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#61 [Dec. 5th, 2008|09:57 am]

100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)

#61 POGO – Walt Kelly
(Post-Hall/Simon & Schuster)

“It is my firm legal opinion that A: he doesn’t know, B: either, or, C: else.”

Walt Kelly’s Pogo ran in newspapers and occasionally in comic-book form from the 1940s through to the 1970s, chronicling the lives of Pogo Possum and the rest of the animals living in the Okefenokee Swamp (one of those real names so perfect you couldn’t make it up), their misadventures affectionately parodying the foibles of everyday folk. Their dialogue is a mixture of hillbilly malapropisms and ignorant inventiveness. In swamp-speak everybody is everybody else’s uncle and new words are invented on the fly to suit the situation better than any real word could, especially where cussing is involved. Falling into the lake after an accident with a diving board made out of a rock on a plank, Albert Alligator cries, “Who took the slambangin’ rock off the dadwaggin’ froghoppin’ divin’ board so that it sprong at me and dumped me into the deep stabbin’ blue?” Looking on and bemoaning his guilt, Grizzle Bear wails, “What hath I dood? WHAT HATH I DOOD?

The human qualities of the animals – their greed, boastfulness, laziness and gluttony in particular – gave Kelly years of material, though he celebrated the last two just as often as he criticised them. Shirking work, tooling around the swamp in flat-bottomed boats and going fishing by taking a long nap with a fishing rod set up somewhere sort of nearby are shown to be the most commendable of activities. Even Albert’s consumption of the other animals’ food, and occasionally the other animals themselves, is never malicious. After swallowing a porcupine he agrees to unswallow the critter, though admittedly only after the porcupine in question threatens to back out, prickles extended.

The changing conventions of comics gave Kelly a lot of material to work with as well. When the swamp’s more nefarious characters team up to work on the crime of the century – stealing holes to sell to the Swiss so they can put them in their cheese – the Sunday strips take on all of the characteristics of crime comics. The balloons get wordier, to the point where they obstruct the characters’ view and they have to peer over them or push them up so they can see what is going on, and descriptive captions start appearing everywhere. Beauregard the hound dog and policeman, impersonating Dick Tracy, realises something is up when he finds a sign with “Meanwhile” written on it. Of course, something particularly nasty must be going on if it’s happening in meanwhiles.

As the years went on Kelly’s parodic focus broadened to include politicians as well as ordinary people. His most pointed humour was reserved for the likes of Senator Joseph McCarthy, portrayed as Simple J. Malarkey. Malarkey so offended one newspaper that they threatened to cancel the strip if his face appeared again, so Kelly covered it with speech balloons. President Richard Nixon, never seen and referred to only as ‘The Chief’ by his bulldog agents and information-gatherers, is portrayed a paranoiac who communicates via cryptic messages so secret not even he seems to understand the code. Along with Kelly’s love of nature and strips depicting the effects of pollution on the swamp, these political satires led to Pogo being appropriated as a symbol by hippies, but you can’t hold that against him.

The political specifics are unnecessary for enjoyment of the strips. When Okefenokee Swamp’s local representative, Congersman Frog, insists on being present at the opening of every facility including another diving board made with rock and plank, it’s funny whether Kelly had a particular self-aggrandising congressman in mind or was just having fun at the expense of a general type. Those ever-present diving boards are the perfect symbol of Pogo – as the thrown brick is to Krazy Kat, the wagon hurtling downhill to Calvin And Hobbes – simple and ingenious at the same time.