Tuesday, April 16, 2013
Two "Pogo" Collections: A Twosday Twofer
I've been interested in Pogo since I was "a shirt-tail tad" myself, when in 1969 the Chuck Jones-produced "The Pogo Special Birthday Special" came out. It was promoted at that time with toys and plastic cups as premiums in Procter & Gamble soap products, and we got several of these figures (which the cartoonist and Pogo creator Walt Kelley designed himself), such as Pogo and Howland Owl and Churchy La Femme the Turtle. Later we got one of Porkypine, that was also much treasured. That was the extent of my contact with Kelly's work, however, as our newspaper didn't carry the strip, and Kelly himself passed away soon after and Pogo was discontinued. Only years later when we were allowed into the grown-up section of our local library did we find some volumes of collected Kelly, and they were still so popular it was hard to find a volume that wasn't already checked out. After decades of chasing the fugitive marsupial through used book stores and Fireside omnibuses, we are at last being presented with collections of the complete syndicated comic strips, to be published in twelve uniform volumes, each book consisting of two years of Pogo, Albert, and the other "swamp critters."
Pogo Vol. I: Through the Wild Blue Wonder and Pogo Vol II: Bona Fide Balderdash are the numbers that have been released so far. They are beautifully designed, and large enough (almost a foot long and ten inches high, with four strips to a page) to give each strip the space one needs to appreciate the artistry of Kelly's line, apparent to the original readers before newspapers shrank the size of comics, losing the opportunity for art as well as wit. The colored Sunday funnies (which followed separate stories or one-offs from the dailies) are reproduced in their full glorious spectrum. Each book has a table of contents summarizing the story-lines for easy location and an appendix of annotations ("Swamp Talk," by R. C. Harvey) to explain literary and historical allusions that might be obscure to modern readers.
Forewords, Introductions, and Editor's Notes give much information on Walt Kelly himself and the development of Pogo. We're told how Kelly was employed at and then left the Disney Studios after working on Dumbo, Pinocchio, and Fantasia; how he testified before Congress on behalf of comic books; how after years of developing Pogo he got it syndicated in 1949; how he fought for the copyright to his own work and won it; of his tireless promotion of the strip (including the "I Go Pogo" presidential campaign button); of the growing political satire in the strip in its latter years, causing some newspapers to move it to the editorial page; of his support for environmental responsibility and his famous slogan "We Have Met The Enemy And He Is Us." But we are also told more personal details: his gusto for life, expressed in his enjoyment of whiskey, cigars, and card games; the personal tragedy of the loss of his daughter Kathryn Barbara before her first birthday (memorialized in the strip each year with a bug with a birthday cake, searching for the little girl); the diabetes that plagued him later in life and led to the amputation of his leg; and the enormous sense of humor and the love that sustained him through everything.
As for Pogo itself, it is hard to explain its charm to anyone who hasn't read it. Pogo Possum is the eponymous hero, living in a fictionalized version of the Okefenokee Swamp, which has all the virtues and failings of any small-town backwater. Pogo is friendly, easy-going, and clear-sighted; his closest friends are Albert, a loud, hungry, egotistical, but warm-hearted alligator, and Porkypine, a prickly curmudgeon whose caustic outside protects a sensitive core. They usually have to deal with the enthusiasms and misapprehensions of the likes of Howland Owl (self-appointed "scienterrific" type) and his sometime-stooge Churchy, the probing of the sanctimonious Deacon Mushrat, and the romantic entanglements of Miss Mam'zelle Hepzibah, a glamorous French skunk. But the swamp is also stirred up by the frequent passage of various nomads like P. T. Bridgeport the showboating bear and Seminole Sam the flim-flam salesman fox, or incursions from Okefenokee's darker regions like the lynch-happy ever-hungry Wiley Katt. The strip is full of simple and not-so-simple humor, from the most hilarious cartoony gags to some subtle, even frightening, satire. But the sun outshines the shadows, and the decent usually triumph, often because of the stupid and divisive nature of the bad themselves, rather than any particular virtue of their own. But Pogo is always a sane and humane voice speaking out in the middle of any mania that might grip the swamp, and acts as the conscience for those who can easily be led astray.
But don't let me leave you with the impression that Pogo is preachy. It is first, and above all, funny (and beautiful, too); with the kind of over-all humor you can't explain, the kind you try to explain by quoting, and then can never stop, and still can't give the proper idea of because it is divorced from Kelly's expressive art. It has to be experienced to be appreciated; go find some samples and give it a try. Take several jumps at it if you have to. Once you get in and get a feel for it, you could develop a new enthusiasm for life, and then really appreciate what Fantagraphics Books is doing for us Pogophiles in these new reprints.