Arts/Literature

Happy Birthday, Walt Kelly

Walt Kelly would have been 97 years old today, if he were still alive. Sadly he’s not, and we need him more than ever. I grew up reading Pogo, and it informed my political consciousness as much as anything else that was going on in the 1960s. Kelly was actually just as important in the 1950s, though, when he was one of the first to go after Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy–he risked a lot, which makes him a hero. As it turned out, he risked a lot during the 1960s and early 1970s as well, especially when Nixon was around. He did a particularly good job with Spiro Agnew.

And boy, could we have used him the past ten years. What would he have made of the group of liars, charlatans, bullies, crooks and halfwits currently in charge of the Republican Party (and formerly of the country), whose venality and mendacity is perhaps unique in American history? We’ll never know, but we can imagine. Sadly, he was just 61 when he died in 1973, so he missed Nixon’s resignation, the Reagan debacle, and everything since. He would have captured, better than anyone else, the foolishness, fecklessness and chicanery of those that led us for most of this past decade, or have pretended to. I can just imagine what Kelly would have done with Sarah Palin, or Newt Gingrich, or Tom DeLay, or W, or Dick Cheney. But, of course, he already did them—they’re no different from the Agnews and McCarthys that Kelly took on back in the day. Not that Kelly limited himself—he did a pretty good job on Russian leaders and Castro as well. Fools of all shapes, sizes and nationalities were Kelly’s regular targets. The regular characters are wonderful–Pogo, Albert, Churchy La Femme, Howland Owl, the crows, Mam’zelle Hepziba…all magnificent one-offs.

My other blog was named in honor of Kelly, in fact–Bazz Fazz! was the occasional grunt of disbelief voiced by Albert. It’s a zippy little phrase that I’ve always liked.

Less remembered today, since the strips aren’t regularly encountered, is Kelly’s draftsmanship, which was extraordinary. Kelly was a superb draftsman–probably the best drawer of animals in the history of comics. The visuals were as important to Kelly as the story line, and some of the artwork was breathtaking. You need to pick up the books now to actually get a feel for what a brilliant artist Kelly was. He would regularly redraw the strips for the books, so that he could experiment with borders and page layouts, so that they would look better, and so that the strips would tell more integrated and coherent stories. This was revolutionary at the time. There isn’t a cartoonist around who hasn’t been influenced by Kelly.

Nor should his verbal wit be overlooked. Kelly composed a number of Pogo songs–not just the celebrated Deck Us All with Boston Charlie (which itself has a number of disputed verses, including Bark Us All Bow-Wows of Folly), but the entire Songs of the Pogo collection. And some quite lovely poetry, one of which remains a personal favorite because I used to recite it to my kids at bedtime (not that they’ll remember) back when I did that sort of thing:

Northern Lights

Oh, roar a roar for Nora,
Nora Alice in the night,
For she has seen Aurora
Borealis burning bright.

A furore for our Nora!
And applaud Aurora seen!
Where, throughout the Summer, has
Our Borealis been?

Kelly is sadly missed. There are lots of tributes of Kelly on the web, easily found. A particularly good one was written by Joanthan Yardley of the Washington Post a couple of years ago.

One of Kelly’s most famous works is this strip reproduced above, produced for Earth Day 1971 and which generated a line that is still to the point, and much quoted. Not much has changed, apparently. We are still our own worst enemy.

Happy birthday, Walt, wherever you are.

6 replies »

  1. Nice tribute. And thanks for the Yardley link. However —

    Generated the line about having met the enemy? Gladly, No! ™ _The Pogo Papers_ was published in 1953 (I think — working from memory — my collection is in the bedroom, in which sleeping is taking place) and contains the first serious McCarthy stuff. Kelly’s introduction ends with, again from memory:

    With tinny blasts on tiny trumpets, we shall meet the enemey, and not only will he be ours, he may even be us.

    I think he may also have used the phrase once or twice in the interim, but tracking that down would be too hard.

    BTW a comics & comix publisher in the northwest undertook a re-issue of *all* the strips some years ago, and I have a couple of early volumes. I must look to see if the rest are still available.

    Update: Oh joy oh rapture unforeseen:

    http://forum.newsarama.com/showthread.php?t=101579

    Fantagraphics, the same place that did the earlier series has (presumably) done a really complete one.

  2. Well, it might not exist yet. The official Pogo website does still refer to it, though.

    Thanks for the info above. I hadn’t known about that earlier quote.

    Did you also collect any of the little figures that came with something–I can’t remember what it was. Probably cereal, I suppose. I had an Albert, but it disappeared into the ether at some point, never to be seen again. I’ve never really recovered.

    • Walt also paved the way for the likes of Doonesbury and Bloom County. It’s hard to imagine how much weaker our tradition of cartooning (or, as Opus preferred, “stripping”) would be without his genius.

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