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Walt Kelly's Pogo (April 3, 1966)
Walter Crawford Kelly, Jr. (August 25, 1913October 18, 1973), better known as Walt Kelly, was an American animator and cartoonist, best known for the classic funny animal comic strip, Pogo. He won the National Cartoonists Society's Reuben Award in 1951 for Cartoonist of the Year, and their Silver T-Square Award in 1972, given to persons having "demonstrated outstanding dedication or service to the Society or the profession."

Biography

Born of Irish-American heritage in Philadelphia, Pennsylvaniamarker to Walter Crawford Kelly, Sr. and Genevieve (née MacAnnula) Kelly, Walt's family moved to Bridgeport, Connecticutmarker during his second year. His father reportedly worked in a munitions plant–although other sources report that Kelly's father was a painter of theatrical scenery. After graduating from Warren Harding High Schoolmarker in 1930, Kelly worked at odd jobs until he was hired as a crime reporter on the Bridgeport Post. He also took up cartooning and illustrated a biography of fellow Bridgeport native, P. T. Barnum. Kelly was extremely proud of his journalism pedigree and considered himself a newspaper man as well as a cartoonist.

Described as gruff on the exterior–although reportedly personable, highly energetic and extroverted. Kelly liked most animals–except for cats. He didn't like them; or said he didn't, according to his widow, Selby. When Kelly first saw a live opossum during a camping trip, he didn't know what it was and was "frightened to death," said Selby. His fascination with a Los Angeles production of Show Boat reportedly inspired the Southern setting of Pogo.

Kelly is often associated with two other cartooning giants: Milton Caniff (Terry and the Pirates, Steve Canyon) and Al Capp (Li'l Abner). The three were close friends and professional associates throughout their adult lives and occasionally referred to each other in their strips. An anecdote in Al Capp Remembered relates how Capp and his brother Elliot Caplin ducked out of a dull party at Capp's home, leaving Kelly alone to entertain a group of Argentine envoys who didn't speak English. Kelly retaliated by giving away Capp's baby grand piano. According to Capp, who loved to relate the story, Kelly's two perfectly logical reasons for doing so were: (1) to cement diplomatic relations between Argentinamarker and the United States and (2) "because you can't play the piano anyway." Capp said "Walt, when he chooses to be, is one of the funniest men in the world."

Milton Caniff related another event in Phi Beta Pogo involving Walt Kelly and Al Capp, onstage at a meeting of the Newspaper Comics Council in the 1960s:
Walt would say to Al, "Of course, Al, this is really how you should draw Daisy Mae, I'm only showing you this for your own good." Then Walt would do a sketch. Capp, of course, got ticked off by this, as you can imagine! So he retaliated by doing his version of Pogo. Unfortunately, the drawings are long gone; no recording was made. What a shame! Nobody anticipated there'd be this dueling back and forth between the two of them.


Politically, Kelly would be more accurately described as a "progressive" independent rather than a liberal–he was a great supporter of Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower over Adlai Stevenson. Conversely, he seemed to tilt to Democrat Harry S. Truman over Thomas Dewey, and he claimed to be against "the extreme Right, the extreme Left, and the extreme Middle." He skewered both Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon in later years, as well as J. Edgar Hoover, George Wallace and Spiro Agnew. Kelly was considered a sufficient enough threat that his phone was tapped by the Federal Bureau of Investigationmarker, and the U.S. Government corresponded with a newspaper reporter who claimed that the eccentric jargon Kelly created was a secret Russian code. Kelly was an great supporter of desegregation and free speech, and his name was recently discovered on a petition in support of Lenny Bruce.

Influences

His influences included cartoonists George Kerr, Frederick Opper, E.W. Kemble, A.B. Frost, John Tenniel, George Herriman and (especially) T.S. Sullivant. Kelly, a great admirer of Lewis Carroll, was also a prolific poet, especially in the "Anguish Languish" form (of which Deck Us All With Boston Charlie is considered one of the prime examples). Kelly's singing voice, a boozy Irish baritone, can be heard on the Songs of the Pogo album, for which he also supplied the lyrics.

Walt Kelly died in 1973 in Woodland Hills, Californiamarker from diabetes complications, following a long and debilitating illness that had cost him a leg. During his final illness, work on the strip had fallen to various assistants (and occasionally reprints), and Kelly characteristically joked about returning to work as soon as he re-grew the leg. He is sometimes listed as having been interred in the Cemetery of the Evergreensmarker in Brooklyn, New Yorkmarker, but there is no grave for him there. He is believed to have been cremated.

Disney Studios

Relocating to Southern California, reportedly in pursuit of his future wife, Helen DeLacy, who had moved there, he found a job at Walt Disney Productions as a storyboard artist and gag man on Donald Duck cartoons and other shorts, requesting a switch to the animation department in 1939. Starting over as an animator, Kelly became an assistant to noted Walt Disney animator Fred Moore and became close friends with Moore and Ward Kimball, one of Disney's Nine Old Men.

Kelly worked for Disney from January 6, 1936 to September 12, 1941, contributing to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Fantasia, Dumbo and The Reluctant Dragon. Kelly once stated that his salary at Disney averaged about $100 a week. During 1935 and 1936, his work also appeared in early comic books for what later became DC Comics.

Kelly's animation can be seen in Pinocchio when Gepetto is first seen inside Monstro the whale, fishing; in Fantasia when Bacchus is seen drunkenly riding a donkey during the Beethoven/"Pastoral Symphony" sequence; and in "Dumbo" of the ringmaster and during bits of the crows' sequence; and his drawings are especially recognizable in "The Reluctant Dragon" of the little boy, and in the Mickey Mouse short "The Little Whirlwind" when Mickey is running from the larger tornado.

During the 1941 animators strike, Kelly did not picket the studio, as has often been reported, but took a leave of absence — pleading "family illness" — in order to avoid choosing sides. Surviving correspondence between Kelly and his close friend and fellow animator Ward Kimball chronicles his ambivalence towards the highly charged dispute. Kimball stated in an interview years later that Kelly felt creatively constricted in animation, a collective art form, and possibly over-challenged by the technical demands of the form, and had been looking for a way out when the strike occurred.

Kelly never returned to the studio as an animator, but jobs adapting the studio's films Pinocchio and The Three Caballeros for Dell Comics — apparently the result of a recommendation from Walt Disney himself — led to a new (and ultimately transitional) career.

In a May 25, 1960 letter to Walt Disney Kelly wrote regarding his time at the studio:
Just in case I ever forgot to thank you, I'd like you to know that I, for one, have long appreciated the sort of training and atmosphere that you set up back there in the thirties. There were drawbacks as there are to everything, but it was an astounding experiment and experience as I look back on it. Certainly it was the only education I ever received and I hope of I'm living up to a few of your hopes for other people.


Dell Comics

Kelly began a series of comic books based on fairy tales and nursery rhymes along with annuals celebrating Christmas and Easter for Dell Comics. Kelly seems to have written or co-written much of the material he drew for the comics; his unique touches are easily discernible. He also produced a series of stories based on the Our Gang film series, provided covers for Walt Disney's Comics and Stories, illustrated the aforementioned adaptations of two Disney animated features, drew stories featuring Raggedy Ann and Andy and Uncle Wiggily, wrote and drew a lengthy series of comic books promoting a bread company and featuring a character called "Peter Wheat", and did a series of pantomime (i.e. without dialogue) two-page stories featuring Roald Dahl's Gremlins for Walt Disney's Comics and Stories #34-41. Kelly also wrote, drew, and performed during this period on children's records, children's books, and cereal boxes. He was so prolific in the 1940s that it is assumed that the extent of his work can never be completely documented.

So highly regarded was his work that Dell editor Oskar Lebeck in the introduction to Fairy Tale Parade #1 spoke of him as "the artist who drew all the wonderful pictures in this book".

Although his health would not allow him to serve in the military, during World War II, Kelly also worked in the Army's Foreign Language Unit illustrating manuals, including several on language — a favorite Kelly subject — and one manual on the use of tools depicting his friend Ward Kimball as a caveman.

This period saw the creation of Kelly's most famous character, Pogo, who first saw print in 1943 in Dell's Animal Comics. The initial stories, probably influenced by Joel Chandler Harris' Uncle Remus stories, pitted a boy named Bumbazine against wily Albert the Alligator, with Pogo Possum in a supporting role. Albert eventually supplanted Bumbazine for the lead role, and Pogo supplanted Albert, with the sole human character- whom Kelly joked was less believable being 'merely human'- disappearing from the series altogether. Some cartoon historians have speculated that the removal of the only human (a black one) was done to allow the creation of Kelly's ideal of a Southland with no black or white - just critters.

Pogo was almost unrecognizable in his initial appearance, resembling a real possum more closely than in his classic form. He gradually assumed a rounder and more appealing shape and construction, much like Mickey Mouse's, including a black nose that he would retain until the eve of his transition to the comics page in 1948.

Kelly's work with Dell continued well into the successful run of the newspaper strip in the early fifties, ending after 16 issues of Pogo Possum (each with all new material) in a dispute over the republication of Kelly's early Pogo and Albert stories in a special comic book called The Pogo Parade. Having grown tremendously as an artist and writer, Kelly no longer wished to see his earlier work in print.

New York Star

He returned to journalism as a political cartoonist after the war. In 1948, while art director of the short-lived New York Star, Kelly began to produce a pen-and-ink daily strip featuring anthropomorphic animal characters that inhabited the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgiamarker. The first Pogo strip appeared on October 4, 1948. After the New York Star folded on Jan. 28, 1949 Kelly arranged for syndication through the Hall Syndicate which relaunched the strip in May 1949. Kelly eventually arranged to acquire the copyright and ownership of the strip, which was uncommon in that era.

Pogo

Pogo was a landmark strip in many ways and Kelly is arguably one of the greatest and most influential of cartoonists in the history of the craft. Kelly combined masterful line and brush-work (learned at the "mouse factory", Disney) with fluent and highly amusing story-telling acted out by an endearing cast of "nature's screechers". He borrowed from various dialectical sources and his own fertile imagination to invent a unique and charming backwoods-patois, heavy on the nonsense, to fit his cartoon swampland. Although Pogo stands on its own as a superbly-realised cartoon strip for the ages, it was perhaps Kelly's interjection of political and social satire into the work that was its greatest pioneering accomplishment. With rare exceptions (such as Al Capp's Li'l Abner), satirical commentary was simply not done in the genre of dailies in Kelly's time.

The principal characters were Pogo the Possum, Albert the Alligator, Churchy LaFemme (cf. Cherchez la femme), a turtle, Howland Owl (a partial self-parody), Beauregard (Houndog), Porkypine, and Miz Mamzelle Hepzibah, a French skunk. Kelly used the strip in part as a vehicle for his liberal and humanistic political and social views and satirized, among other things, Senator Joseph McCarthy's anti-Communist demagogy (in the form of a shotgun-wielding bobcat named "Simple J. Malarkey") and the sectarian and dogmatic behavior of Communist in the form of two comically doctrinaire cowbirds.

Another interesting facet of the comic strip were the unique speech balloons that several characters were drawn with. One character, Deacon Mushrat, an educated muskrat, spoke in speech balloons with decorated Gothic style lettering. The village mortician, Sarcophagas Macabre, a vulture, had square, black-framed speech balloons with fine script lettering, resembling funeral announcements. P.T. Bridgeport, a bear and showman and promoter of questionable repute, spoke with speech balloons in highly decorated type, resembling 19th century circus posters. George Ward and Henry Shikuma were among Kelly's assistants on the strip.

In 1951 Simon and Schuster issued the first paperback book collection of the strip, simply titled Pogo, to excellent sales. The book introduced Kelly's unusual format: rather than simply reproduce strips, Kelly edited them heavily, removing many panels, adding many others, and omitting many strips entirely in order to create many short, humorously titled chapters that read in a comic book (rather than comic strip) style. I Go Pogo quickly followed the first book. Kelly would go on to produce about thirty titles in this format during his lifetime, with several more issued posthumously. All are highly sought by collectors. Still ultra-prolific, Kelly often wrote and illustrated short poems for these books, and eventually began adding elaborate full-length stories that were specially created for the books. Over time, the amount of special material in these books would grow to the point that some contained no daily or Sunday Pogo material and were created by Kelly from scratch.

In 1952 and later, a "Pogo for President" campaign, with followers wearing "I Go Pogo" buttons, became an expression of political protest. Pogo was also distinguished by exceptional linguistic inventiveness and playfulness, as expressed, for example, in the Pogo version of songs such as "Deck Us All with Boston Charlie" (for "Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly") and "Ma Bonny lice soda devotion" (for "My Bonnie lies over the ocean").

Perhaps the most famous quotation to come from this series is, "We have met the enemy and he is us" (a paraphrase of Commodore Perry's famous "We have met the enemy and they are ours" from the War of 1812). The earliest form of this expression appeared in his introduction to The Pogo Papers (1953); it was used much later in the comic strip and as the title of a collection of strips. This is typical of the wry and politically astute commentary to be found in the daily and Sunday strip. It was distributed by King Features Syndicate to hundreds of newspapers for many years. The individual strips were collected into at least twenty books edited by Kelly, reprinted editions of some of these remain available today. He received the Reuben Award for the series in 1951.

Walt Kelly illustrated The Glob, a children's book about the evolution of man written by John O'Reilly and published in 1952. The characters and creatures in the book have a distinctly Pogoian character.

In 1969, a half-hour animated television special, The Pogo Special Birthday Special was produced, and aired on the NBC television network. Kelly himself provided the voices for P.T. Bridgeport, Albert Alligator and Howland Owl. In an interview Ward Kimball, who had worked with Kelly at Disney, quoted Kelly as saying angrily that Chuck Jones had changed the script without Kelly's ok, and altered Miz Mam'selle Hepzibah's face to look more human.

Having previously lampooned McCarthy, Kelly was also censored by some papers in the 1960s for portraying Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev as a pig and Fidel Castro as a cigar-smoking goat spouting pseudo-Marxism like "The shortage will be divided amongst the peasants!" Kelly had spent time in Cold War Berlin, writing newspaper articles about the situation there.

During the 1968 political campaign, Kelly's strip depicted rival Presidential candidates Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon as the Tweedle twins (Tweedledum and Tweedledee) but never established which was which: each twin claimed to be "Dee" while identifying the other as "Dum". In later years, Kelly's strip featured caricatures of Nixon depicted as a spider, J. Edgar Hoover as a bulldog, Spiro T. Agnew as a hyena and George C. Wallace as a bantam cock.

Throughout the run of Pogo, the strip's characters frequently traversed the Okefenokee Swamp aboard a flimsy flat-bottomed boat. Kelly developed the pleasant gimmick of lettering the boat's name on its hull... the gimmick being that the name changed from one day to the next, and even from panel to panel within the same day's strip, but was always a tribute to some obscure real-life person whom Kelly wished to salute in print.

An alternative explanation to the changing names on the hull of the simple punt is that they represented the names of newspapers which had recently syndicated his comic strip. Inspection of the names makes this pretty obvious.

In contrast to the rigidly straight-edged panels of most other comic strips, the panels of Pogo were always defiantly hand-drawn in Kelly's beautiful ink lines with no attempt at straightness. Frequently a Pogo character would lean against the edge of the panel, or Albert would strike a match (to light his cigar) against the nearest panel edge, invariably distorting the panel even further.

Legacy in print and other media

Pogo was continued by Kelly's widow, Selby, and various assistants until the summer of 1975. Reprint books continued in a steady stream, including a series reprinting several original books under a single cover according to various themes — romance, elections — that ran into the 1980s. In 1977, a small publisher called the Gregg Press reprinted the first ten Pogo books in hardcover editions with dust jackets. In 1995, another small press called Jonas/Winter issued another ten Pogo titles in navy blue cloth editions.

  • In the 1980s a series of trade paperbacks- The Best Of Pogo, Pogo Even Better, Outrageously Pogo, Pluperfect Pogo, and Phi Beta Pogo collected material from Kelly fanzine The Okefenokee Star and combined examples of Kelly's massive output of non-strip material with new interviews, essays, and in each volume, a complete year of dailies from the strip starting in 1948. These books were unusual in that they were focused on Kelly's entire life and work, rather than just Pogo specifically.


  • In 1980, a clay animation feature film, Pogo For President (aka I Go Pogo) was released, but failed to gain much media attention. Ironically, it was ultimately purchased by The Walt Disney Company and has seen limited release in home formats.


  • In 1988, Steve Thompson issued The Walt Kelly Collector's Guide, (Spring Hollow Books) an invaluable and comprehensive resource of Pogo and other Walt Kelly-related memorabilia.


  • In 1989 the Los Angeles Times attempted to revive the strip with other artists, including Kelly's children Carolyn and Peter, under the title Walt Kelly's Pogo. The new strip ran through the early nineties. Also in 1989, Eclipse Books began publication of a hardcover series called Walt Kelly's Pogo And Albert collecting the early Dell Pogo comic book stories in color and starting with the characters' first appearance in 1943. The series reached four numbered volumes, with volumes 2, 3, and 4 subtitled At The Mercy Of Elephants, Diggin' Fo' Square Roots, and Dreamin' Of A Wide Catfish, respectively.


  • In 1992, Fantagraphics Books began a series of chronological strip reprints in paperback form, simply titled Pogo. Through 2000, the series reached 11 volumes and reprinted daily strips from the first New York Star strip of October 4, 1948 through February 12, 1954. Also in 1992, Spring Hollow published Pogo Files for Pogophiles in hardcover and trade paperback.


  • In 2001, Spring Hollow published The Pogopedia by Nik Lauer, et al. An exhaustively-researched, encyclopedic reference volume. The book examines the strip's themes, character studies, quotations, motifs, etc. Analytical, thorough and highly enjoyable.


  • In 2002, Dark Horse Comics produced Pogo and Albert figures in limited editions as part of their "Classic Comic Character Series" of statues. Issued in lavishly illustrated tin containers, the figures quickly sold out. Also released in 1992, The Comics Journal Interview CD (2002): Contains 15-20 minute audio excerpts with five of the most influential cartoonists in the American comics industry: Charles Schulz, Jack Kirby, Walt Kelly (interviewed by Gil Kane in 1969) and R. Crumb. (Fantagraphics)


  • In 2003, Reaction Records reissued Kelly's 1956 album Songs Of The Pogo on compact disc. The album features Kelly singing his own comic lyrics and nonsense verse to melodies written by Norman Monath. The disc also features the content of Kelly's later recordings, No! With Pogo and Can't! With Pogo, which were issued as children's 45 rpm record sets in 1969, with booklets written and illustrated by Kelly to go along with his recorded performances.


  • In February 2007 it was announced that Fantagraphics Books would begin publication of The Complete Pogo, a projected 12-volume series collecting the complete chronological run of daily and Sunday strips, to be overseen by Kelly aficionado and Bone creator Jeff Smith. The first volume in the series was scheduled to appear in October 2007, but delays, reportedly resulting from the difficulty in locating early Sunday strips in complete form, have pushed back its release until November 30, 2009.


  • Fantagraphics Books has also published three volumes of a series collecting Kelly's Our Gang comic book stories from 1943–45, with cover art by Jeff Smith and introductions by Leonard Maltin and Kelly chronicler Steve Thompson.


Unwelcome tribute

In 1968, the country rock band Poco made their debut at Doug Weston's Troubadour Club in West Hollywood, Californiamarker under the name "Pogo". After they had performed enough to establish themselves, they were sued by Kelly and subsequently changed the name to "Poco" in order to minimize the damage. Band member Richie Furay said, "When the Buffalo Springfield Roller Company found out we were using their name, they wrote back and said, 'Hey, really glad to see the name. Use it, have fun.' It was really neat to have someone encourage us like that. But Walt didn't see things that way."

Awards and recognition

Kelly has been compared to everyone from James Joyce and Lewis Carroll, to Aesop and Uncle Remus. He was elected president of the National Cartoonists Society in 1954, serving until 1956, and was also the first strip cartoonist to be invited to contribute originals to the Library of Congressmarker.



Online comics



References

  1. Walt Kelly biography card from National Cartoonists Society
  2. Playboy, December 1965.
  3. Walter K. to Walter D., 1960
  4. Sampson, Wade "The Return of the Gremlins" http://www.mouseplanet.com/articles.php?art=ww080423ws
  5. As quoted by comic book historian Michael Barrier in his website's March 31, 2009 entry More Klassic Kelly Komix
  6. Kelly, Walt: "Phi Beta Pogo", p. 197, Simon and Schuster, 1989.
  7. Stern, Alexander. "We Have Met the Enemy, and He is Us: Pogo Possum and Politics in the Funnies," Times Union (Albany, New York), October 29, 2008.
  8. Kelly, Walt: "Phi Beta Pogo", p. 146, Simon and Schuster, 1989.
  9. Kelly, Walt: "Instant Pogo", p. 11, Simon and Schuster, 1962.
  10. Kelly, Walt: Outrageously Pogo, pp. 61-69, Simon and Schuster, 1985.
  11. Interview: Mark Evanier on Kirby: King of Comics http://www.comicmix.com/news/2008/03/10/interview-mark-evanier-on-kirby-king-of-comics/


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