Sunday, November 20, 2011

It's About Time

Here's an exclusive full-blown book review by Jay Black:

The first words in the Editor’s Notes of Fantagraphic new Pogo compilation Through the Wild Blue Wonder are the same words uttered under the breath of Pogo fans for almost ten years: “It’s about time.” The first of what is intended to be a twelve part series has finally arrived. Kim Thompson and Walt Kelly’s daughter Carolyn Kelly have taken the time to give Pogofiles the quality product that that the work deserves. For the first time both the daily and Sunday strips have found a home together.

The first thing a reader will notice after the beautiful dust cover (drawn and colored by Carolyn Kelly) is that the binding of thisbook is superior to similar collections, most notably the catastrophe that was done to Calvin and Hobbs. This is a book that should weather more than an occasional journey back into the Okefenokee Swamp. Opening the book to the first few pages and the reader finds original drawings that are sketched first with blue pencil and then inked. Walt Kelly used the blue pencil for the early sketching of his strips because the color did not show when the strip was reproduced.

The table of contents lovingly breaks the content down into weeks and explains the action in a way that specific strips can be quickly found. I had to smile when I saw the first week’s description began with: “Pogo and Churchy go fishing.” There was never a predicament throughout the run of the strip that could not be solved with a return to the Suwanee River, the only river that runs through the actual Okefenokee, for either a casual float or a communal fish fry. What is surprising here is the lack of political satire. The first year of Pogo in syndication was for the most part politically noncommittal. Kelly first dabbles into political satire inMarch 1950, almost a year into the syndicated run. Even this, as R. C. Harvey points out in a section named “Swamp Talk,” was more puns and vaudeville than hard-hitting political satire. Kelly, like other cartoon artists at the time, avoided any topic that might be deemed controversial. Editors who disagreed could pull a strip they did not agree with resulting in the artist loosing money. The strip would not become overtly political until Kelly retained the copyright on his strips that he had primarily loaned to Post Hall syndicate. This will occur in the second volume in 1952.

The strips are separated into three categories. The daily and Sunday syndicated strips come first and are appropriately divided into different chapters. Kelly wrote the two for different audiences. Kelly believed that adults were the primary audience for the daily strips. This is where you will later find most of the political references. The Sunday strips were strictly for the kids.

The strips speak for themselves. Doonesbury artist and writer Garry Trudeau, certainly no stranger to cultural and political comic strips, said Walt Kelly was a triple threat: Pogo was beautifully drawn, exquisitely written and enormously popular— a true cartoonists’ cartoonist. Pogo began, as readers of this blog well know, as a comic book character. Kelly donated Pogo in strip form to the newspaper where he was working as an art director. The third strip section is comprised of the entire run of that occurred in the New York Star. The only remotely political strips that occurred during the original Star run was an announcement of a Truman victory in 1948, and then a couple weeks later a reference of people having to eat crow. Since the Star was the only major newspaper in New York to support the Truman candidacy, this strip may have been less political satire than a poke at the other newspapers. Nevertheless, these three strips were the only strips in the entire Star run that specifically dealt with national politics. The campaign for sheriff may have been a parallel campaign to the 1948 presidential campaign, but it mostly wordplay and slapstick humor.

No epic Pogo journey could ever be complete without the help of Walt Kelly’s friends and fans. In this first volume, American journalist and author Jimmy Breslin write the Forward. Mr. Breslin was a long time friend of Kelly’s since the time their favorite bar, affectionately referred to as Bleek’s after the longtime proprietor, was located in the back of the New York Herald Tribune building. Many a night was spent drinking until the buildingshook when the morning edition hit the presses.

Long time biographer and fan Steve Thompson, the hero of anyone who ever studied Pogo for academic reasons, wrote the introduction. He wrote, with the help of Kelly’s third wife Selby Daley, what at this point may be the longest biographical study of Kelly, Pogo Files for Pogophiles. Mr. Thompson was the editor of the now elusive Fort Mudge Most, the Kelly fan magazine devoted to digging up ancient Kelly treasures. I recently tried to get copies through interlibrary loan, but I was told that the few libraries that had the issues would not loan them out. This is a shame because if this Fantagraphic Pogo collection is as successful as I believe it will be, morestudents may find their way to Kelly’s work.

R.C. Harvey’s “Swamp Talk” gives annotated historical references of the strips from the beginning, an epic job in of itself. Pogo was more than a political satire.Kelly was in a league of one when it came to social commentary in the comicstrips. By the time Kelly decided to add hard-core political satire to Pogo in 1952, Al Capp was marrying off his title character Li’l Abner to Daisy May. He told Life that social commentary was suicide in a comic strip and he would not do it until the time was right to bring it back. He changed his strip to more of a traditional marriage strip. Thisleft the hole that would be filled by Pogo. Harvey has his job cut out for him starting in the next volume if he is to continue to trace the social commentary and inside jokes of Walt Kelly. Harvey and Thompson are like sponges in the way they have compiled information concerning Kelly’s work. Anything they write is worth reading for the ardent Pogo fan.

It should also be noted that R.C. Harvey also wrote the introductions to Fantagraphic’s previous run of Pogo compilations. This set stopped abruptly at volume 11 with the February 12, 1954 return of “Molester” Mole MacAroney. For ten years, we have waited for this saga to continue. Indeed, this new set is a far superior product. May all the volumes be as beautifully crafted as the one I have in my hand.

-- James Eric (Jay) Black
Mercer University
Journalism and Media Studies


  1. Thanks for posting this! It's an excellent and informative review.

  2. Thanks. This is actually my first book review. I am currently working on a dissertation concerning the politics of Pogo. To say I am a big fan of this blog is an understatement.


  3. I got my copy of the book yesterday and so far I love every moment with it!


  4. Btw, a really good review, Jay. I like the fact that you added a discussion about the time after 1950. It's good to know what to expect from the next installment of the series. :)


  5. Got mine today as well!