Walt Kelly’s Pogo, a daily newspaper strip that ran from 1948 to 1975, is justifiably hailed as one of the great achievements of the postwar comic strip. In theory, it belongs to the “funny animal” genre; in practice, it was a personal, whimsical combination of comedy and mood, dressed in linguistic wordplay and laced with sociopolitical satire. As such, it bears some affinity to George Herriman’s Krazy Kat and Tove Jansson’s Moomin, but with more of an edge. It was Kelly, through Pogo, who coined the famous parody phrase “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
Pogo is a possum who lives in Okefenokee Swamp and plays straight man to a wacky gallery of varmints, including the vain, delusional, quick-tempered, unscrupulous yet blessedly naive Albert Alligator (combining the worst qualities of both Abbott & Costello); the good-natured turtle Churchy LaFemme, who loves singing songs like the immortal Christmas carol “Deck Us All With Boston Charlie”; the gruff and backwards Porkypine, who pines (as it were) for love of the svelte French skunk Miz Hepzibah; the bespectacled pseudo-intellectual Howland Owl; and a dizzying array of others. Although Kelly was a Yankee, his characters pursued their delicate misunderstandings and pratfalling nonsense while babbling in demented mock-Southern Li’l Abner-ese, sometimes in heavily decorated dialogue balloons (especially for bear-empresario P.T. Bridgeport and buzzard-mortician Sarcophagus Macabre).
I’m irrational on the subject because it holds a special place in my heart and childhood. Pogo was my dad’s favorite comic, and the family story was told many times of how he retired in San Antonio, Texas, and subscribed to the particular local paper (out of three) that carried the strip.
When it was allegedly dropped because of Kelly’s parodies of LBJ (a Texan, you know), my father cancelled his subscription in protest. So I never saw Pogo in the funny papers, but I knew him from once ubiquitous paperback collections of his strip and his comic books, and I spent hours in helpless laughter over these, grasping as much as I could understand.
I’ll never forget the comic book tales “Gore Blimey” (a hardboiled detective parody) and “Suffern on the Steppes” (a parody of Tolstoy, for gosh sakes). Those collections are long out of print, and Pogo is in danger of being unknown by a younger generations of comics fans.
But not for long. This wonderful first volume of a projected 12-volume series contains the strip’s first two official years (plus its early pre-syndication stint in a single New York paper), with the Sundays reproduced in color, and with Kelly’s topical references annotated by scholar R.C. Harvey. (Fantagraphics issued several volumes of dailies in the ’90s, but now they’re doing it comprehensively.)
I salute this launch and hope that it leads to complete reprints of the comic book adventures, as well.