Some thoughts on Walt Kelly’s Pogo
Recently I had the opportunity to read Through the Wild Blue Yonder, Fantagraphics’ first volume in their projected multi-book collection of Walt Kelly’s much beloved comic strip, Pogo. Since the book has been out for more than a few months, a full review didn’t necessarily seem needed or appropriate. I had a bunch of thoughts related to the strip buzzing in my head, however, so I thought I might try a Jeet Heer notebook-style collection of ramblings and and see if I can offer some worthwhile thoughts on both the book and Kelly’s strip in general. Feel free to grade the coherence and effectiveness of my musings in the comments section.
• I have an odd relationship with Pogo. I first discovered the strip via my mother’s cousin, who, along with an extensive Asterix collection, had a large number of classic Pogo books. I’m talking the original book collections like Jack Acid Society Black Book and Prehysterical Pogo, etc. She still has them, though they’re locked away in a glass bookcase the last time I checked. I hestitate to even imagine what a mint version of one of those books might be going for on Albiris.
But despite the opportunity to pour over all these Kelly comics (my mom and I would visit her house at least once a year while I was growing up), I found Pogo difficult to engage. I had no problem with Asterix (at least the ones Goscinny wrote) or even her Edward Gorey collections (though The Insect God did scare the shit out of me). Yet Pogo which failed to entice me. There was something about it — it’s decidedly literate, sophisticated wordplay, its detailed art, all those political references — that kept me at bay. The end result was that as a youth Pogo was a comic strip that I more admired and respected than actually liked. My hope in revisiting the strip as an adult was that I might be able to develop a better appreciation for the strip or at least come to see what made so many people love it so much. Both of those things happened in the course of reading Wild Blue Yonder, but only sorta.
• Man but this is a twee strip. Kelly was a cartoonist utterly unafraid of being cute or precious and that shows in the huge amount of mangled English, offbeat accents, malapropisms, bad puns and general wordplay that lies at the very heart of the strip. A suggestion to playing cricket instead of baseball leads to jokes about insects. A crow hawks “Licorice Tutti-Frowsy” ice cream. When asked if he’s radioactive a little bug says “Not so active.” A bird declares that “mice is very unpredicklish.” And so on.
Now, this kind of frivolity can be charming and genuinely funny and most of the time Kelly manages to walk up to the border to insufferable land without crossing it. A little of this kind of material can go a long, long way, however, and I say that as a man who cannot help resist making a pun, no matter how corny (as my long-suffering co-workers will no doubt attest). I think Kelly often runs into danger of cheapening his strip by constantly overloading it with such mannerisms and affectations. A few days after completing the Pogo volume, I happened to drive by one of the local buffet chain restaurants in my area. Their signage all but begged you to try their “delichossicness” food. The first thought that came to mind was “Wow, that’s a mangled word that would fit right in Pogo.” My second thought was “That’s not much of a compliment for Pogo.”
• You know who else likes making puns? Brandon Graham. I also happened to just finish reading the King City collection and man, does that guy like puns. His pages are filled with sly asides and verbal gags. They pour from every corner of the page, every piece of scenery, lest the eye grow bored. The obvious point of reference is Will Elder, who filled those early pages of Mad with his so-called “chicken fat” gags, but I think Graham would find a kindred soul in Kelly, who never met a malapropism he didn’t like and whose carefully controlled chaos mirrors that found in Graham’s comics.
• Visually, Pogo was an anachronism. While it’s intellectual humor might have made it sympatico with the other strips of the post-war era, visually, Pogo was a dense, intricate strip, lush with detail and quite different from the much simpler (or less cluttered at any rate), cartoony style that was coming into vogue in strips like Peanuts, Miss Peach, Beetle Bailey and others. Even though it was a gag strip, in terms of its look, it had more in common with the adventure strips of the ’30s and war years than with its contemporaries. Part of that might driven by the many years Kelly spent working for Disney, a company which strived to attain a certain degree of realism in their cartoons. I suspect that even if Kelly had not died in 1973, Pogo would have had a hard time of it on the ever-shrinking comics page of the 70s and 80s, never mind today, where new strips don’t even seem to require a rudimentary understanding of figure drawing.
(By the way, that observation is by no means a slag on Kelly’s art, which is expressive and fantastic and one of the best things about the strip.)
• Kelly loved breaking the fourth wall. Pogo is full of self-referential jokes, usually made by the characters, who lean or strike matches against the panel borders, when not complaining about the low quality of jokes in the strip. One of the best examples (and one of the funniest strips in the volume) is when Churchy attempts to catch readers up to date on the plot of the moment. He does so while eating a sandwich, thus rendering him unintelligible. Having come to the end, and completely unaware of his gaffe, he pokes at the panel border with his finger. It’s a really delightful moment.
• “Somebody allus is a-eating somebody.” One of the oddest running gags in Pogo is that of the potential, accidental (and occasionally intentional) devouring of other animals. Jokes about eating each other and being eaten is nothing new in funny animal comic — and indeed Pogo undergoes a familiar plot where a fox and wildcat seek to serve the possum for supper — but, given the chumminess of the swamp animals in regard to each other, the issue take on a some peculiar twists, especially where Albert the alligator is concerned. At one point he inadvenrtently swallows a tadpole and is only able to regurgitate it by drinking copious amounts of water. Later three mice end up in his belly only to be smoked out several days later, completely undigested. In a lengthy trial sequence he is accused of devouring a cute puppy dog. At one point a bird even attempts to build a nest in his mouth. Albert is the only carnivore in the central cast (there is the dog Beauregard, but I don’t think of him as one of the core members of the cast) so it perhaps makes a bit of sense to have him constantly inadvertently eating his friends and acquaintances, but it does give the strip an odd, predatory undercurrent, especially given everyone’s blase attitude about the matter. Perhaps it’s fitting then that in the Sunday section Albert finds himself in danger of being eaten by a group of fauns (the mythological kind).
• Here’s the thing about Pogo. There’s never been anything like it. It’s utterly unique and individual in the same fashion that Peanuts, or Calvin and Hobbes or Little Nemo or any other of the great 20th century comic strips are. I don’t know that Pogo will ever enter my personal pantheon of most beloved comics — it’s a bit too arch, a bit too fay for me to want to hold it that close to my bosom. But I do have a deeper appreciation for Kelly’s accomplishments having read this first volume. It’s a much weirder strip than I think most people give it credit for and that is certainly something worth both recognizing and admiring.