EDITOR'S NOTE: "Pogo" was a favorite of Deseret News readers for more than 20 years. The comic was retired in July 1975.
If Walt Kelly had written "regular" books, he might be recognized today as one of the finest satirists of the 20th century. As a wizard of wordplay he might well be mentioned, if not in the same breath with Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, then in the very next.
But he didn't. He drew a comic strip, which was then, as now, a low estate, and most of the books he produced were compilations of his strip, "Pogo," featuring Pogo Possum, Albert the Alligator and a whole raft of animals inhabiting Kelly's highly imaginative rendering of Georgia's Okefenokee Swamp.
And so Kelly, while not exactly an obscure figure, is remembered primarily by a fiercely loyal if not particularly extensive band of enthusiasts.
In his day — the 1950s and '60s — he was hailed for his comedic and artistic talents. Fifty years ago, in 1951, those talents landed him on the best-seller lists with the first compilation, titled, simply, "Pogo."
That first book could be considered a forerunner of the graphic novel, a form that, like the comic strip, has a hard time gaining respect as art. In fact, the entire 27-year run of "Pogo," from 1948 to 1975, can be considered one long novel, rather in the way that, say, the 12 novels of Anthony Powell's "A Dance to the Music of Time" series are really one long novel, or John Updike's four Rabbit Angstrom novels are all of one artistic piece.
But to link Pogo with the graphic novel, however defensible, may not do Kelly any favors because the chief ingredient of novels is the chief failing of most graphic novels: words. However strikingly, even artistically, they are drawn, they simply are not very good as novels — in the 101 different alchemic ways that novels use words to achieve their effects and tell us something about ourselves.
Kelly, on the other hand, was as adept at words as he was with brush, pen and ink.
Bill Watterson, creator of the comic-strip "Calvin and Hobbes," has said that, except for "Krazy Kat," no other strip "used words and pictures so effectively."
Edward Mendelson, literary executor of W.H. Auden's estate, said "Kelly had more than mere wit and talent. His comedy is always dense and multilayered — appealing not only to adults and children but to the gallery and the pit."
T.S. Eliot used to have the Pogo books sent to him in England as they appeared.
The uninitiated may reasonably ask, "What is this 'Pogo,' and why is it so great?"
Until recently, they could learn only by buying a second-hand copy of an original compilation, or the occasional new reprint.
Now they can more easily draw their own conclusions because a firm called Fantagraphics Books of Seattle has embarked on the laudable task of reprinting every daily "Pogo" strip, right from its initiation in the old New York Star in 1948. So far it has published 11 volumes, carrying the strip up to 1954. Each oversize paperback volume contains an introduction by knowledgeable Pogophile R.C. Harvey, whose acute insights are extremely helpful. (The books are available at Amazon.com and some bookstores or Fantagraphics can be reached by mail at 7563 Lake City Way NE, Seattle, WA 98115; by phone at 1-800-657-1100; or on the Web at www.fantagraphics.com.
"Pogo" is best known for its political satire, particularly the parodying of McCarthyism and communist witch-hunting by the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s. This led to the brilliant creation in 1953 of a stand-in for Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy, a wildcat named Simple J. Malarkey whose name, as well as threatening looks and manner, perfectly reflect their original.
Malarkey is ably abetted by the likes of the Boy Bird Watchers (code for "commie hunters") and Mole MacCarony. Mole's fanaticism about cleanliness is a comment on Sen. Pat McCarran — another witch-hunter, and co-sponsor of the McCarran-Walter Immigration Act of 1952 — who was intent on "sanitizing" America. Making Mole nearly blind is Kelly's way of showing that "bird watchers" aren't very perceptive.
Such political satire cropped up from time to time throughout the run of the strip, but none of it can be fully understood without an appreciation of what "Pogo" really was about, which was, in a word, nonsense. Kelly used elements of vaudeville, slapstick and, especially, inventive language to create a delightfully loony world of adults masquerading as animals.
To Kelly, plots were unrealistic. In life, and so in "Pogo," things happen higgledy-piggledy. Kelly himself said that, typically, a story line goes "from one exaggeration to another, and the second exaggeration is supposedly an explanation of the first." Harvey refers to "Kelly's penchant for a kind of loopy, leap-frogging plot development. The conversation leaps from one misapprehended meaning to another."
For instance, in a two-week sequence in November 1950, Pogo wonders what would please Mam'selle Hepzibah, the svelte skunk whose beauty gives all the animals, to use a "Pogo" term, the blind staggers. "Who can tell what she likes?" Pogo asks Churchy La Femme, the turtle. "It might be sea serpents."
So, in the next panel, we see them watching a cow swimming down a stream, singing a nonsense verse. Of course, they assume it's a sea serpent. Churchy decides to capture the sea serpent/cow, and the cow, overhearing that sea serpents might be in the area, gallops off in panic.
The cow, it turns out, is named Horrors Greeley because it wants to go West — to Horrors, West being Milwaukee. The reference to Milwaukee then somehow turns into a bug named Milwaukee Moe, and the "plot" meanders off in a new lack of direction.
Kelly said he used animals — "nature's screechers," he called them — "largely because you can do more with animals. They don't hurt as easily, and it's possible to make them more believable in an exaggerated pose."
He chose, not soft and cuddly animals, but what Harvey calls "oddball critters" — possum, turtle, owl, porcupine, "mushrat." Each has its own personality. Pogo is benign, bland and neutral, and while the strip is named for and revolves around him, the fiery Albert is the strip's true protagonist.
Personality is graphically expressive. When Kelly introduces P.T. Bridgeport, a blowhard, charlatan circus bear who wants to run Pogo's campaign for president in 1952, he is pointedly expressing his attitude toward politics.
Nearly all speak in a kind of "Southern fried" dialect of Kelly's own invention that lends itself to ingenious puns and malapropisms. Exotic words and spellings abound: Words that end in "able" are given "bobble" instead — horribobble, remarkabobble. Eyebrows become eye-briars, caterpillars "catterpiggles."
Sometimes, the lettering in their speech balloons expresses personality. P.T. Bridgeport speaks in circus poster-style lettering. Deacon Mushrat, a slippery self-server, who looks like either Woodrow Wilson or the actor Edward Everett Horton, speaks in Old English typeface. The speech balloons of Sarcophagus MacAbre, an ominous buzzard, are bordered in thick funereal black.
This is all of a piece with the animals' using the borders of the panels to lean or strike matches upon. It is as if Kelly is winking at us. Like a novel that acknowledges its own fictionality, "Pogo" is entirely self-aware.
There is so much more here, just in five-plus years of strips: A rousing parody of "Little Orphan Annie" ("Li'l Arf 'n' Nonny"); Pogo's run for president in imitation of Eisenhower ("I Like Ike" becomes "I Go Pogo"), complete with a portable smoke-filled room mounted on a flat-bottom boat; a wacky sequence in which Seminole Sam the fox tries to corner the market in water because "What is soap without water? Bad tastin' cheese!" — until someone deflates him by pointing out that neither is anything without dirt; and Sis Boombah, a chicken of matronly proportions dressed in a kind of 1920s gym teacher's middy, who arrives to conduct a survey for Dr. Whimsy on the Sectional Habits of the U.S. Mailmen.
That does not begin to exhaust it. There is wordplay galore, and wonderful bits of side business taking place parallel with the main action, like Pogo's incidental reading of a book titled "Girl of the Sterling North," which sounds like a countrified classic along the lines of "A Girl of the Limberlost," but is actually the name of an author of countrified classics ("So Dear to My Heart," etc.).
To reread these strips all in one go is to be struck by what a fantastically fertile and creative brain created them. That brain was snuffed out all too early. Kelly died of complications of diabetes at 60 on Oct. 18, 1973.
His thoughts on that aspect of existence were in keeping with his strip's general outlook: "Don't take life so serious, son," Porky Pine once said to Albert. "It ain't nohow permanent."
Roger K. Miller, a newspaperman for 30 years, is a free-lance writer in Janesville, Wis. E-mail: email@example.com@desnews.com