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An Age of Innocence

By: Michael Taube
July 16, 2018

ertain comic strips stay fresh in readers’ minds long after their final panels had been drawn. Memorable characters, topics, storylines, artwork, and quotations certainly help, but whatever the ultimate reason may be, these funny-page stalwarts are head and shoulders above other popular contenders.

Pogo is part of that short, elite list.

Disney animator and Dell Comics illustrator Walt Kelly’s Pogo ran from 1948 to 1975. An instant hit, Pogo featured a large cast of anthropomorphic animals—including Pogo Possum, Albert Alligator, Porky Pine, Howland Owl, Churchy LaFemme, and Beauregard Bugleboy—who lived in Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp. At its peak, it circulated among 500 newspapers in 14 countries.

Kelly’s political leanings were unabashedly liberal. But, despite this, he claimed to be against “the extreme Right, the extreme Left, and the extreme Middle.” So, while Pogo had a liberal hue, it often veered into the realms of satire, sarcasm, and anti-establishmentarianism when it came to its creator’s fellow political travelers. That’s why many conservatives enjoyed his strip when it circulated and still do today. 

Fantagraphics Books, one of America’s leading comics publishers, has been reproducing the entire chronological run of Pogo’s daily and Sunday-only strips in an anticipated 12 volume set. Vols. 1 and 2, which I reviewed for the Washington Times, were published in 2011 and 2012. Vol. 3 was delayed until 2014, while vol. 4 only came out this January.

Each book is superbly done; the editors take great time and care to ensure each strip is crisp, clear, and legible. There are also intriguing essays and analyses by comics historians and experts, which provide valuable insights about Pogo and provide context for the strip’s evolution and popularity.

Steve Thompson, president of the Pogo Fan Club, wrote about the talented cartoonist’s life and work in his introduction to Vol. 1.

Kelly was the son of a Vaudeville theater scene painter, who enjoyed calling himself the “family slob” (yes, for real) and loved to “sing and draw on paper bags.” He drew for his school newspaper, General Electric’s “house organ” Works News, and freelanced part-time for Connecticut’s Bridgeport Post. These early gigs afforded him the opportunity to explore the world of comic strips.

His detour working for Walt Disney Studios from 1936 to 1941 gave him the chance to ply his trade working on animated shorts like The Nifty Nineties (1941) and The Little Whirlwind (1941), and classic movies like Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1940), and Dumbo (1941). Kelly’s next career stop was Western Publishing, the home of Dell Comics from 1942 to 1948. While drawing for Dell, he created memorable characters such as Kandi the Cave Kid and Seaman Sy Wheeler, adapted fairy tales for Mother Goose stories, worked on the Our Gang comic books, and “even did a short Bugs Bunny story.” In fact, the 83 covers he drew for the series “Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories” are highly sought-after by collectors for their fine, expressive artistry, with his own stylistic elements almost always visible in the backgrounds.

In the first issue of Animal Comics, Kelly introduced the world to Pogo Possum and Albert the Alligator. They served as comic foils to a young black boy, Bumbazine, whose name was inspired by bombazine, a fabric that was usually black in color and worn by mourners at funerals. Although Bumbazine was stereotypical in certain respects, he was actually the most intelligent and level-headed character in the early days of the Okefenokee Swamp. Alas, the human child “disappeared fairly early in the feature’s run because, Kelly said, he was not as believable as the animals.” 

After Kelly moved to the New York Star in 1948, he brought back “his swamp critters in comic strip format, calling it simply Pogo.” The strip ran six days a week from 1948 to 1949, until the newspaper unexpectedly folded. Post-Hall Syndicate picked it up as a daily strip in May 1949, and a Sunday color strip was added in January 1950.

The Fantagraphics collection focuses specifically on the Post-Hall Syndicate period. Each book contains two full years of daily and Sunday strips, along with a table of contents providing a brief synopsis of each day. To date, the forewords have been written by journalist Jimmy Breslin (Vol. 1), author/comedian Stan Freberg (Vol. 2), cartoonist Mike Peters (Vol. 3) and novelist/comic book author Neil Gaiman (Vol. 4). 

Comics historian R.C. Harvey’s section—“Swamp Talk”—provides historical perspective and annotations to Vols. 1-4. While the words, figures, locations, and historical events in certain strips are familiar to some readers, others will be mystified by references to jazz and blues musicians (Jelly Roll Morton, Ma Rainey), competitors (Howdy Doody), politics (the character Miss Sis Boombah was referred to as a “Rhode Island Red,” a subtle link to Communism), historical figures (Jefferson Davis, Leon Trotsky, Grace Kelly, William Shakespeare), and now-archaic words (like “jeroboam,” which is a “three-liter container”).    

Then, there are the stories. These include politics and current events, with heapin’ helpins’ of Southern drawl and charm, as well as frequent moments of whimsy and wisdom.

The faux 1952 presidential campaign, with its famous “I Go Pogo” political slogan, still remains one of the strip’s most endearing storylines. P.T. Bridgeport, a bear with a powerful, booming voice and a carnival barker attitude, puts out the word that “Everybody in the swamp is going for Pogo for President!!! Everybody...everybody.” But, as the astute Porky Pine quietly points out, “Ev-ar-ee-bod-dee...‘cept Pogo.” Nevertheless, the possum protagonist took up his newfound role with grace and humility.

There’s also Simple J. Malarkey, who Harvey describes as a “wild cat” and a “remarkable caricature of Joseph R. McCarthy.” He becomes president of the Bird Watchers Club in May 1953, but his friend Molester Mole opines that some of the swamp’s inhabitants, such as Beauregard Bugleboy, aren’t birds. “Oh, we can fix that, Hon. Mole,” says Marlarkey, “We’ll jes’ git some feathers an’ some boilin’ tar, an’ with a little judicious application we can make the child into any bird we chooses...all nice and neat.” For a nation that was living through the McCarthy hearings and feared the Red Menace, this was a topic close to home.

In fact, there were many other references to the government (or, as they said in the swamp, “gummint”) during the strip’s early years. Several important debates over the 1956 presidential campaigns of Dwight D. Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson occurred in the swamp. Nevertheless, Pogo was put up yet again as a presidential candidate—without being asked, of course—and was initially aided by the Seminole Sam’s use of Deacon Mushrat’s slogan, “Pogo’s for President and I’m for Vice.” That is, until Churchy LaFemme, “a member of a already confused public,” proposed a slight twist, “Don’t worry ‘bout the President. Who’s for Vice?” This led to a brief period of political bedlam, the likes of which were often seen every four years or so!

Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson said of Kelly that “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.” Indeed, Walt Kelly’s Pogo was the epitome of a great comic strip: intelligent, thought-provoking, ground-breaking, humorous, memorable, cynical, controversial, and, above all, bloody brilliant. The first eight years in syndication laid the foundation for roughly another two decades of comic strip genius. The best of the Okefenokee Swamp was yet to come.