- - Wednesday, November 26, 2014

By Walt Kelly
Hermes Press, $50, 304 pages

By Walt Kelly
Hermes Press, $60, 240 pages

When comic strips become more successful, they inevitably start appearing in other media. This is the best strategy for cartoonists and comic strip syndicates to enhance the brand, acquire new fan bases and increase sales.

One popular method has been to adapt comic strips into the world of comic books. While cartoonists are sometimes involved with these projects, it’s more common to bring in outside writers and artists. Many comic book storylines also don’t follow canon (or the official storyline) of the comic strip. Hence, the former can take the characters into different scenarios that the latter wouldn’t dream of doing.

Comic book versions of “Peanuts,” “Beetle Bailey,” “Looney Tunes” and others are very different from comic strips. The most startling transformation can be found in “Henry”: fiercely silent in comic strips and remarkably talkative in comic books. (Fantagraphics Books recently collected John Liney’s chattier version in an appropriately titled volume, “Henry Speaks for Himself”).

Does the same principle apply for comic books that become comic strips? For popular superheroes such as Superman, Batman and Spider-Man, continuity exists between the two media. In the unique case of Walt Kelly’s “Pogo,” the comic book version was a breeding ground while the comic strip took on a whole new life.

Hermes Press, an American publisher that specializes in comic book reprints, has started collecting the extensive run of “Pogo” at Dell Comics. The first two hardcover volumes have been released, and they are exceptional. Each comic book has been carefully reproduced in its entirety, with the vivid colors intact. Essays by historians Thomas Andrae (Volumes 1 and 2), Mark Burstein (Volume 1) and Tina Robbins (Volume 2) provide important background and context for Pogo, Albert Alligator, Porky Pine, Churchy LaFemme and the entire gang at Okefenokee Swamp.

The first volume reproduces 30 issues of “Pogo” in Animal Comics from 1942 to 1947. “According to Selby Kelly, Walt’s widow,” writes Mr. Andrae, “Kelly’s creation of Albert and Pogo was inspired by the artist’s love of Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus tales.” At the same time, Kelly “was a lifelong liberal and champion of black rights” and would have “found it objectionable to use an Uncle Tom figure in the Uncle Remus mold as the human hero in Pogo.”

Early on, a little “friendly and caring” black boy named Bumbazine appeared with Pogo and his friends. Here’s the strange thing about this long-forgotten character. Kelly portrayed him as “highly intelligent and the animals’ leader,” yet he also “retained stereotypical residues.” He was drawn “as a regular boy in some panels,” notes Mr. Andrae, “but in others he had bulging lips and saucer eyes, and he spoke in rural Southern dialect like the animals.” Meanwhile, Kelly’s decision to have Pogo and Bumbazine eat watermelon at the end of Animal Comics No. 1 kind of speaks for itself.

Kelly stopped using Bumbazine after the 12th issue. (In his view, “being human he was not as believable as the animals.”) Humans disappeared from the Georgian swamp, and the anthropomorphic, funny animals ruled the roost. Mr. Andrae points out that Pogo became “the lynchpin of the strip, who represents the ideals to which we all aspire but frequently fail to live up.” In other words, “the ability to transcend our greed, fears, and anger and to show compassion, love, and understanding to others — ideas that are fundamental to democracy and equality.”

This pattern continues in the second volume. It reproduces Full Color No. 105, Full Color No. 148 and the first two issues of “Pogo Possum,” all created from 1946 to 1950. Pogo begins to look less like a real possum, as he did in Animal Comics, and more like his cartoonish version. Porky Pine makes his inaugural appearance, and the first meeting between Pogo and Albert is depicted.

Mr. Andrae writes, “[M]any of the stories in this collection feature the slapstick humor that Kelly utilized in the Pogo comic strip.” In fact, “Kelly’s first venture into political humor” occurred in the 1947 comic book story, “Mr. Owl and the Atomic Bomb,” which became “a satire of the atomic bomb hysteria that gripped America in 1949 when the Russians first exploded an atom bomb.”

Like Mr. Burstein, I was pleased that Hermes Press “decided to simply reproduce the comic book pages rather than stripping out and re-colorizing them.” It allows us to properly see the growth and development of Kelly’s magnificent comic book creation. When his unique vision at Dell Comics carried over to the newspaper pages, “Pogo” became an American institution — and the rest is history.

Michael Taube is a contributor to The Washington Times.

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