Dumas battled neuroendocrine cancer, but continued his work on "Beetle Bailey" and "Sam and Silo" right up until last summer.

Dumas died at his home in Greenwich on November 13.