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by Bamber Gascoigne

Walter Crawford Kelly (1913-73)


American cartoonist, whose best-known creation Pogo made its first appearance in the late 1940s. Walt Kelly's daily strip represented political and social satire in its highest form. His characterization, language, dialect, art and lettering aimed for perfection. Pogo Possum's swamp in Georgia's Okefenokee, populated by philosophizing animals in the great tradition of Aesop, Krylov and La Fontaine, is a place of fantasy, as lively as the world in Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows (1908). 

"Deck us all with Boston Charlie,
Walla Walla, Wash, and Kalamazoo!
Nora's freezin' on the trolley,
Swaller dollar cauliflower, alleygaroo!"

(Kelly's famous rhyming)

Walter Kelly war born in Philadelphia. When he was two, his family moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut, where his father worked in munition factories. His father also was a theatrical scenery painter and taught the boy how to draw. In his teen Kelly suffered for two years of a paralysis that affected his left side. His cartoons were influenced by newspaper comic strips such as Krazy Kat, Regular Fellows, and Skippy. His first jobs had nothing to do with art. At the age of seventeen he was employed in a ladies' underwear factory as a sweeper.

While at high school Kelly edited the school magazine and also drew for the local paper, the Bridgeport Post. a daily comic strip about P.T. Barnum, thr circus entrepreneur. After graduation in 1930 he worked as a journalist and cartoonist at the Post. At that time especially Mutt and Jeff inspired him. He worked at almost every job in the art and editorial departments and eventually he drew editorial cartoons. After two years he got fed up drawing P.T. Barnum's life. For a short time he was an investigator for the Bridgeport Welfare Department and studied art in New York. For the National Allied Publications, run by Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, he drew scenes from Gulliver's Travels, and did some other drawings too, but when the Major's checks began to bounce, he left the company.

In the mid-1930s Kelly moved to Hollywood, where he became an animator for Walt Disney Studios, working among others on Dumbo, Snow White, The Reluctant Dragon and Fantasia. His co-animators included Hank Ketcham, who later drew Dennis the Menace. Half the time Kelly spent in the story department, half in the animation studio. He also enrolled in the weekly life art class at the studio. In 1941 Kelly returned to east, after hearing that Western Printing & Litographing were looking for artists and writers. Editor Oskar Lebeck hired him to write and draw stories for Animal Comics, Our Gang, Fairy Tale Parade, Raggedy Ann&Andy, and Santa Claus Funnies. He drew covers for a number of Disney titles, whose interior stories were sometimes produced by Carl Barks, the most celebrated artist behind Donald Duck.

Animal Comics turned out to be the turning point in Kelly's career. He created Bumbazine and Albert the Alligator, which appeared in issue number one of the magazine. (The name "bumbazine" came from a black fabric he had wrapped up in the underwear factory.) Kelly's first story, called 'Albert Takes the Cake' (Animal Comics, December 1941), was the basis for Pogo, starting with the words "Once there was a big old alligator named Albert who loved chocolate cake..." The cartoon depicted the adventures of Bumbazine, the black little boy of the title, who lived in the Okefenokee swamp in the company of his pet alligator. Gradually Bumbazine faded out of the strip and later it was titled Albert and Pogo. For the Fairy Tale Parade, aimed at very young children, Lebeck gave Kelly free hands to design the comic the way he saw fit.

During World War II Kelly was at the Foreign Language Unit and illustrated manuals for the Army. Although his works at Western Publishing were aimed mostly for very young readers, Kelly also created such features as Seaman Sy Wheeler, and a srewball saga Pat, Patsy and Pete. In 1948 he was hired to draw political cartoons for the New York Star, a new liberal and short-lived advertising-free paper. He also made spot art, and design work.

Kelly won the Heywood Broun Award for Best Political Cartoon, but was not happy with this line of work. Between 1946 and 1947 Dell issued two Albert and Pogo Possum comics; both sold well. Pogo began to appear as a daily feature in the Star in 1949. In the same year it was picked up for distribution by the Post-Hall Syndicate. The initial stories had been more slapstick-centered than allegorical, but gradually jokes about current events creeped in. Pogo started out slowly in syndication but in the late 1950s it was subscribed by almost 600 newspapers. For the next six years Pogo was available simultaneously in comic books and newspapers. When Dell tried to prevent a series of paperback Pogo books, Kelly signed a contract with Simon and Schuster.

Pogo made the unusual transition from comic to newspaper strip successfully. With this work Kelly realized his dream and was able to give his wife and children financial security. In 1952 he was named "cartoonist of the year." A mock presidential bid by his comic strip possum turned into national movement when the writer Carl Sandburg stated in 1953, "I've read some of the comics that are around now, a dozen or two, just to find out what some people are trying to do to the youth of the country.... I think Pogo for the young or the old who understands it, it's health to them.... I go Pogo!" (Walt Kelly and Pogo: the Art of the Political Swamp by James Eric Black, 2016, p. 19) 150 colleges embraced Pogo as their official candidate. Twenty-eight students were arrested in a mock rally held at Harvard for "disturbing the peace." (We Go Pogo: Walt Kelly, Politics, and American Satire by Kerry D. Soper, 2012, pp. 202-203)

Highly appreciated by his colleagues, Kelly was elected in 1954  president of the National Cartoonist Society. Moreover, he was the first strip cartoonist to be invited to contribute originals to the Library of Congress. Unhappy with his publisher, Kelly quit doing books and concentrated on strips. The last issue of the Pogo comic book went on sale in 1954.

In addition to his work on Pogo, Kelly reviewed books, wrote articles and nonsense verse, illustrated books, delivered hundreds of lectures and sang some of the songs in the record 'Songs of the Pogo.' His wide influence in seen in the works of such artists as Jeff Smith (The Bone) and Cathy Hill (Mad Raccoons).

"Pogo's swamp was as real as Hogan's Alley or the Katzenjammers' island or Slumberland or Popeye's Dice Island or Flash Gordon's underwater world of Mongo or Terry's Orient or Kokonino Kounty. Or as unreal – take your pick. And, like the other settings, it was wonderful in no small part because it was a place that could exists only in the comic strips – in no other medium, no other art form." (America's Great Comic-Strip Artists: From the Yellow Kid to Peanuts by Richard Marschall, 1997, p. 272)

In the 1960s Kelly had health problems and he left more and more of the drawing to others. He regularly reprinted Pogo, resulting in more than three dozen paperbacks during his lifetime. In 1969 a Pogo animated cartoon was shown on TV. For the sake of economy, the size of the strips became more reduced in later years, which made the dialogue more difficult to read. Kelly died in Hollywood on October 18, 1973, of complications of diabetes. He had recently had a leg amputated. From 1973 the strip was continued for some years by Kelly's son Stephen and his widow Selby, with the help of several assistants. A new version, titled Walt Kelly's Pogo started to run in 1989. The strip was written by Larry Doyle and drawn by Neal Sternecky. Doyle left the strip in 1991, Sternecky went solo with it until Kelly's children Pete and Carolyn took it over in 1992; it ended the next year.

POGO: The strip depicts Okefenokee swamp, where worms, insects, birds, reptiles, herbivores and carnivores live in more or less peacefully, and are filled with similar whimsical humor as the Mad Hatter's tea party in Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865). Central characters are Pogo, the warmhearted and modest little opossum, "a possum by trade," the anarchistic and egoistic Albert the Alligator, Dr. Howland Owl, the bear P.T. Bridgeport, Beauregard, the retired bloodhound, the snooping turtle Churchy-la-Femme, and Porky the porcupine. The antagonism between Albert and Pogo has been seen as symbolic representation of the Ego and Id. "A comic strip is like a dream..." Kelly once said. Comparable philosophical juxtapositions has been widely used in cartoons, as in Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes or in Charles Schulz's Peanuts. "Yep, son, we have met the enemy and he is us." (Pogo's observation upon seeing the garbage-cluttered swamp. Note: "We have met the enemy, and they are ours." Dispatch from U.S. brig Niagara to General William Henry Harrison, announcing his victory at the battle of Lake Erie, September 10, 1813.) "I'll tell you, son, the minority got us out-numbered!" (Congressman Frog)

Kelly put more than six hundred named or otherwise identifiable creatures in the swamp, each with a distinct personality and different voices. His characters talked and argued constantly with a poetic language that mixed Elizabethan English, French, and white and black Southern. Once Dr Owl explained: "The natural born reason we didn't git no yew-ranium when we crosses the li'l yew tree and the gee-ranium is on account of cause we didn't have no geiger counter". He played on words and especially on names, thus Simple J. Malarkey, a mean-spirited bobcat, referred to Senator Joseph McCarthy. He mocked also such well-known figures as George Wallace (Prince Pompadoodle), Lyndon Johnson (a Texas longhorn centaur), Nikita Khrushchev, who was a boorish pig, and Fidel Castro, a seedy goat. Richard Nixon was Kelly's most represented figure, portrayed as Malarkey's sidekick, Indian Charlie, and later as a teapot-shaped spider named Sam. Much meaning can be deriverd from the way political personalities were drawn: Angew was a uniformed hyena and J. Edgar Hoover as a bulldog. In the 1950s, when the political scene was a taboo even in the Mad magazine, Kelly's joking on actual politicians was an unique act. It has been said, that Pogo was the most censored comic strip of its time.

For further reading: America's Great Comic-Strip Artists by Richard Marschall (1989); 'Pogo' by J.A.L. [John A. Lent], in 100 Years of American Newspaper Comic, ed. by Maurice Horn (1996); The Classic Era of American Comics by Nicky Wright (2000); 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die, ed. by Paul Gravett (2011); We Go Pogo: Walt Kelly, Politics, and American Satire by Kerry D. Soper (2012); Walt Kelly: The Life and Art of the Creator of Pogo by Thomas Andrae and Carsten Laqua (2012); Heroes of the Comics by Drew Friedman; foreword by Al Jaffee (2014); Walt Kelly and Pogo: the Art of the Political Swamp by James Eric Black; foreword by Mark Burstein (2016); 'The Importance of Being Irreverent,' in Sparring with Gil Kane: Debating the History and Aesthetics of Comics, edited by Gary Groth (2018) - Animal fables: see the classical roots in the literature: Aesop, Krylov, La Fontaine

Selected works:

  • Pogo, 1951
  • Strong Cigars and Lovely Women / John Lardner, 1951 (illustrator)
  • I Go Pogo, 1952
  • Glob / John O'Reilly, 1952 (pictures by Walt Kelly)
  • Pogo. Fellow Bird Watchers, We Are Met Today to Welcome a New Member, Simple J. Malarkey ..., 1953
  • Pogo. It's Time for Us to Be Gone, Child -- Hasten Home!, 1953
  • Pogo. Mole, Stop Sprinklin' Feathers onto Me ... I'm in the Tar by Accident, Chum!, 1953
  • Uncle Pogo So-So Stories, 1953
  • Incompleat Pogo, 1954
  • Pogo Stepmother Goose, 1954
  • Pogo Peek-a-Book, 1955
  • Potluck Pogo, 1955
  • Pogo Party, 1956
  • Pogo Sunday Book, 1956
  • Songs of the Pogo, 1956 (with Norman Monath)
  • Pogo's Sunday Punch, 1957
  • Positively Pogo, 1957
  • G. O. Fizzickle Pogo, 1958
  • Pogo Sunday Parade, 1958
  • Pogo. "If you Want to Expand Your Script Business to Thinkin' for the Universe, You Can't Let, 1959
  • Ten Ever-Lovin' Blue-Eyed Years with Pogo, 1949-1959, 1959
  • Beau Pogo, 1960
  • Pogo Extra (election special), 1960
  • Gone Pogo, 1961
  • Pogo à la Sundae, Including Australia and the Two Egg Candidates, 1961
  • Instant Pogo, 1962  
  • Jack Acid Society Black Book, by Pogo, 1962
  • Deck Us All with Boston Charlie, 1963
  • Pogo Puce Stamp Catalog, 1963
  • Return of Pogo, 1965
  • Pogo Poop Book, 1966
  • Prehysterical Pogo (in Pandemonia), 1967
  • Equal Time for Pogo, 1968
  • Can't, 1969
  • Pogo, Prisoner of Love, 1969
  • Walt Kelly's No, 1969
  • Impollutable Pogo, 1970
  • Pogo: We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us, 1972
  • Pogo Re-Runs: Some Reflections on Elections, 1974 (selected from I Go Pogo, The Pogo Party, Pogo Extra, with an introd. and commentaries, by Bill Vaughan)
  • Pogo Revisited, 1974 (containing the complete volumes of The Pogo Poop Book, Instant Pogo and The Jack Acid Society Black Book)
  • Pogo Candidature: A Cartoon Story for New Children, 1976 (with Selby Kelly)
  • Pogo's Bats and the Belles Free, 1976  (edited by Selby Kelly)
  • Pogo's Body Politic, 1976 (edited by Selby Kelly, with a foreword by Jimmy Breslin)
  • Pogo Stepmother Goose, 1977 (with a new introd. by Selby Kelly)
  • Potluck Pogo, 1977
  • Incompleat Pogo, 1977 (with a new introd. by Selby Kelly)
  • Pogo, 1977 (with a new introd. by Selby Kelly)
  • Pogo Panorama: 3 Pogo Classics of Parody, Prose, and Poetry Complete and Unabridged, 1977
  • Pogo Papers, 1977 
  • Pogo's Double Sundae: Two Unabridged Helpings of Past Pogo Classics, The Pogo Sunday Parade, The Pogo Sunday Brunch, 1978
  • Pogo's Will Be That Was, 1979
  • Pogo Even Better, 1984 (edited by Mrs. Walt Kelly and Bill Crouch, Jr.)
  • Outrageously Pogo, 1985 (edited by Mrs. Walt Kelly and Bill Crouch, Jr.)
  • Walt Kelly's pluperfect Pogo, 1987 (edited by Mrs. Walt Kelly and Bill Crouch, Jr.)
  • Phi beta Pogo, 1989 (edited by Mrs. Walt Kelly and Bill Crouch, Jr., introduction by Doug Marlette)
  • All-Natural Pogo / Norman F. Hale, 1991 (illustrations by Walt Kelly)
  • Through the Wild Blue Wonder, 2011
  • Evidence to the Contrary, 2014
  • Walt Kelly's Fables and Funnies: Dell Co, 2016 (compiled by David W. Tosh; introduction by John E. Petty)
  • Under the Bamboozle Bush, 2017
  • Out of This World at Home, 2018 (foreword by Jake Tapper
  • Clean as a Weasel, 2019 (foreword by Jim Davis)


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