January 14, 2010

Golden Age Artist Spotlight -- Walt Kelly

"We have met the enemy and he is us."

Through the internationally recognized comic strip/political and social satire of Pogo, Walt Kelly is arguably one of the greatest and most influential cartoonists in the history of the craft. Kelly combined masterful line and brush-work (learned at the "mouse factory", Disney) with fluent and highly amusing story-telling acted out by an endearing cast of "nature's screechers". He borrowed from various dialectical sources and his own fertile imagination to invent a unique and charming backwoods-patois, heavy on the nonsense, to fit his cartoon swampland.  Pogo spoke truth to power when few media outlets would, and for that Kelly is accordingly venerated as an American master.

But unlike the vast majority of comic strip artists, who came to comic books after success and recognition had already been attained, and through their syndicates provided reams of reprint material which filled comics like Magic, Ace, Sparkler, and others (and later ghosted original comic book material as well), Walt Kelly developed both his abilities as a storyteller, and his famous opossum creation, in Dell funny animal and fantasy comics.  This early work is often overlooked, but its simplicity, entertainment value, and craftsmanship merit a second (and third, fourth and fifth) look.  According to wikipedia:

   Kelly began a series of comic books based on fairy tales and nursery rhymes along with annuals celebrating Christmas and Easter for Dell Comics. Kelly seems to have written or co-written much of the material he drew for the comics; his unique touches are easily discernible. He also produced a series of stories based on the Our Gang film series, provided covers for Walt Disney's Comics and Stories, illustrated the aforementioned adaptations of two Disney animated features, drew stories featuring Raggedy Ann and Andy and Uncle Wiggily, wrote and drew a lengthy series of comic books promoting a bread company and featuring a character called "Peter Wheat", and did a series of pantomime (i.e. without dialogue) two-page stories featuring Roald Dahl's Gremlins for Walt Disney's Comics and Stories #34-41. ... So highly regarded was his work that Dell editor Oskar Lebeck in the introduction to Fairy Tale Parade #1 spoke of him as "the artist who drew all the wonderful pictures in this book"...

This period saw the creation of Kelly's most famous character, Pogo, who first saw print in 1943 in Dell's Animal Comics. The initial stories, probably influenced by Joel Chandler Harris' Uncle Remus stories, pitted a boy named Bumbazine against wily Albert the Alligator, with Pogo Possum in a supporting role. Albert eventually supplanted Bumbazine for the lead role, and Pogo supplanted Albert, with the sole human character- whom Kelly joked was less believable being 'merely human'- disappearing from the series altogether. Some cartoon historians have speculated that the removal of the only human (a black one) was done to allow the creation of Kelly's ideal of a Southland with no black or white - just critters.

Pogo was almost unrecognizable in his initial appearance, resembling a real possum more closely than in his classic form. He gradually assumed a rounder and more appealing shape and construction, much like Mickey Mouse's, including a black nose that he would retain until the eve of his transition to the comics page in 1948.

Kelly's work with Dell continued well into the successful run of the newspaper strip in the early fifties, ending after 16 issues of Pogo Possum (each with all new material) in a dispute over the republication of Kelly's early Pogo and Albert stories in a special comic book called The Pogo Parade. Having grown tremendously as an artist and writer, Kelly no longer wished to see his earlier work in print.

Not sure I necessarily agree with the last statement, but since Kelly passed away in 1973, the point is essentially moot. But in the last decade or so, Kelly's Animal Comics, as well as his other fantasy, Our Gang and Disney work, has experienced a variety of reprint attempts, including the elusive New York Star strips (the Star folded up operations less than six months after Kelly started Pogo as a daily). I'm currently reading various Kelly stories in Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly's TOON Treasury of Classic Childrens Comics  (an interview about this work is available here).  In February 2007 it was announced that Fantagraphics Books would begin publication of The Complete Pogo, a projected 12-volume series collecting the complete chronological run of daily and Sunday strips, to be overseen by Kelly aficionado Jeff Smith. The first volume in the series was scheduled to appear in October 2007, but delays, reportedly resulting from the difficulty in locating early Sunday strips in complete form, have pushed back its release until September 28, 2010. As the quality of Fantagraphics' Peanuts series has been consistently excellent, I look forward to collecting the Pogo books as well. I do hold out hope that a company like Fantagraphics or Dark Horse obtains the rights to Kelly's scattered and sundry other comic book works, and publishes those as a series or set of slipcase editions. They are worth revisiting, particularly as a testament to Kelly's growth as both artist and storyteller. 

Tip of the hat to CBR's "Slam Bradley," who suggested this spotlight.  Thanks, Tim.

Enjoy the covers.


  1. That Animal Comics 17 is one of my favorite comics of all time.