Sunday, August 25, 2013

The 100th Birthday of Walt Kelly

If one were to compile a list of the ten greatest cartoonists of all time, Walt Kelly's name would be near the top. Walt Kelly was the creator of the legendary comic strip Pogo, centred on the eponymous possum of the same name and his fellow inhabitants of the Okefenokee Swamp. Although in its original incarnation Pogo would run for only 26 years, it would have a lasting impact on American comic strips and American pop culture in general. It was quite simply, one of the most intelligent, most literate, and funniest comic strips ever created. Walt Kelly was born 100 years ago today.

Walt Kelly was born on 25 August 1913 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His family moved to  Bridgeport, Connecticut when he was only two years old.  It was while he was still attending Warren Harding High School in Bridgeport that he began cartooning, with cartoons published in both his high school's magazine and the local newspaper, the Bridgeport Post. After he graduated high school Mr. Kelly went to work for the Bridgeport Post, working as both a cartoonist and a reporter, as well as in the art and editorial departments. It was in 1935 that Walt Kelly's work first appeared in comic books, contributing to the first issue of New Comics (which had a publication date of December 1935), the second comic book ever published by National Allied Publications (one of the companies that would become DC Comics).

Walt Kelly eventually relocated to California, where he was hired by Walt Disney Productions. While there he became an assistant to legendary animator Fred More and developed a life long friendship with legendary animator Ward Kimball. While at Disney Walt Kelly worked on various Disney shorts, as well as the features Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1940), The Reluctant Dragon (1941), and Dumbo (1941). Mr. Kelly remained with Walt Disney Productions until 1941. Not particularly wishing to take sides in the animator's strike that took place that year, Mr. Kelly took the opportunity to leave the studio and return to the East. There was apparently never any hard feelings on the part of Walt Disney or Walt Kelly. Mr. Disney still held Mr. Kelly in high regard and Mr. Kelly felt gratitude to Mr. Disney for the opportunities he had given him.

Having returned to the East Cost, Walt Kelly went to work for Dell Comics. Perhaps on the recommendation of Walt Disney himself, Mr. Kelly adapted both  Pinocchio and The Three Caballeros for Dell Comics, as well as providing covers for Walt Disney's Comics and Stories. He also worked on Dell Comics' comic books based on the Our Gang comedies, Fairy Tale Parade, Raggedy Ann and Andy,  and Uncle Wiggily. He also illustrated a series of promotional comic books for Peter Wheat Bread featuring a character named "Peter Wheat". What would be his greatest contribution to both comic books and comic strips would come in the pages of Dell's Animal Comics.

It was in Animal Comics #1, 1942, that Pogo Possum and his sidekick Albert Alligator made their first appearance. The two were not the primary characters in their first story, being secondary to a character named "Bumbazine". Bumbazine quickly disappeared from view, so that Pogo became both the star and the straight man of his own feature in Animal Comics. Pogo centred on the eponymous possum and his comic foil Albert Alligator and many other inhabitants of the Okefenokee Swamp. He proved enormously successful in comic books, graduating to his own title (Albert the Alligator and Pogo Possum) in 1945. It was followed by the title Pogo Possum in 1949 and Pogo Parade (a compilation of previously published Pogo stories) in 1953. Pogo would not remain solely in comic books for long, however, as he would be one of the few characters to transition to a newspaper strip.

It was in 1948 that Walt Kelly was hired to draw political cartoons for The New York Star. It was then on 4 October 1948 that Pogo first appeared as a newspaper strip, featured daily in The New York Star. The New York Star folded on 28 January 1949, but it would not be the last that newspapers would see of the possum. on 16 May 1949 the  Post-Hall Syndicate picked up Pogo for national syndication. Pogo proved enormously popular, running in around 500 newspapers in 14 countries at its height. It ran until 20 July 1975. Following Walt Kelly's untimely death from complications from diabetes on 18 October 1973, the strip was continued by his wife Selby Kelly and his son Stephen Kelly.

The popularity of Pogo naturally led to its expansion into other media, as well as merchandising. The strips were collected into several books over the years, with collections of Pogo strips still widely available. In 1969 The Pogo Special Birthday Special aired on NBC, directed by Chuck Jones. In 1970 Walt Kelly and his wife Selby began work on the animated short We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us. Unfortunately, Mr. Kelly's declining health and subsequent death would prevent its completion.In 1980 a stop motion feature film, I Go Pogo, was released. There have also been Pogo pinback buttons, colouring books, porcelain figures, Viewmaster reels, a Halloween costumes, and several other bits of merchandise.

While Pogo was popular, it could also be controversial. Because Pogo often dealt with politics, many newspapers moved the strip to the editorial page or dropped it altogether. To assuage any hard feelings on the part of newspapers, Walt Kelly began creating alternate, less offensive strips whenever he was writing a controversial story arc. Mr. Kelly called these strips "bunny strips", as they often featured fluffy bunnies. Newspapers then had the choice of printing what could be a controversial strip or a more innocuous one. A few newspapers actually printed both.

Despite any controversy it might have created during its run, Pogo was one of the most successful and influential comic strips of the 20th Century, and remains so today. Its success is a tribute to Walt Kelly's talent. Indeed, it is difficult to accurately describe Pogo; it is much more than the continuing adventures of Pogo, Albert, and the other inhabitants of the Okefenokee Swamp. In Pogo Walt Kelly combined a number of things to create a wholly singular comic strip. Nonsense poetry played a large role in the comic strip, as well as parody songs. In fact, an LP of nonsense poetry and parody songs was released in 1956, with Walt Kelly himself providing the vocals. Of course, satire also played a large role in Pogo, hence much of the controversy over the comic strip. It was early in the run of Pogo that Walt Kelly introduced a character named Simple J. Malarkey, wildcat who was obviously a parody of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Walt Kelly also satirised presidential campaigns by having Pogo reluctantly run for president in 1952 and 1956 (the slogan "I Go Pogo" has persisted to this day).

Walt Kelly and Pogo would prove very influential over the years, even as it was still in print. The comic strip Coodgy by Irv Spector was obviously inspired by Pogo. It has been acknowledged as an influence on their strips by such cartoonists as Garry Trudeau (Doonesbury),  Jeff MacNelly (Shoe), Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes), and many others. While Berkely Breathed has never listed Walt Kelly among his influences, I've always seen a bit of Pogo in Bloom County. Pogo would even have an influence on other media. René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo have acknowledged Pogo as having an influence on their comic Asterix, while Jim Henson has acknowledged Pogo as an influence on the Muppets (indeed, in the 19th episode of the first season of The Muppet Show,  Walt Kelly's "Don't Sugar Me" was performed). Jeff Smith has also acknowledged Pogo as an influence on his comic book Bone.

In the end Walt Kelly was not simply a cartoonist or even a cartoonist and an animator. He was a multi-talented individual with a gift for poetry, parody, satire, and even song. That Pogo became a phenomenal success should be little wonder. A man of multiple talents who was almost equally great in all of them, Walt Kelly was destined to become of the greatest cartoonists and satirists of the 20th Century.

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