Saturday, August 25, 2012

Mr. Chairman, I Place in Nomination Walt Kelly as America’s Greatest Cartoonist

Over on Facebook I am friends with a number of cartoonists, including a couple of legends, Skip Williamson and Jay Lynch.  There are what might be called blue collar cartoonists who eke out a freelance living of sorts by sending work out to the dwindling numbers of general interest magazines, trade publications, and specialty publishers, Jim Siergey and Dan Rosandich.  Dan Belini has elevated cartooning to high propaganda art in his series of paintings for the Occupy movement and Anonymous.  Delia Jean is a young woman who intrepidly publishes her own comic book chronicling the life of a waitress.  And I also have serious comic fans including Kar Chiyou whose devotion to Ernie Bushmiller sometimes leaves me scratching my head.
A lot of these folks might just hit on my link to this blog post.  So it is with no little trepidation that I boldly assert that Walt Kelly, creator of Pogo was the greatest American cartoonist of all time despite plenty of stiff and deserving competition.
Walter Crawford Kelly, Jr. was born into a comfortable lace curtain Irish-American family in Philadelphia on August 25, 1913, coincidentally the year of both my parent’s birth. When he was a toddler, the family moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut where Walt grew up and went to high school.  His father dabbled in drawing and told his son that people were, “bad at talking, bad at remembering language, and bad at spelling; but we are just great at remembering pictures.”  His son was naturally soon doodling himself.
Kelly kicked around his hometown for a while after graduating high school before he hired on at the Bridgeport Post where he was soon covering the crime beat and occasionally contributing drawings and cartoons.  He ever after considered himself first a newspaperman. 
But it was his knack for drawing that caught people’s attention.  He was commissioned to illustrations for a biography of Bridgeport’s most famous citizen, showman, politician, and philanthropist Phineas P. Barnum.
By the mid ‘30’s Kelly was doing illustrations for the fledgling comic book company National Allied Publications—soon to become DC Comics and making the friendship and acquaintance of other young artists including Al Capp and Milton Caniff.
While continuing his anonymous work at National Allied, Kelly relocated to California where he signed on with the Disney Studios where he went to work as a gag writer and storyboard man for Donald Duck and other cartoon shorts in 1934.  Walt himself noticed the quality of the work and quickly agreed to Kelly’s request in 1939 to transfer to the animation department.  He had to learn a whole new set of skills but was soon contributing scenes to Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Pinocchio, Dumbo, and Fantasia as well as to shorts like The Reluctant Dragon.  He became an assistant to Fred Moore and a protégé of Ward Kimball, one of Disney’s original animators.
Kelly’s association with the studio ended in 1941 because of the bitter animator’s strike that year.  He was torn by support for his fellow workers and loyalty to Kimball and Disney.  He did not join the picket line, but pled a family emergency and took a leave of absence so he would not have to cross the line.  He never returned to the studio when production was resumed.
His relations with Disney, however, remained good because he had not actively joined the strikers, who Disney considered Communists.  In fact, it was a letter from the studio head that got Kelly’s his next job at Dell Comics, which would be his main artistic home for the 1940’s,  Kelly got the plum assignment of doing covers for Disney comics, Dell’s main bread and butter.  He was soon creating adaptations of Pinocchio, The Three Amigos and other films as well as writing original scripts and doing illustrations for character books.
Kelly also created his own lines of books, Animal Comics, Fairy Tale Parade and Mother Goose Christmas and Easter annuals.  His work on the fairy tale books was marked by exquisite draftsmanship and the frequent use of meticulous gothic lettering.  His work was compared to such masters of the form as Franklin Booth, noted for his rich fantasy illustrations earlier in the century.
It was in the pages of Animal Comics in 1941 that Kelly developed the characters that he would make famous.  He introduced a feature called Albert the Alligator set in the great Okefenokee Swamp in which a possum named Pogo also appeared.  The earliest versions of these and other soon to become famous characters looked much more like actual animals and they were a supporting cast for the adventures of a Black boy named Bumbazine.  The child and other human characters were phased out early in the run and the animal characters softened in appearance to their now instantly recognizable forms.  Eventually Pogo, who Kelly says started off as a “spear carrier,” emerged as the often puzzled everyman at the center of the stories.
During World War II Kelly, who was sickly due to diabetes, contributed work illustrating foreign language manuals for the Army—a perfect fit for Kelly who had a special interest in languages and had taught himself how to speak and write several.
In 1948 Kelly returned to his newspaper roots by taking a position as the editorial cartoonist for the New York Star, the short lived successor to the leftist PM where Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss) had previously been the main stay of the Editorial page.  Kelly was excited about expressing his liberal, progressive, and humanist values in the paper.   He also decided to bring the characters from Okefenokee to a daily strip in the paper under the banner Pogo even while Dell continued to issue comics.  It became the first comic to make the leap from books to a daily strip.
Unfortunately the Star went belly up in 1949 less than a year after starting publication.  But Pogo had proved to be a popular feature and in May of that year launched by Hall Syndicate.  Within a few years Kelly was able to buy the copyright to the character and strip name and owned them outright, one of the first cartoonists to control his own product.
The daily strip really took off.  It was unlike anything else in the comics section—exquisitely drawn in great detail, and thanks to matchless writing simultaneously whimsical, goofy, satirical, topical, political, and poetic.  It could be enjoyed on different levels by children and the most sophisticated intellectual who could get the obscure references and arcane puns. 
The regular cast of characters was vast and the animals of the swamp represented several American archetypes.  In addition to Pogo himself there was Albert Alligator, a cigar chomping extrovert and none-too-bright adventurer who is the Possum’s best friend and foil; Howland Owl, who considers himself the swamp intellectual and expert at everything who’s vain faith in his own wisdom led to many calamities;  “Churchy” LaFemme who despite his name is a male mud turtle and the swamp poet and dreamer often sucked into the schemes cooked up by Howland and other characters;  Beauregard Bugleboy a hound dog who often is the Swamp policeman and doubles as fire chief, a character deeply impressed by his own bravery and nobility and quick to point out his fine qualities to anyone who will listen; Porky Pine, the woebegone porcupine with the bleak outlook on life who is none the less the most selflessly loyal to Pogo of all of the characters; Miz Mam’selle Hepzibah, the alluring French skunk said to be based on Kelly’s second wife who is the object of desire of just about everyone except the clueless Pogo who doesn’t seem to notice she has eyes only for him.  Miz Beaver, the sensible hillbillyesque mother figure with a dim view of men in general who none the less often comes to their rescue; and Deacon Muscrat, as backward and bigoted at Bible thumping preacher as you were likely to find who was always ready to lead the charge back to the 13th Century.
There were dozens more regular denizens of the swamp and many periodic visitors, particularly at election time when the political satire inevitably became keen.
In 1951, only two years after launching the strip Kelly was awarded the National Cartoonists Society’s Reuben Award as Cartoonist of the Year.  He was so respected by his peers that he was elected president of the Society in 1954.
Always innovative, Kelly began issuing collections of his strip in book form 1951, another first.  He also continued to do work for Dell until that relationship ended in 1954 over disputes over reprinting the early Pogo stories from the comic books.  There were always plenty of side projects as well like illustrating books like John O’Reilly’s The Glob, a hugely popular children’s book about evolution.  He also set up annuals in which Pogo retold fairy tales, often in verse.
Kelly was an early and vocal critic of McCarthyism and skewered the senator himself in the form of a snarling, shotgun carrying bob cat named Simple J. Malarkey who was aided and abetted by Deacon Muscrat and a host of various minions.  But he also mocked doctrinaire Communists with a pair of cowbirds—a species of parasite birds who lay their eggs in other birds’ nests to be raised, fed and cared for by others.
He was very concerned about what he saw as the growing power of the right wing.  In 1957 he sharpened his critique in a book of original Pogo stories, The Jack Acid Society Black Book which also skewered the John Birch Society.
Kelly scattered his strips and books with snatches of poetry and songs.  The most famous was his annual Christmas carol Deck the Halls with Boston Charlie, a non-sense rhyme inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky.  He even recorded an album, Songs of the Pogo of the songs, singing in his own baritone voice.  He even wrote the music to 7 of the 30 songs.
In the tumultuous ‘60’s the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam War, and Nixon administration called for an even greater sharpening of Kelly’s satiric wit.  Famously, Vice President Spiro Agnew was portrayed as a bombastic bully of a Hyena decked out in the comic opera uniform with which Nixon tried to dress the White House Police.
Kelly was most passionate of all about the environment.  He had been advocating cleaning up pollution for years before Earth Day launched a movement.  In his most famous panel Pogo looked out over the waste over taking the swamp and declared, “We have met the enemy, and he is us!”
Despite the explosion of creativity, Kelly’s body was failing him as the ‘6o’s progressed.  His diabetes was taking a toll.  After he had a leg amputed, he had to take time off of drawing the strip, letting old strips re-run or writing the gags for assistants to draw.  Typically, Kelly vowed to an interview to come back stronger than ever, “as soon as I grow a new leg.” 
After a lingering illness, Kelly died in Woodland California on October 19, 1973.  He was only 60 years old.  Services were private and it is believed the family had his body cremated.  No burial spot has ever been confirmed.
Under the supervision of Kelly’s wife Sonia, the daily strip continued on until mid 1975 using gags and notes left by Kelly.  The Sunday strip went into reprints.  The syndicator wanted the family to name a permanent successor artist so the strip could continue, as many other popular strips outlasted their original creators.  Although some might be able to copy his drawing style, no one could match his writing.
Pogo books continue to be reprinted in various formats all snatched up eagerly by Kelly’s devoted fans.  They seem as fresh and topical today as when they were first printed.

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