Sunday, October 25, 2020

A Crowded Life in Comics –

 Pogo For President.

The 1956 campaign produced buttons almost as large as some of the candidates themselves.

Rick Marschall.

Politics has always been its own “character,” so to speak, in comic strips; an ever-present topic in times of trouble. Or “ever-president,” even. William McKinley visited Hogan’s Alley; Theodore Roosevelt wrestled Foxy Grandpa (and inspired the newspaper cartoon “The Roosevelt Bears”); Calvin Coolidge appeared in Mutt and Jeff; and so forth.

Ever since R F Outcault, many cartoonists have fallen back on presidents and politics and current events for daily gags or entire sequences. Garry Trudeau might be in the aluminum-siding business today if not for Nixon, Trump, and every president in between providing material.

The original strip that Walt Kelly sent me when I was a kid was from the immediate aftermath of Fremount the Bug’s losing campaign. The dialog deals with campaign “promises” (rather than pledges and commitments and other euphemisms), that have reentered the political discourse this year…

Presidents and politics were logical denizens of the funnies from jump street, not only Hogan’s Alley. Cartoon weeklies and newspaper comic sections ran political cartoons before sequential strips were codified, so the evolution was natural.

Even considering Al Capp, who eventually spanned the entire political horizon left to right in Li’l Abner, there was no strip cartoonist before our time who addressed politics more than Walt Kelly. Pogo trafficked in politics heavily (not quite a traffic jam, but occasionally supplanting regular settings and characters); Kelly made slight and sometimes subtle references; he caricatured politicians; he ignited controversy and publicity…

… and Pogo even ran for president. At least twice. In fact as many times as Harold Stassen or Joe Biden. In 1952 and 1956 the possum was a candidate, at least in syndicate PR campaigns beyond the strip. Citizens sported Pogo pinbacks. College campuses held Pogo for President rallies. TIME, Newsweek, and Life ran stories. In the next cycle, Pogo stepped aside as an Okefenokee bug named Fremount ran for the White House.

Walt Kelly made TV appearances with Eleanor Roosevelt in get-out-the-vote drives. 

In 1968 and 1972 actual candidates (not as actual humans, though) romped through the strip, superb caricatures of LBJ, George Wallace, and Spiro Agnew stealing the spotlight. Kelly had been a political cartoonist in the past – between animation and comics books and strip periods – and in his case, it was not evolution, but facilely switching hats. (I recently noted here that he was virtually the only cartoonist who worked in, and mastered, every cartooning genre of his day.)

So politics can provide humor. Even when dealing with grave matters. In that regard, it was from beyond the “grave” that Pogo delved into politics after the death of Walt Kelly. 

In 1980 Walt’s widow Selby worked with filmmakers who wanted a re-“run” of a presidential campaign. Rather than animation (Walt and Selby had met when they both worked at Disney) the production was stop-action in figures made of “Flexiform.” Walt had worked on TV animated cartoon with Chuck Jones shortly before he died, but this production, I Go Pogo – the Movie was all three-dimensional characters, props, and backgrounds.

A rare 8-sheet of the 1980 stop-cation movie I Go Pogo.

The actors who supplied voices in the productions formed a Who’s Who of great comedic talent and range: Jonathan Winters; Stan Freberg; Vincent Price; Arnold Stang; Ruth Buzzi;  Skip Hinnant (who played Schroeder in off-Broadway’s You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown; and the voice of Bakshi’s Fritz the Cat); and even Kelly’s old New York drinking buddy, columnist Jimmy Breslin.

That was 40 years ago. Various publications and aspiring resurrections of the possum’s quadrennial pastime continued, and still might, for who-knows-how-many ever-lovin’ blue-eyed years.

Win or lose, right or wrong, left or right, it was appropriate that politics was an important component of Pogo’s world. After all, we always hear what a swamp the political game is.



1 comment:

  1. Saw most of "I Go Pogo" years ago. It was very similar to the CGI "Peanuts" movie: A well-intentioned but ultimately misfired revival of what had become a Property.

    I recall being peeved that P.T. Bridgeport was a mere carny, that the swamp had television and motor vehicles, and that the outside world knew about Pogo's candidature. And while the stop-motion was well done, Kelly's characters demand expressions, poses, and rough edges only possible in drawn animation.

    Similarly, the Peanuts movie reduced Snoopy's rich, blurry-edged fantasies into something he was typing, and ended with the Little Red-Headed Girl speechifying about how Charlie Brown was NOT a loser.He has his moments of grace, but he IS a loser and that's why he's beloved. And while the CGI concept was interesting, it didn't have the appeal and "rightness" of the early, often off-model TV specials.

    As a kid I reread "I Go Pogo" a few dozen times, slowly picking up on the satiric undertones. Later I was enamored of "Pogo, Prisoner of Love", which began with somebody wanting a more singable national anthem and eventually involved plans for annexing Fort Knox, prioritizing the moon race ("We can then feed the hungry ... them as cares for cheese ..."), and feminists intent on claiming the White House by marrying the next president -- the unwilling Pogo. The strip had acquired a graphic elegance by that time, but the writing was still rich and unique.