By Walt Kelly. Released in North America from 1948 to 1950, first published by the New York Star, then Hall Syndicate. This new edition released by Fantagraphics.
Yes, it’s no longer a myth, the book we have been waiting for for four and a half years is finally here. A huge, collected hardcover of the Pogo comic strip, covering its first year and a half of syndication, as well as the early New York Star strips. And even if you have a bunch of old Simon & Schuster Pogo books from the 1950s such as The Pogo Papers, or the 1980s reprints such as The Best of Pogo, this is still a worthy purchase. The strip looks great, the Sundays are in color, and the whole thing reads like the labor of love it is.
As I said before when recommending the purchase of the book, Pogo was one of the first things I ever read. Yes, I suppose there was Dr. Seuss and Richard Scarry in there as well, but I also had copies of We Have Met The Enemy And He Is Us and Bats and the Belles Free that I had found in a used bookstore, and read them until they fell apart. Because Kelly has created a world rather than a comic strip, and one does not so much read it as bathe in it. It took me several days to read this volume, because I wanted to read everything slowly. The dialogue, the pacing, the situations… even when everyone’s running around and crazy events are going on, it’s still not what I would call hectic. This is good old fashioned Southern Okefenokee adventure, written by a man who grew up in my own home state of Connecticut.
For those who are unfamiliar with the strip, it could be described as a talking animals strip if you want to get that simple. Pogo is a possum who lives in the middle of the swamp, and he is also the straight man around whose life his crazier and funnier friends revolve. There’s the impulsive Albert Alligator, the pseudo-intellectual Howland Owl, grumpy yet lovable Porkypine, and the ditzy yet likeable turtle Churchy LaFemme. (Can men be ditzy? Or male turtles?) There’s also a whole pile of ancillary characters, many of whom debut here – Kelly would bring them in and out of the strip as he pleased, but those are the ones I’d consider the core cast.
For the most part, the strip varies between one-shot gag type strips (Kelly loved wordplay, and the book is filled with bad puns, as if Churchy LaFemme’s name alone didn’t warn you) and longer more intricate adventure strips, many of which seem to involve everyone thinking Albert has accidentally eaten someone else (sometimes he has – the beauty of comic strips is that creatures can survive quite a long time after being eaten by an alligator – they can even play cards!). Strangely, Albert is no less sympathetic for this, as he never does this out of malice or hunger, just carelessness. Indeed, one of the earliest satirical strips involves some of the villains setting up a sham trial to prove Albert guilty of eating the cute little Pup Dog, and Albert is clearly meant to get the reader’s sympathy.
For those more familiar with the strip, there is some satirical content here (mostly the arc I just mentioned), but we have not gotten too political just yet. In later volumes Pogo will delve further into the realm of political and social criticism, and indeed by the 1960s you may see why more folks compare it to Doonesbury than, say, Shoe, but here Kelly is taking it easy and building up his strip’s popularity. The villains tend to be as broad as the heroes, with Seminole Sam briefly taking a turn as a carnivore (along with the far more malevolent and nasty Wiley Catt) before Kelly realized that he actually made a far more effective villain as a shyster and small-time crook. What’s more, most of the situations Pogo and company find themselves in are made by the heroes themselves – Albert, Owl and Churchy are all easily led, and can change their minds whenever they please. Sometimes Pogo just finds himself going along with the craziness, trying vainly to put in a good word for sense. And by ‘sometimes’ I mean ‘for the next twenty-four years’.
I’d mentioned Kelly grew up in Connecticut, and indeed the dialect used in the strip is not genuinely Southern so much as ‘Southern once or twice removed, then exaggerated for comic effect’. But it’s amazing to read, and works very well when read aloud (another reason I took so long to read the book). Many critics have taken the time to examine Kelly’s written dialect, and it easily fulfills one of my own pet bugaboos about written speech: it has to sound like someone would actually say it. This is harder for many writers than you might think, but there’s no question that the swamp denizens are engaging in dialogues that are not only funny and engaging but sound real – even if they don’t necessarily sound Southern.
Kelly started to do Sunday color strips a few months after the syndicated debut, and they’ve been collected before, but usually in black and white. These are in color for I believe the first time since they appeared in newspapers. The introduction notes this was the main reason why the book kept getting delayed – cleaning the Sunday strips, and finding ones that could be published, was a major chore. They look fine here, about as good as I think you’re going to get when dealing with 60-year-old comics where the original art is long since lost. While the strips could occasionally be in continuity with the dailies, more often than not the Sunday Pogos had their own continuity from week to week. I was particularly fond of the Fountain of Youth story, which features much of what Pogo does best – immediate misconceptions and overreactions.
Fantagraphics has a nice introduction giving a brief biography of Kelly, and describing many of the struggles he had with Pogo and syndication. There is also a fantastic notes section at the end, which points out historical trivia as well as giving the context for some of the strips. Two of the main villains of the story where Albert is falsely accused are based on newspaper publishers William Randolph Hearst and Robert McCormick, something I would have been totally ignorant of as a child. As the strip got more satirical, we’d see more swamp animals based on real life figures, usually political. We’ll have to wait for Volume 3 for the most famous one, however.
It’s possible that the appeal of Pogo may be lost on folks who are so used to everything that it influenced, be it talking animal comedies or political satires. Doesn’t matter to me, though. This strip is funny, well-drawn, and features a huge mass of likeable characters doing entertaining things. Put it together with Fantagraphics’ excellent presentation, and you have a definite must-buy. I will assume that Volume 2 will be out this fall, and that the wait for future volumes will not be as long as the wait for this one, even if it was totally worth it.