Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Okeefenokee Stars: Walt Kelly and Pogo

Born this day in 1913, Walt Kelly would have been 96 years old today.

Walt Kelly is a tough one for me to write about. His creation "Pogo" was so appealing, "Pluperfectly Appealing", on so many levels that I have found myself drawn to it from my earliest memories of looking at the funny pictures, through every stage of intellectual development of my life. From characterization, depth of dialogue, wimsey of dialogue, political views, ecological views, philosophical views, narrative complexity...Pogo had it all and much, much more...so much more that I discover a new appreciation with every age that I pick it up. A new level and depth that never alienates me from the person I was at 3 who loved it just for the funny drawings.

Even that paragraph seems wrong. This masters work deserves serious study, but the wit and fancy of the strip and the man himself denies we take it seriously. Denies, defies and scoffs at the very idea.

Let's let one of his characters, Albert the Alligator tell us about him.


Very zen-like...let's just appreciate this complexity in the simplest way possible. Pure thought-tickling, eye dazzling, funny-bone poking pleasure.

Walt Kelly worked as a story man for Walt Disney in the late 1930's and worked on Pinocchio and Dumbo. After 5 years there, seeing that animation (and I think collaboration...he was a true individual) weren't his forte', he tried his hand in the comic book field. He worked for Dell Publishing on their series of Fairy Tale based comics.

During his time there, he began writing his own characters. Taking a tip from Aesop, it dawned on him he could write more about human foibles and basically the pure comedy of being human, by making his characters animals. Humans take being made fun of best, if you don't let them know it's them that they are laughing at.

He decided to set his stories in the South, even though the closest to Dixie he had ever been was Southern California. He noted that Southerners were oft the brunt of jokes, and their own gentle sense of humor, dignity and depth of character let them absorb and roll with this far better than the fragile "modern" folk who did the needling. He knew they could take it. And once it was made apparent who the real butts of the joke were...ALL OF US, we all took comfort that no one was the fall guy...except us.

The stories in the comic books initially were about Albert the Alligator and a little African-American boy named Bombazine. Bombazine sort of functioned like Christopher Robin in Winnie the Pooh, he was a small boy of about 10 who had learned to talk to the swamp critters. A way for us to view the action in the swamp, through his eyes.


We didn't need this narrative tool. This slowing down of the storytelling by explaining what was happening. Them critters was what we wanted to see! It was almost as if Walt judged that, if it wasn't apparent what he was trying to say with his animals, maybe we humans weren't worth telling a story to, after all.

Bombazine was dropped after a few issues, and Albert's second banana's shoes were filled by Pogo Possum.

After a few more issues, Walt moved from Comic Books to tell his stories in newspaper Comic Strip form. A reverse course from the norm. But a course I'm glad he took. He was able to do even more with this limited space.

And Pogo became a national phenom.

The strip eventualy became populated with a couple hundred characters. A COUPLE HUNDRED! Each one with it's own personality, patterns of speech and reason for being there.

Here's a few of the up-front mainstays.

Albert the Alligator (seen here with a carrier pigeon who had walked so far, he wore a hole in his shoe, through which the message he was carrying fell out).

Churchy La Femme.

Howland Owl.

Porky Pine.
Miss Mam'selle Hepzibah.Rackety-Coon Chile.

Chug Chug Curtis.Characters just as fun to look at as read.

The artists self-portrait and self-discription.

Here's probably the most famous Pogo strip. From Earth Day 1971.

On top of his much heralded social commentary and drawing skills, Walt was also very hip to the way sounds went together. A lyric poet I guess you might call him. A nonsense poet, who sometimes makes sense.

Every Christmas season was filled with great stuff and the animals' take on the holiday. Lots of songs too. Songs in comic form, hmmmmmm I knew I got it from soemwhere. A recurring, always requested classic, was his annual take of "Deck the Halls". A few stanzas and strips are collected below.

Here's a great lyric-nonsense-sense poem.

His great take on mortality and the self-importance we place on our own lives. After his own death.

Walt's gone now, but he left us decades of great material which can be drunk up and appreciated. There are a lot of collections of his work and studies done of his work, studies by abler folk than I.

I will continue to drink up his work, confidently for the rest of my life. Knowing each time will bring a new discovery or fascination.

One last poem which I think pretty much sums up every one of these posts of mine for artists of the past. Dreamers who did things worth doing, and made not just a mark on the world, but a mark for the better. They dreamt of things that will be.

It's good for us to remember and learn from the "will-be's that was" so we can make new ones.

Thanks Walt, for a list of things too long to name.


Le Douche said...

You're as crazy as a soup sandwich, WITH A SIDE ORDER OF SOUP!!!!

Marco said...

How much frickin' vacation can a person have?

Jeff Overturf said...

That's like asking how much ice cream can a person have. Or how many soup sandwiches he can eat...er...drink...er...slurp...oh hell. Never mind.

fehmann said...

Thanks for providing the "obit" Pogo panel from 1973. I remember seeing it at the time—very moving—but couldn't find a reprint of it...until now. I'm assuming Walt had nothing to do with it but it is beautifully done.

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