The life and times of Walt Kellys political possum
On the first Earth Day, in 1970, a cartoon poster appeared at rallies in all 50 states. It showed a rueful opossum picking up papers, bottles, cans, wrappers—the detritus of modern life. Superimposed on the image were the words WE HAVE MET THE ENEMY AND HE IS US.
That poster has stayed in print for more than four decades and remains as pertinent now as on the day it was created by Walt Kelly. At his zenith, from about 1950 to 1970, Kelly was the most popular cartoonist in America. Some 50 million readers followed his comic strip Pogo and its eponymous possum. Paperback compilations hit the bestseller list. Kelly was compared to Mark Twain and Lewis Carroll, to Daumier and Disney, and he received just about every award that his profession had to offer, from Cartoonist of the Year to induction into the National Cartoon Museums Hall of Fame. He was the first strip cartoonist to contribute originals to the Library of Congress.
Yet in the epoch of oversize graphic novels and diminished newspaper comics, this immensely gifted artist and writer has become a back number. Cartoon aficionados know and revere his work. Alas, general readers have moved on. Theyre missing one of the great troves of American comic art and commentary.
Walter Crawford Kelly, Jr., was born in Philadelphia in 1913. His father, a factory worker, soon moved the family to Bridgeport, Connecticut, where there were better-paying jobs. Looking back, Walt remembered an idyllic boyhood: All I did was sing and draw on paper bags. While drawing, he listened to the citys mix of languages. We found ourselves living cheek by jowl with the Dzumatis, the Vander Kruiks, the Klespers, the Zismans, the Ostrofskys, the Kekacs, the Grietches, the Seresins, the Varjabedians, the Marchands, the Budas, and many more. We children learned more unusable phrases in foreign tongues by the time we were ten than most world travelers learn in a lifetime. Those phrases, highly garbled, would later surface in his work.
The youth made some skillful illustrations for his high school newspaper, impressing the editor of the Bridgeport Post, who hired him to draw a comic-strip biography of circus impresario P. T. Barnum, a Bridgeport native. Several years later, Kelly journeyed to New York City to work on comic books. The salary was small, though, so in the mid-thirties he went west. By the end of the decade, he had acquired a wife and a job at Disney, where he contributed to Snow White, Dumbo, and Fantasia. Then, in 1941, Disney employees went on strike, demanding higher wages and better benefits. Rather than take sides, Kelly, who had friends in management and pals on the picket line, headed back east to become a freelancer for Dell Comics.
As the U.S. edged closer to war, the character who was to bring Kelly worldwide recognition, Pogo Possum, debuted in the first issue of Dells Animal Comics. The marsupial certainly didnt come on like a star; he was merely the foil of a little African-American boy named Bumbazine. Pogo was long-nosed and small-eyed, and his home was a tree in the steamy Okefenokee swamp, which straddles the border between Florida and Georgia. Scientist Stephen Jay Gould once drolly described the biological progress of Mickey Mouse, who assumed an ever more childlike appearance as the ratty character of Steamboat Willie became the cute and inoffensive host to a magic kingdom. So it was with Pogo. During the war, Kelly illustrated training manuals for the U.S. Army, and he was too busy to pay proper attention to his creation. But after V-J Day, he saw to it that the possum acquired larger eyes, a smaller nose, a more innocent personality, and a bunch of hilarious colleagues, while the swamp became more Arcadian and appealing. En route, Bumbazine vanished; Kelly preferred to work entirely with natures screechers. Birds, reptiles, and four-legged mammals dont hurt as easily, he noted, and its possible to make them more believable in an exaggerated pose. It was time for Pogo to take center stage.
The furry little guy was confined to comic books, and therefore to a mostly juvenile readership, until 1948. That year, Kelly landed a job with the New York Star, where he drew political cartoons (one showed Thomas E. Dewey, the Republican machine candidate for president, as a cash register) but spent most of his creative energy on a daily strip about the denizens of Okefenokee. Every panel overflowed with richly detailed flora and humorously rendered fauna. When the Star folded in 1949, Kelly packed up his pens and paintbrushes and moved to the Post-Hall syndicate.
It was a life-altering decision. Post-Hall fed hundreds of outlets, and in the volatile world of postwar newspaper comics, Pogo was the sleeper of the year. Calling the possum the newest comic-strip character with intellectual appeal, Time added that from . . . everyday situations the bone of contention is pulled, and the hollow space stuffed with whimsy, sentiment, gags, puns, and a sprinkling of philosophy ground very small. T. S. Eliot became a devotee, as did the philosopher Theodor Adorno.
In print journalisms last great days, Okefenokee grew as familiar as the waterfront of Popeye and the Dogpatch of Lil Abner (see Exile in Dogpatch, Spring 2010). Like Abner creator Al Capp, Walt Kelly liked to lampoon his colleagues. Just as Capp drew Fearless Fosdick, a parody of Dick Tracy, within his own comic strip, so Kelly drew Little Arf and Nonny, a send-up of Little Orphan Annie, with a bewigged Pogo playing Nonny and a hound in the role of Little Arf. In the hall of mirrors that was comic art, Mad magazine promptly parodied Okefenokee with a strip called Gopo Gossum.
Pogos swamp critters came in all sizes and personalities. In addition to the title character, the principals included Albert, a brash, cigar-chomping alligator; Porky Pine, a grouch with a 24-carat heart; and Howland Owl, a self-designated authority on everything: The natural born reason we didnt git no yew-ranium when we crosses the lil yew tree and the gee-ranium is on account of cause we didnt have no Geiger counter. Bringing up the rear was Churchy Le Femme, a mud turtle and troubadour specializing in song parodies. The best known of these, a lampoon of Deck the Halls, can still be heard at Christmas:
Deck us all with Boston Charlie,
This furry, scaled, quilled, feathered, and shelled quintet was backed by a supporting cast of Dickensian proportions—more than 600 players, all told. They included Beauregard Bugleboy, a doggerel-loving canine; Miz Mamselle Hepzibah, a flirtatious skunk; and Deacon Mushrat, a hypocritical mammal of the cloth who spoke in elaborately lettered Gothic script. (When an editor complained that such effusions were hard to read, Kelly replied, Mighty hard to letter, too.) There were also Molester Mole, a paranoid sneak; Seminole Sam, a fox who specialized in scams; and Bewitched, Bothered, and Bemildred, a trio of scruffy bats. Crowds of lesser players entered and exited, ranging from Sarcophagus MacAbre, a vulture and mortician in search of clients, to Tammananny Tiger, a corrupt politico. But the ursine P. T. Bridgeport outdid them all. Kelly drew his monologues as minuscule vaudeville broadsides, complete with pointing fingers, striped capital letters, and booming exclamation points—making it impossible, in the pages of this magazine, to replicate properly his Dont give this away, pal, but DRIVE-IN FUNERAL PARLORS COULD BECOME A LIVIN RAGE—quick, easy, curb service!!!
Most of the characters talked in swampspeak, a unique amalgam of Southern dialect and foreign exclamations: I aint said much but I is been pushed around ee-nuf! I is gone stand up for my rights! And I got rights I aint hardly used yet! Kelly enriched these monologues with such portmanteau words as hysteriwockle and incredibobble, as well as nonsensical hollers like Rowrbazzle! and Facinorous Runagates!
Kelly gave a terse explanation of his political philosophy: he stood against the extreme right, the extreme left, and the extreme middle. In the far-off fifties, that was how most college students felt, too. Thus in 1952, when the strip announced that Pogo was throwing his hat into the political ring, thousands of POGO FOR PRESIDENT buttons suddenly appeared on campuses. From UCLA to NYU, mock rallies celebrated the possum who dared to run against Republican Dwight Eisenhower and Democrat Adlai Stevenson. At Harvard, one rally got out of hand: some 1,000 students rioted. Three police wagons, eight patrol cars, and 25 patrolmen arrived on the scene, arresting 28 students before restoring order. Come election time, poet Carl Sandburg declared, I Go Pogo! The possums defeat was insignificant; in 1956, he ran again, to the delight of his burgeoning fan base.
Pogo briefly dabbled in apolitical humor with Songs of the Pogo, a vinyl LP featuring lyrics from the strip set to music, and the Pogomobile, featuring Okefenokees leading lights in a device that dangled from many a dorm ceiling. In the strip itself, the swamp held a poetry contest, won by Albert because the alligator wrote the weightiest verse (it was inscribed on a boulder). There were monthlong baseball games, too, with Churchy as umpire. The turkle was so afraid of controversy that he withdrew into his shell, calling balls and strikes he couldnt see. And there was a meandering stream of paradoxes: Food is no substitute for the real thing. The minority got us outnumbered. You want to cut down air pollution? Cut down the original source. . . . Breathin! We are surrounded by insurmountable opportunities.
But the satirist would not stay quiet for long. From the mid-1950s onward, Kelly sharpened his nib and went for the jugular. Sometimes he used black humor, as when Albert addressed segregation: You open up a school, next thing you know all kinds of ignoramuses is comin in. They meets yo daughter, splits an orange with her, poof! Theys engaged, married, an livin in the attic. An I dont want nobody marryin my daughter if hes so ignorant he gotta go to school in the first place. At other times, he drew animals with the attributes of Beltway figures: FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, for example, was depicted as a stubborn and not very bright bulldog, and the young Richard Nixon made an appearance as a tiny elephant.
Surely Kellys most savage portrait was a polecat named Simple J. Malarkey. No one ever doubted the identity of this feline, whose heavy eyebrows, swarthy chin, and glowering mien evoked the features of Joseph P. McCarthy. Months before Edward R. Murrows celebrated CBS program denouncing the much-feared, Red-hunting senator from Wisconsin, Kelly had Malarkey stomping through Georgia, terrifying denizens with his shotgun and his attitude: Sentence first, verdict after. Naturally, the polecat didnt sit well with McCarthys followers. Malarkey even bothered some liberal editors. We still intend to express our views on the editorial page, the Providence Journal announced, but we vastly prefer to keep those views on that page. We shall drop Pogo on any days when his McCarthy cast appears. Kelly censured the censors in his inimitable manner. Thereafter, when Malarkey appeared, he had a paper bag over his head. Now he not only suggested Senator McCarthy; he also looked like a scoundrel dressed for a Ku Klux Klan rally.
During this period, the John Birch Society made headlines across the nation. The radical-right group saw subversion everywhere, even in the White House. The Societys founder, Robert Welch, asked his adherents, Could Eisenhower really be simply a smart politician, entirely without principles and hungry for glory, who is only the tool of the Communists? The answer is yes. Upon close examination, Welch argued, it is difficult to avoid raising the question of deliberate treason.
Kelly riposted with The Jack Acid Society Black Book, a caustic view of the Birchers. In it, Molester Mole and Deacon Mushrat established their own organization to cleanse Okefenokee of radicals. Their blacklist grew longer by the panel, until finally the founders began accusing each other of disloyalty. In the end, only the mole was left. Readers made Jack Acid a winner. They also bought thousands of copies of an oversize commemorative volume, Ten Ever-Lovin Blue-Eyed Years with Pogo.
Members of the hard Left believed that Kelly had joined their ranks. He reacted by deriding the grinning gargoyle of a dedicated liberal searching for meaning. All along, he contended, he had pursued only one goal: to have fun and make money at the same time. Long before, he had introduced a pair of repellent Communist cowbirds who spouted Marxist slogans and claimed to be doves. Now, in the 1960s, he offered new proofs of his independence: a nameless, mannerless pig who bore an ominous resemblance to Nikita Khrushchev and a scruffy goat who looked exactly like Fidel Castro. Both assured Okefenokeeans that a one-party system was the way to go; all would be well economically, they explained, because the shortage will be divided amongst the peasants.
When John F. Kennedy campaigned for the presidency, Kelly kidded the youthful candidate by picturing him as an unhatched egg. During Lyndon Johnsons administration, the chief executive appeared as a heavy-hoofed longhorn. After LBJs tenure, other presidential hopefuls entered the strip: Hubert Humphrey, Robert F. Kennedy, Nixon, and Mitt Romneys father, George, each depicted as a mechanical toy wound up by P. T. Bridgeport. Later strips depicted Alabama governor George Wallace as a bantam rooster, Senator Eugene McCarthy as a knight riding his horse backward, and Spiro Agnew as a hyena.
If the strip lost its zip in the seventies, it wasnt because of ebbing imagination; it was because of Kellys failing health. In palmier days, he could toss off a daily Pogo in an hour and a Sunday version in under three. His blithe self-description was as accurate as it was zany: Mr. Kelly is six feet high, and, like a big-mouthed bass or Mt. Everest, has indisputably been scaled. Small mountaineer members of the family climb across his unshorn and generally unshaven beard while he works at a drawing board usually placed in some trouble spot like the living-room or the vestibule.
But in the cartoonists late middle age, a fondness for the bottle and for cigarettes, coupled with the ravages of diabetes, took a toll. Kelly had divorced, remarried, become a widower, and married again, this last time to Margaret Selby Daley, a fellow comic artist. The wedding took place a few hours before he found himself hospitalized for severe diabetes. A leg was amputated the next day. Kelly joked that he would plow on until he grew a new one, but assistants took over much of the writing and drawing.
Royalties and licensing, however, went on undiminished. He needed them; he had six children to support. Among the vast panoply of Pogo merchandise were plastic figurines, paperback compilations, mock election buttons, and Okefenokee character mugs. The possum also starred in an animated TV movie, The Pogo Special Birthday Special. Kelly, who supplied the voice of Albert, was so dissatisfied with the outcome that in the fall of 1973, he and his wife left their Manhattan apartment, setting up shop in Los Angeles to be near the studios. They were at work on a new animated special, We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us, when Kelly suddenly lapsed into a diabetic coma. On October 18, two months after his 60th birthday, he died in the Motion Picture and Television Hospital in Woodland Hills. His wife completed the film, but it was never broadcast. After Kellys death, family members mimicked his drawing style and kept the strip afloat for several years, but the heart had gone out of Okefenokee. Periodic attempts to reignite Pogo met with failure—proof, if any was needed, that there was only one Walt Kelly.
Yet Pogo has not disappeared, thanks to a loyal band of devotees. A full set of those figurines now costs about $100 on eBay and Amazon. Amazon lists more than 30 Pogo hardcovers, paperbacks, and comic books. Some go for a few dollars; others are worth $800. The original ink-drawn daily strips go for about $600, Sunday strips for $1,600.
More significantly, Kellys output lives on in others work. Pogos impact has been acknowledged by Jim Henson of the Muppets, Garry Trudeau of Doonesbury, Mort Walker of Hi and Lois, and Jeff McNally of Shoe, who remarked, Long before I could grasp the satiric significance of his stuff, I was enchanted by Kellys magnificent artwork. Well never see anything like Pogo again in the funnies, Im afraid. Jeff Smith, creator of the best-selling Bone graphic novels, agrees: Whenever I get to thinking Ive got this whole cartooning gig down cold, I just pull out a Pogo book and see how much better it can be.
Walt Kelly was too modest to make such grand claims. He frequently quoted a line that he had written for Porky Pine: Dont take life so serious, it aint nohow permanent. No, it aint. But art—even comic art—can be, in the hands of a master. Every book, every comic, every panel verifies the claims of Kellys fervent cheering squad: after 63 ever-lovin blue-eyed years, Pogo is still incomparabobble.
Stefan Kanfer, a City Journal contributing editor, is the author of Tough Without a Gun, a Humphrey Bogart biography.