Nearly 30 years after his death, Walt Kelly is best remembered for a single, famous quotation. Lost in the archives are his 24 years of daily and Sunday Pogo strips that together represent one of the most remarkable runs in American comic history. Local comics publisher Fantagraphics is planning to reprint the entire series, and to celebrate the appearance of Volume 1, they have assembled an accompanying exhibition of original Pogo art which KUOW's critic, Gary Faigin, headed down to Georgetown to see.
Kelly was both famous and honored in his lifetime (over 50 collections of Pogo were published, and the strip appeared in most major newspapers), but just enough time has passed since his demise in 1973 that many people, younger ones especially, are not familiar with his work. While that’s a good reason to celebrate the Pogo show and book launch at the Fantagraphics Gallery this month, an even better reason is the opportunity to be reminded how fresh, lively, and relevant his work is, decades after it first appeared.
Take the 1967 strip titled Presidensity, one of 16 original comics that are on view in the current exhibition. The piece features Pogo the possum in conversation with his best friend Porky Pine, sitting on the wooden front porch of Pogo’s hollow tree home in the Okefenokee Swamp. Pogo, whose sensible, regular guy personality serves as a foil for the eccentricities and foibles of his animal companions, is talking about his ongoing campaign for the presidency. “People is sayin’ I is really from Mars”, he muses, adding that there is a rumor he is a secret foreign agent, acting on the behalf of another planet. His thoughtful, perpetually unsmiling porcupine companion is in the meantime playing the shell game with three cups and a pea; when at the end he fails to find the pea where he expected it to be, he exclaims in surprise “I’m getting so good I fools myself.”
No one who has suffered through the recent “birther” controversy regarding Barack Obama’s supposed foreign origin and hidden agenda can fail to appreciate the parallels; although Kelly probably had John Kennedy and his purported loyalty to the Pope more particularly in mind, the ability of the American body politic to slant and obfuscate the truth is as much a fact of life as ever. And we can’t just blame “the media”, or conniving politicians; as Porky points out, we are fully capable of tricking ourselves, given the right circumstances.
An even more singular display of Kelly’s artful political satire is on view elsewhere in the exhibit. Besides being one of the most gifted wordsmiths in comic history, Kelly was also a wickedly effective caricaturist, whose chief peers are masters in the field like Thomas Nast or David Levine. In a 1971 cartoon he brilliantly portrays J. Edgar Hoover as a sinister bulldog, dressed as a 30s G-man and chomping on a long cigar. He informs a myopic hyena dressed in an ornate military uniform (then Vice President Spiro Agnew, as much a dark force in his day as Dick Cheney was in ours), that he has to examine a secret message from “The Chief” (Nixon); when the missive turns out to be a chain of paper dolls, he asks for assistance. The FBI head, predictably, was not amused; he reportedly assigned bureau cryptographers to go over the pun-laden, Southern-speak dialog of the strip searching for hidden subversive messages.
Like the current, equally political Doonesbury, Kelly’s Pogo was at times consigned to the editorial rather than the comic page, but the level of graphic artistry of the earlier strip is light years away from that achieved by the competent but unremarkable G. B. Trudeau. Kelly wields his brush like a master, and one of the joys of the current show is the opportunity to examine his drawings in their original size and with their notations and corrections intact; nearly all the pieces include the blue sketch lines with which Kelly started each work, lines that were filtered out during the reproduction process and never erased afterwards.
Kelly had already mastered the ability to imagine vivid animal characters, fully alive and dimensional, during his years in the trenches at Disney, but what he developed and enriched with Pogo was a brush-and-ink graphic language that was fluent, expressive, and varied in its treatment according to the subject. It’s fascinating to see his style evolve over the 20-odd years between the earliest strips (the accompanying book starts in 1949), and the latest strips on view. Kelly increases his compositional mastery, and dramatic use of scale changes and blank space, but never at the expense of characterization or storytelling. Tour de force displays of sheer drawing skill appear at the margins, like the beautifully textured, almost humanoid giant cypress in the first panel of his 1971 Sunday strip Grand Awakening (almost all the Sunday strips start with a giant tree, but this one is something else).
What ultimately makes us care is not the endearing critters, the wizard draughtsmanship, or the hi-jinks with the English language (‘Knock, Knok, Kanock Wurst’; ‘Somebody is rapping our door in German!’), but the way Kelly employs all of these means towards his greater end of lamenting (and celebrating) the human condition. Politicians are far from the only target in the dozen-and-a-half strips on view. Other subjects include: European history (a comic recounting of what might be the early stages of the Crimean War), Method Acting, Personal Coaches, racial misunderstanding, simplistic solutions to complex problems (curing pollution by doing away with “human beans”), and mindless entrepreneurial zeal. The ultimate irony is expressed by the unctuous Deacon, a grim, disapproving prelate who speaks only in Gothic type. Muttering to himself after failing to persuade Pogo that the world is coming to an end, he takes comfort in the fact that “top scientists” agree the sun will destroy the earth in a few billion years. “Hah!” he murmurs in grim satisfaction, “We’ll see who has the last laugh…”.
The world may, in fact, be coming to an end, but in the meantime, we get to enjoy both the original work of Mr. Kelly and the first of what will eventually be 12 volumes collecting the entire 24-year run of Pogo. Somewhere in the upcoming volumes will be the first appearance of the now-classic Christmas carol, “Deck us all with Boston Charlie”; somewhere the now-classic misadventures of the bully bobcat Simple J. Malarky (Sen. Eugene McCarthy); and somewhere, the immortal words of Pogo himself, “We have met the enemy, and he is us”.