We Go Pogo!
The Champeen Ever-lovin' Comical Geniusity o' Walt Kelly

I first discovered Pogo when I was twelve years old. I became an instant fan. Much of the sophisticated whimsy was about two feet over my head, but I loved the beautiful drawings and the gentle slapstick antics of Howlan' Owl, Churchy La Femme, Porky the porcupine, the seegar-chompin Albert the alligator and, of course, the innocent and naïve Pogo possum.

There was also the jangled cadence of Southern jargon that ran through the strip ("There he go, makin' those ungrammatipickle outcries and incries. Who but a'iggerant uncouf type boor could unnerstan'such slovenlike english?"). It was baffling action-painting of prose, but I liked it.

My parents approved of my taste and from then on I could always expect a Simon and Schuster Pogo book on my birthday. Like all young enthusiasts, I was eager to share my new-found interest and, on impulse one day, I gave one of my Pogo books to a neighborhood friend. I later found out he had used it as a stamp album, carefully pasting stamps over each panel of art. I like to think Walt Kelly would've gotten a smile out of that. (Me, I was p-oed!)

Walt Kelly was born in Philadelphia on August 25, 1913. Two years later the family headed for Bridgeport Connecticut where the young Kelly would eventually attend Warren Harding High School with fellow classmates Al Capp and future circus cartoonist Ray Dirgo (who also worked on The Flintstones). Kelly contributed cartoons and news articles to the local school newspaper while doing the same for a professional paper, The Bridgeport Post. He was thirteen years old at the time.

Upon graduation he became a full time reporter, valued for getting the facts and getting them right, as well as doing a number of cartoons, including a comic strip biography of P.T. Barnum. Barnum was a native son of his town and Bridgeport was also the winter headquarters of Barnum and Bailey Circus. It's only idle speculation, but all this just might have had some relation to Kelly's eventual creation of a certain bear,  P.T. Bridgeport.

Or maybe not.

In 1935 Kelly began a stint at Walt Disney Studios. It was a good move; the Disney organization believed in providing their artists with art classes, and Kelly also learned a great deal from established artists like Virgil ("VIP") Partch and T. Hee. There he began developing his flair for characterization and body language, honing his skills on such films as Fantasia,The Reluctant Dragon, and Dumbo. The Disney job lasted until 1941, the year of the infamous studio strike which divided the art staff into warring factions. Deciding not to deal with the picket lines, Kelly headed to New York and a job at Dell Comics.

Kelly's first work at Dell was drawing Our Gang Comics,adaptations of the Little Rascal shorts, but he soon came up with an idea of a comic built around southern swamp life. His first story appeared in Animal Comics #1, dated December 1941/January 1942.The new strip featured Albert the alligator, numerous other talking animals, and an eight year old black child named Bumbazine. The sole human in the strip, Bumbazine was portrayed as a sweet child, friendly and naïve, but Kelly felt awkward with racial stereotyping and soon retired Bumbazine with #12, replacing him with an equally innocent and naïve possum, Pogo.

Albert and Pogo also appeared in three other Dell books, Our Gang #6, Four Color #105 and #148, before getting their own book, Pogo Possum. While at Dell (where he did some work on another critter --Uncle Wiggly) Kelly worked for other publishers as well, writing and drawing Christmas With Mother Goose, Santa Claus Funnies,and Fairy Tale Parade, as well as some sixteen page booklets for a bread company, The Adventures of Peter Wheat.


[Peter Wheat gets into that Yuletide spirit.]

In 1948 Kelly returned to newspaper work, working for the art department of The New York Star. This was the time of the presidential race between Harry Truman and Thomas Dewey, the Republican candidate considered an electoral shoo-in by the political pundits of the day. Of all the N.Y. papers only the Star backed Truman. Kelly drew a cartoon of Dewey, the "machine candidate," as a cash register, and the cartoon did a lot to bring national attention to the new editorial cartoonist.

It was in the Star where Kelly's possum began his newsprint career, while simultaneously continuing on as a comic book for Dell. Pogo's first newspaper life lasted until the Star folded in January 1949, aborting another proposed Kelly strip, Bob Larkin (a sitcom about newspaper life), in the process.

Despite this setback, Kelly determined to continue on with his critters. A month later the strip was picked up by the Hall Syndicate and was popularly received, enabling Kelly to make arrangements with Simon and Schuster to reprint the strip as a soft-cover book. The first of the long-lived series, Pogo, was issued in 1951. The Simon and Schuster deal didn't sit well with Dell's Western Publishing, which began legal proceedings under the claim that their contract with Kelly gave them control over all publishing rights. Legal difficulties with Western continued until Kelly decided to drop all comics work and devote his time solely to the strip.

During the 1950s Kelly did a great deal to promote Pogo,especially with a Pogo for President campaign in 1952. Visiting college campuses around the country to campaign for his marsupial was great publicity and Pogo fan clubs popped up in college towns around the country.

Pogo hit the campaign trail again in 1956 and Kelly was hired to do radio and television broadcasts for NBC during the Democratic National Convention. Politics were very much a part of Pogo, as witness the unprecedented harpooning of demagogue Sen. Joe McCarthy as the sinister Simple J. Malarkey.  At times Kelly would have to provide alternate strip dailies for those editors too wimpy to risk offending the pols.

In addition to Pogo, Kelly illustrated The Glob by John O'Reilly, a fanciful account of human evolution, which was published in Life Magazine before appearing in book form. Other books included Dear George (George Keaslor) and Strong Cigars and Lovely Women (John Lardner). He also did illustrations for Life,a Christmas Carol strip for Newsweek,and illustrations for The New York Times Book Review.

A Walt Kelly science fiction strip, Toosic & Tinsa, was planned but could find no takers. (Anyone have any information on this?)

By 1960 Kelly began suffering from heart problems and diabetes. Closing the studio he had maintained for years, he continued on with his possum at home, increasing the use of political satire by dropping Fidel Castro and Nikita Krushchev into the Okefenokee. Some papers objected and even canceled Pogo, but the resultant publicity again served to up the strip's popularity. In 1965 Kelly returned to doing political cartoons for New York's Herald Tribune, but this aspect of his career came to an end when the Herald did, killed by a strike in 1966.

Kelly's health was worsening and by 1971 the artist had been repeatedly hospitalized. On October 18, 1973 Walt Kelly died, after a career of over 10,000 strips. Although Pogo was to continue on for another year, and was sporadically resurrected, a door had been closed on a legacy that could have only been matched by George Herriman, a standard that will not be forgotten. By jing.
 

--Steve Stiles