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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Pogo: The Complete syndicated Comic Strips, Vols. 1 & 2’
Question of the Day
POGO: THE COMPLETE SYNDICATED COMIC STRIPS VOL. 1: ‘THROUGH THE WILD BLUE YONDER’
By Walt Kelly
Fantagraphics Books, $39.99, 290 pages
POGO: THE COMPLETE SYNDICATED COMIC STRIPS VOL. 2: ‘BONA FIDE BALDERDASH’
By Walt Kelly
Fantagraphics Books, $39.99, 344 pages
REVIEWED BY MICHAEL TAUBE
From 1948 to 1975, Walt Kelly’s “Pogo” was recognized as one of the world’s great comic strips. The talented cartoonist, an unabashed political liberal who regularly blended wit with sarcasm, had absolutely no fear when it came to expressing his viewpoint. Kelly’s large cast of animal characters amused, needled, provoked, charmed, infuriated and brought great pleasure to millions of readers on the funny pages.
It’s interesting that “Pogo” is still firmly planted in the public conscience. With the exception of a short-lived and unsuccessful revival (“Walt Kelly’s Pogo,” which ran in the Los Angeles Times), silence has been golden at the Okefenokee Swamp. Yet the 1952 presidential campaign with the famous “I Go Pogo” slogan, the amusing “gummint” caricatures who popped up and the powerful quote “We have met the enemy and he is us” continue to resonate with people.
There may be a reason for this. The mystique of “Pogo” seems to have had more connection with the post-1975 generation than the actual strip itself. While I freely admit this is a cursory analysis, I’m always amazed by how many young people know things about “Pogo” — yet have barely read it. Sure, this happens in society with prominent historical dates, figures and events. But a canceled comic strip? It’s not that common.
Fortunately, this unusual distinction could finally be biting the dust. Fantagraphics Books started releasing “Pogo” syndicated comic strips last year. Edited by Kim Thompson and Kelly’s daughter, Carolyn, it’s projected to be a 12-volume series that reprints the entire daily and color newspaper strips. The respected Seattle-based comics publisher, the brainchild behind successful compilations such as “The Complete Peanuts,” “Prince Valiant” and “Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse,” are off to another flying start with “Pogo.”
Steve Thompson’s introduction in Vol. 1 provides a glimpse into Kelly’s life and work. The son of a vaudevillian theater scene painter, he wasn’t drawn to academics — calling himself the “family slob” who would “sing and draw on paper bags.” He started off as a freelancer for Connecticut’s Bridgeport Post and joined Walt Disney Studios in 1936. He remained there for five years, and went on to Western Publishing to work with Dell Comics. He created various characters such as Kandi the Cave Kid, and “even did a short Bugs Bunny story.” The 83 covers he drew for the comic book series “Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories” are, according to Mr. Thompson, “highly sought-after by collectors for their fine, expressive artistry, with his own stylistic elements almost always visible in the backgrounds.”
It was during his stint at Western that “Pogo” was born. From 1942 to 1948, Animal Comics regularly ran the tales of Pogo Possum and Albert the Alligator. A young black boy, Bumbazine, also appeared, but he “disappeared fairly early in the feature’s run because, Kelly said, he was not as believable as the animals.” After starting with the New York Star in July 1948, he “revived his swamp critters in comic strip format, calling it simply ‘Pogo.’” The strip ran six days a week from October 1948 to January 1949, until the Star folded unexpectedly. In May 1949, Hall Syndicate picked up “Pogo” as a daily newspaper feature. It was followed by a new Dell comic book, and the long-awaited Sunday color comics in January 1950. The meteoric rise of “Pogo” to fame was now complete.
The two “Pogo” collections deal with the periods 1949-1950 and 1951-1952, respectively. The entire Star run is reprinted in Vol. 1. Both books are beautifully designed, include a table of contents with a precis of each strip, and cartoonist R.C. Harvey’s “Swamp Talk” to add some “historical context.” Forewords are provided by Jimmy Breslin (Vol. 1) and Stan Freberg (Vol. 2).
The strips remain fresh and crisp. Many well-known characters, including Churchy LaFemme, Howland Owl, Porky Pine and Miz Ma’m’selle Hepzibah, join Pogo and Albert in the marshes. The language, a mix of Southern stylin’ and choppy English, remains endearing. Various strips include news items, famous people, holidays, popular music — and even a touch of Latin. And a warning to conservatives: in this Georgia-area swamp, liberalism is the flavor of the day, and you’ll be biting your tongues with great regularity.
Cartoonist Bill Watterson’s comments about Kelly during a celebration of what would have been his 75th birthday are reprinted in Vol. 1. He said, “There have been a fine few and imaginative strips since ‘Pogo,’ of course, but none has taken such complete advantage of the cartoon medium. ‘Pogo’ shows what a comic strip can really be.” The “Calvin and Hobbes” creator makes some excellent points. “Pogo” was intellectual, thought-provoking, cynical, controversial and downright brilliant. It broke barriers and didn’t fit into societal norms. You didn’t even have to agree with Kelly’s politics to respect his genius as an artist and a commentator.
Who knows? After reading Fantagraphics’ two wonderful volumes, “I Go Pogo” might just change to “We Go Pogo.”
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