Saturday, March 22, 2008

Ten Ever-Lovin’ Blue-Eyed Years with Pogo

“At several points, Kelly would have us believe a duck is employed as a mailman in a well-known Southern swamp. Where did he obtain this information? Where, in other words, is the source for this duck? What good is a duck without a source?” Bill Vaughan in the Kansas City Star, November 1959.

Walt Kelly was many things to many people. Foremost he was a humorist and comic strip artist, but he was also a gentle teacher of the nation’s young, who he knew would follow Pogo from the nursery comics to the newspapers. By crafting a comic strip for adults and children he helped to steer the children through a period fraught with fear and anxiety, a period he referred to in a Saturday Review article as the “cold-hearted war.” The children’s love for Kelly’s creations knew no bounds. In 1950 a four year old girl left her happy home in search of Albert Alligator. Police took her in hand as she exited a bus in Chattanooga, 200 miles from her home.

Pogo was a highly intellectual strip but Walt Kelly understood that the audience for comic strips was the average family, the same readers who rated Blondie the number one comic strip of the nineteen fifties. He noted that it was “widely thought, and erroneously, that the comics page is for children. It is partially, but mainly it is for the fellow who buys the newspaper, and he usually shaves and reads the sports pages too.”

On the surface Kelly’s poems, songs and stories were funny but on a subliminal level they left messages, teaching and subtle warnings in the reader’s minds. A poem like “This is the Hunt,” (1954) a story like “Who Stole the Tarts?,” (1954) or a continuity like “The Atom Bugs” (1950) had a subtle educational effect on the mind. They imparted wisdom and laughed at bigotry and bullies. The readers understood and they stuffed Kelly’s mailbox with millions of letters. Kelly, in turn, never underestimated the intelligence of his readers.

“My mail is about half from children and half from adults and the half from the children shows a high level of understanding, a perception and awareness of life (which I don’t remember stumbling across in my salad days) , and a great sense of humor. The adults who write have not much to be ashamed of in comparison. All of these people seem to understand what the strip is about and the letters are usually full of phrases such as “This is the first fan letter I have ever written,” and “Here’s an idea that occurred to me when I was studying the editorial page in search of laughs.”

The importance of Ten Ever-Lovin’ Blue-Eyed Years with Pogo, published in 1959, and covering the years 1948-1959, lies in it’s wise appeal to young and old through allegory, fable, image, history and language. Our first experience with Walt Kelly was through the nursery comics published by the Western Publishing & Lithographic Company. Parents bought The Brownies, Raggedy Ann and Andy, Fairy Tale Parade, Mother Goose Comics, and the incomparable Pogo Possum to be read to the tads and tots in their malleable years. Kelly knew the kids would follow him from the comic books to the newspaper comic strip and he always worked with one tender eye on that audience.

I was ten (1960) when my brother brought home a fat hardcover copy of Ten Ever-Lovin’ Blue-Eyed Years with Pogo from the local library. I didn’t quite understand everything I read, the political references were over my head, but I read over and over those which I could understand. The fractured English that the citizens of Okefenokee swamp spoke was Kelly’s gently subversive way of teaching children about the pits and pratfalls of world politics while, at the same time, developing in the reader notions of tolerance and respect through wise fairy tale allegories about the vagaries of human nature. Kelly used the same techniques, metaphor, parable, and the fairy story, in his articles for adults. Pogo was both entertaining and instructive.

As I matured I found my understanding of the language and message of Pogo growing, and increasingly my orbs would wander from the funny pictures to the explanatory articles interspersed among the comics. These were partly autobiographical and mainly political. In these explanatory sections Kelly addressed McCarthyism and loyalty oaths, the cold war and the atomic bomb, censorship, war, complacency, ignorance, and above all intolerance. When Kelly wrote these words he was, once again, always, writing for his double audience of children and adults.

Walter Crawford Kelly, Jr. (1913-1973) was born in Philadelphia and raised in Bridgeport, Connecticut. His father, a theatrical scene painter, gave him his first drawing lessons. In time he became a reporter, writer, and artist for the local Bridgeport Post, where he recalled, he illustrated the life of Bridgport’s most famous citizen, P. T. Barnum, three times. In 1935 he was hired by the Disney studios and worked at animation for the next six years under the encouraging wing of top model man Charles Thorson, a colourful cartoonist from Winnipeg, Manitoba. The model man’s job was to provide the animators with sketches of the characters from all sides showing all manner of action and facial expression. The two worked together on Snow White and Dumbo.

Pogo originated as a “spear-carrier” in a feature called “Bumbazine and Albert the Alligator” in 1943’s Animal Comics published by Dell Comics, which led to a feature comic book in October 1949, “Pogo Possum,” which had an initial press run of 500,000. Meanwhile Kelly continued drawing “Peter Wheat,” a monthly advertising giveaway, while working for Dell. The Pogo comic book was still being published when Kelly carried the talking marsupial to the New York Star where the comic strip began running on October 4, 1948. Only a few papers outside New York picked up the strip until the Post - Hall Syndicate took over in May 1949. Pogo began with about four clients and the daily was soon joined by a colour Sunday page. The Sunday was usually humorous, Kelly kept his political musings mainly in the daily strips.

Pogo was so successful, with an estimated 37,000,000 readers in 1952, that the first of many book collections, “Pogo,” was published by Simon & Schuster in 1951. Canadians were so enamoured of Pogo that in 1950 the staff of the Montreal Star, which published no comics, pleaded with the rival Montreal Herald to run the feature, which they obligingly did. The National Cartoonists Society named Walt Kelly Cartoonist of the Year in 1952. Folksinger Tom Parrott recorded a Kelly song “Only the lone (one small score for two brown eyes)” in 1968 for Folkway Records.

Walt Kelly’s influence on the post-war generation was incalculable and his work is still pertinent to recent troubling times. The last words in Ten Ever-Lovin’ Blue-Eyed Years with Pogo were widely disseminated in shortened form as “we have met the enemy and he is us,” adopted as a poster promoting Earth Day in 1970. The original 1959 quote read “There is no need to sally forth, for it remains true that those things which make us human are, curiously enough, always close at hand. Resolve then, that on this very ground, with small flags waving and tinny blast on tiny trumpets, we shall meet the enemy, and not only may he be ours, he may be us.”

Hugh Maclean, in an article in the Canadian Forum (The Decline of the Comics Jan. 1954), once described Pogo as “the little possum who comprehends us all.” Walt Kelly (who died in 1973, peace to his manes) left us all a prescient song, “For Lewis Carroll and the Children,” first published in 1954 with a poignant illustration:

The gentle journey jars to stop.
The drifting dream is done.
The long gone goblins loom ahead;
The deadly, that we thought were dead,
Stand waiting, every one.

Pogo’s Pal Kelly by Harrison Fisher, MacLean’s Magazine, April 15, 1950

Pogo Looks at the Abominable Snowman by Walt Kelly, the Saturday Review, August 30, 1958

Reuben Awards page on Walt Kelly

1 comment:

  1. Just lovely."Ten Ever Lovin Years is one of my favorites -- I used to read Pogo in the Washington Star whem I was a little shaver in the 1950s, and my first Pogo book collection was "I Go Pogo." I still have what shreds are left from my original copy, and a couple more (complete) copies that I picked up in the intervening years.

    BTW, a little over a decade ago, I created a Walt Kelly tribute page for the NCS. It went down long ago, but I have it reposted at: