By Scott Tipton
This week we’ll be hanging up the capes and tights for a while, and taking a look at a body of work that was profoundly influential on both comic books and comic strips, and was a large part of American culture for decades, but is all but unknown among the general public today.
POGO ran for nearly 25 years, combining genuine sentiment and emotion with wicked political satire, expressed with poetic grace by one of the most unique wordsmiths to work in comics, and rendered with a beauty and delicacy still unmatched to this day. POGO was at times hilarious, charming, heartbreaking and poignant. Let’s take a closer look.
Chief amongst the stirrers-up of trouble is Pogo’s best friend Albert Alligator, a know-it-all layabout who tends to wind up eating Pogo’s food and hogging Pogo’s bed.
Despite his bluster, Albert’s an agreeable sort, willing to go along with any number of harebrained schemes, such as when rescue attempts are underway to retrieve a polliwog accidentally swallowed by the ‘gator.
Pogo’s other close friend is Porky Pine, a perpetually depressed porcupine and the swamp’s “onliest orphan,” who has little good to say about most folks, including himself, and an unerring ability to see through all the hoopla and craziness that overtakes everyone from time to time. Porky is tremendously faithful to his friend Pogo, as much as Albert if not more so, and what few, meager displays of emotion he makes are usually headed in Pogo’s direction.
Another of Pogo’s friends is Churchy LaFemme, a somewhat excitable turtle wearing a jaunty pirate hat. Churchy can more easily be swept up into things than Albert or Porky, and can also be easily swayed by his stomach.
Churchy also had a tendency over the years to get his head caught inside his shell…
Howland Owl is the self-declared intellectual of the Okeenfenokee, and more often than not it’s his schemes that wind up raising the fuss, such as his regular-as-clockwork attempts to get Pogo to run for President, sometimes entirely without Pogo’s knowledge, or even his presence. Or here, when he volunteers Pogo to fight in a duel:
Finally, the primary feminine influence in the swamp in Mam’selle Hepzibah, a goodhearted French skunk who often finds herself recruited as would-be First Lady for Pogo’s unwitting or unwilling Presidential campaigns.
Porky, meanwhile, has the mother of all unrequited crushes on Hepzibah, and can never bring himself to confess it.
Kelly’s storylines were lengthy, often running four, five and six weeks at a time, common enough newspaper-strip pacing for drama/adventure strips, but practically unheard of for comedy strips.
Walt Kelly was also among the first in the mass media to champion environmental causes and attempt to bring the issue of pollution to the public, with one of his most-quoted lines of dialogue, as a concerned Pogo looks out onto a polluted swamp: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
As POGO’s popularity grew, Kelly grew more confident and began injecting more political commentary and satire into the strip. Probably the most famous of these storylines involved Simple J. Malarkey, the Okeefenokee’s analogue to Red-baiting U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy, and his villainous association with the swamp’s resident ne’er-do-wells Deacon Mushrat, Mole MacCarony and Sarcophagus MacAbre.
Soon enough, the rascals have turned on each other, and even in a lighthearted strip like POGO, Kelly was able to throw in some chilling moments, as here, when Malarkey has the drop on Mole.
In later years, J. Edgar Hoover, Spiro Agnew, Nikita Khruschev, Fidel Castro and Richard Nixon were also targets for Kelly’s satire.
A holiday tradition in the Okeefenokee was the singing of Christmas carols, each year’s more ludicrous and inaccurate than the last. Over time, a certain carol became a standard, as Howland and Churchy’s version of “Deck the Halls” morphed into “Deck Us All With Boston Charlie.” Let’s take a listen:
And while Kelly’s wit and wordplay was a large part of the strip’s success, it was his gorgeous artwork that held everything together. The appealing designs of Pogo and company were cute and pleasant without being grating or saccharine, and as for the backgrounds, well, nobody could draw a tree like Walt Kelly. Nobody.
POGO was one of the first comic strips to find serious mainstream success in the bookstores. Dozens and dozens of reprint books were published, often going into fourth and fifth printings.
In the collections, Kelly would reorder and change the panels to fit a more traditional comic-book structure. Best of all, Kelly took advantage of the additional space to include new material like original verse and longer-form short stories, like this adaptation of a scene from ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND.
While POGO was a smash in the publishing world, Kelly was very selective about allowing the use of his characters in any other merchandising. There were a few cups and novelties, but not many. When Kelly agreed to allow Procter and Gamble to manufacture POGO figurines as a purchase incentive with boxes of detergent, the artist rejected prototype after prototype as not being accurate enough to his characters, until finally the exasperated artist, who was not a sculptor, reached for the clay and sculpted the statues himself. The resulting Procter and Gamble figurines are quite rare today, and much in demand among POGO collectors.
Even harder to find are the two cinematic translations of Walt Kelly’s work. The best treatment came from the 1969 network television animated special, THE POGO SPECIAL BIRTHDAY SPECIAL. Directed by the legendary animator Chuck Jones, and produced by Jones and Kelly, the special details Pogo and friends’ attempts to put together a surprise birthday party for Porky Pine, who doesn’t really have a birthday, since he’s “a norphan.”
With music written by Kelly and longtime musical collaborator Norman Monrath, and surprisingly fun voice acting from Kelly and Jones themselves (Walt Kelly plays Albert, Howland and P.T. Bridgeport, while Jones, in his only voice-over work ever to my knowledge, voices Porky, Bun Rab and Basil the Butterfly. Animation veteran June Foray plays Pogo), the special manages to capture the sentimental side of Kelly’s work, but doesn’t translate much of the strip’s biting wit, perhaps due to the influence of Jones, whose post-Looney Tunes work was often overly cloying. Still, the opening minutes of the special, with Churchy floating along the swamp on a raft singing and playing the banjo, capture as much of the quality of Walt Kelly’s work as any filmed work could hope to. The special was briefly available on videotape in the early ‘80s, but is now long out of print and nearly impossible to find, even on the bootleg market.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t have much else to recommend it. Directed by Marc Paul Chinoy, the 1980 film is faithful to the works and writings of Kelly, but has none of the sparkling wit or emotion of the original strips. Not helping matters is a voice cast full of B-level 1970s celebrities, such as Ruth Buzzi, Jimmy Breslin and Jonathan Winters, that does no favors to the somewhat lifeless animation. Only Vincent Price’s performance as Deacon Mushrat does justice to Kelly’s inspiration and characterization. POGO FOR PRESIDENT also saw a brief video release, and is just about as difficult to locate these days.
No, it ain’t, Miz Beaver. No, it ain’t.