POGO (May 15, 2012)

You're forgiven if you didn't know this, but before Pogo was a punk rock dance move, or an online gaming site, or the Program on Government Oversight, Pogo was a possum.

Pogo lived in the Okefenokee swamps and palled around with an Alligator named Albert (who occasionally wanted to eat him), a surly porcupine named Porky, an owl named Howland who had an insufferable superiority complex, the tremulous turtle Churchy La Femme (who was deathly afraid of Friday the 13th, no matter what day of the month it fell on), Mizz Mamselle Hepsibah the dainty French skunk, and a supporting cast of hundreds of other critters whose adventures were chronicled in a daily newspaper comic strip for over 25 years.

Really, though, Pogo came out of Connecticut, where his creator Walt Kelly attended Hall Elementary School and Warren G. Harding High School in Bridgeport (class of '30) and did his first paid cartooning work for his high school yearbook and for the Bridgeport Post.

In his 1959 memoir Ten Ever-Lovin' Blue-Eyed Years With Pogo, Kelly writes:

"I was brought up in Bridgeport, and whereas Bridgeport had nodded on the banks of the Pequonnock for many years, it never nodded at me. When I left I carried, besides a few cucumbers and an extra shoe, memories of the days when Bridgeport was the great Circus Town. Not that I had lived through it all; I would have to be 196 years old, more or less, and despite what a few friends think, I am not half that. But Barnum was the patron saint of Bridgeport. I know. I illustrated his life three times running for the Bridgeport Post when I worked there for a few bowls of whey. I started running the last time the thing appeared."

Yet, after five years spent on the West Coast working for Walt Disney in the 1930s, Kelly ran back to Connecticut — not Bridgeport, but nearby Darien, where he lived until his death in 1973.

It was here that he introduced the blowhard, carnival-barking bear P.T. Bridgeport into the Pogo cast, emblazoning the character's speech balloons with lavish circus-poster lettering.

In the 1980s, there was, appropriately, a punk club in Bridgeport called Pogo's.

Like another Southern-set strip with decidedly Eastern sensibilities, Al Capp's Li'l Abner, Pogo spoke to changing times and fading traditions while embracing a lot of the new social values and civil rights struggles. Unlike his fellow Bridgeport High alum Capp, who became a virulent right-winger in his dotage, Kelly never forsook his core liberal beliefs.

Pogo was created for a kid-friendly comic book in 1942 but soon landed in the comics section of the famous liberal New York newspaper The Star (which rose from the ashes of an even more famous leftist daily, PM) in 1948. Within months of The Star's demise in 1949, Pogo had shifted to mainstream newspaper syndication, but remained edgy. Using subtlety, parody and satire which helped weighty subjects sail blissfully over the heads of its youngest readers, the Pogo strip tackled desegregation, the Red-baiting tactics of Joseph McCarthy (as the predatory beast Simple J. Malarkey), environmentalism (coining the Earth Day slogan "We has met the enemy and he is us" for an Earth Day poster in 1970) and other topics torn from the front pages of the same papers where Pogo languished unassumingly in the swamp of the funny pages.

Pogo Possum ran for President of the United States numerous times, usually unwillingly, starting in 1952 when he countered the Eisenhower fans' slogan "I Like Ike" with "I Go Pogo."

"By the late 1960s, Pogo had become an almost exclusively political strip," writes Steve Thompson, publisher of the Fort Mudge Most fanzine and proprietor of the I Go Pogo website, in his introduction to Pogo Through the Wild Blue Wonder—The Complete Syndicated Comic Strips Volume 1. The book, released by Fantagraphics last December, is the beginning of a comprehensive reprinting of all 30-plus years of Pogo strips, and is the first major Pogo collection of any kind in decades. Through the Wild Blue Wonder (the title of which was found among Kelly's private papers; his daughter Carolyn is a co-editor of the project) includes those early strips in The Star plus the syndicated daily and Sunday Pogo strips through 1951. Volume Two, titled Fide Balderdash, is due this fall.

The Pogo reprint project was originally announced over four years ago, after Fantagraphics hit the bestseller lists with its impressive Complete Peanuts series. The Pogo series follows the successful Peanuts model—clean, orderly, excessively annotated reprints of the comic strips in collectible hardcover form, with introductory essays by celebrities who "get" the material. Pogo's first volume is introduced by grizzled newspaperman Jimmy Breslin, its second by mid-20th century satirist Stan Freberg.

Pogo's fan base spanned continents and several generations of readers, but there's a local, personal angle to Pogo as well. From his Connecticut perch, Kelly would put an East Coast spin on the doings of his Southern swamp-dwelling everyman (everypossum?). He'd lovingly emblazon the names of his friends on the sides of the pontoon boats in which the strip's critters navigate the gooey Okefenokee.

The reprints have lured some of the finest scholars in comicsdom to climb aboard Pogo's trusty flat-bottomed boat for a bit of swampy fact-finding. The collection was assembled by Carolyn Kelly and Fantagraphics co-publisher/vice president Kim Thompson, and is appended with ten pages of "Swamp Talk—Annotations and Historical Data" by eminent comics historian R.C. Harvey, author of a massive biography of Walt Kelly's longtime friend Milton Caniff, creator of the adventure comic Steve Canyon.

From Harvey, we learn that when Pogo's friend Beauregard the hound dog goes birdwatching and identifies a bird as "Sir John Stanley's Red-Eyed Approbation," it's an in-joke referencing fellow comics genius John Stanley, who authored the Little Lulu comic book series and is now the subject a lavish reprint series himself (from Drawn & Quarterly Press). The famous Disney animator Ward Kimball, a friend and mentor of Kelly's, gets a shout-out elsewhere. So does late 1950s Stamford Advocate editor E.C. McCullough, in a Christmas strip where Pogo attempts to rouse Albert out of bed, admonishing "Us gotta git up on our hind legs and wish every'body a Merry Christmzs!" Albert groggily replies "Them ol' newspapers don't even print on Christmas," a true statement in the decades before television came along and created 24-hour news cycles. "Well," Pogo replies, "a couple or three like Ol' McCullough up in Stamford prints the Christmas strips the next day." "Phoo—Then we is late," Albert decides, with eyes still closed. "I'll be ahead and wish ever'body a joyous Easter."

R.C. Harvey also puts jokes into context. Some of the early Star strips riff on Harry S. Truman's unexpected presidential election victory over Thomas Dewey. Harvey explains that Kelly (and The Star) supported Truman, and had been savaging Dewey in political cartoons. In a later syndicated strip, Howland Owl's speechifying is interrupted by Porky Pine's cries of "Hold it! Hold it! Time for a full minute of silence!" Everyone shuts up at once. A pre-post-Modern pregnant pause in the Samuel Beckett or John Cage fashion? Nope, Harvey explains; it's a subtle salute on Armistice Day.

Through the Wild Blue Wonder is the start of something big—a reassessment of one of the most important artistic statements of the 20th century, daily gags about funny animals which, especially in retrospect—and also especially when resurfacing during an election year—show America growing into itself as a world power in the post-Industrial age of Cold Wars, suburbia, pollution and political scandal.

As P.T. Bridgeport once said, "Great! Great! Carry on! It's a real Au Naturel!"


Pogo: Through the Wild Blue Wonder—The Complete Syndicated Comic Strips Volume 1

By Walt Kelly. Edited by Carolyn Kelly and Kim Thompson. Fantagraphics Books, 2011. 290 pages.)

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