Okefenokee Swamp, February 1951: An alligator accuses an owl of treason for suggesting that English is the language of the "Uninety States." "Englishmens is foreigners, isn't they? Is you a spy? … Boy like you could get hisself investigated frontwise, sideways and hindsight!" The owl protests, "I is not now and never is been a member of the human race!"
If the funny pages seemed an unlikely platform for anti-anticommunist propaganda, no one told Albert Alligator, Howland Owl, their possum friend Pogo or the rest of the funny animals who satirized the House Committee on Un-American Activities and, later, McCarthyism in the panels of Walt Kelly's "Pogo."
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The strips from 1951-52 collected in Fantagraphics' second volume of "Pogo" are where Kelly's political satire begins to bite. In 1952, Pogo stood as a reluctant presidential candidate, his campaign slogan (not that he campaigned) "I Go Pogo," a parody of "I Like Ike." In 1953, Kelly would take on McCarthy directly, caricaturing him as the wildcat Simple J. Malarkey. When a Providence newspaper threatened to drop the strip if Malarkey appeared again, Kelly began to draw the character with a bag over his head — which, not coincidentally, made him resemble a hooded Klansman.
As brilliant as Kelly's political satire is, it's only one reason "Pogo" might be the greatest comic strip of all time (its only rivals are "Krazy Kat" and "Peanuts," both of which Fantagraphics has also been reprinting in gorgeously designed editions). There's Kelly's superb line work, which I, no art critic, can review only by pointing at the book and saying "Look at this! Look at this!" This volume, "Pogo: Bona Fide Balderdash," reproduces the Sunday strips in full color for the first time, and they look magnificent.
Most of all, there's the mulligan stew of Kelly's language. Like George Herriman in "Krazy Kat," Kelly endows his creations with the gift of accidental and hilarious eloquence, a babble of spoonerisms, dialect and pseudo-literary glop (and, on occasion, German and Latin). "I'll bresh you up on federal lore," Howland Owl, self-appointed "perfessor" of the swamp, says to guileless Pogo Possum:
First off, they has been 48 presidents an' that's how come they's 48 stripes in the Union Jack. The 13 stars is a symbol of luck an' comes from Shakespere's "Lucus a Non Lucendo," in which I sang the part of ol' Non Lucendo (hisself) an' guv out the aria "Thank Your Lucky Stars." Keep this all in mind — it may come to the aid of your repartee.
This play on the rhetorical figure lucus a non lucendo works on many levels. Latin for "a grove is called a lucus because there is no shining there," the phrase is a term for a paradoxical or nonsensical explanation (lucus, a dark grove, was supposed to have been derived from lucere, meaning "to shine"), such as the one Owl has just given. It also encodes the idea of absurd etymology, since lucus does not derive from lucere, just as none of the facets of the flag, which Owl anyway misidentifies, derive from the origins he cites. And of course Shakespeare has nothing to do with it.
Kelly's whiz-bang hypertextuality gives much of his humor great richness, but it's hardly necessary to be a grammarian to appreciate the jokes (this book must contain the largest number of puns on "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too" ever assembled in one place). The blustery, cigar-chomping Albert, who can neither read nor write, gets involved in an ill-advised poetry-writing contest with a worm (the worm's first entry is a word balloon with no words in it; "Blank verse?" Pogo guesses). Albert and Beauregard the hound dog puzzle over a rhyming dictionary. Albert reads from it the words "rat, cat, bat, sat, fat, chat, hat, mat," printed upside-down. "Sounds mighty foreign to me," muses Beauregard. "Hot dog! You means I is been readin' a foreign tongue?" Ol' Hound replies: "No, wait! They is mere printed the book upside down!" He flips Albert over so he's hanging by his tail from a tree branch. "How is she now?" They have, of course, been holding the book upside down.
Kelly's cast of characters is Tolstoyan. A tiger is introduced to the swamp, principally to enable Tammany Hall jokes (Kelly often tips his pen to his great cartoonist forebears — which reminds me of a "four bears" joke reprinted here). The gruff misanthrope Porky Pine is the most moving of the swamp creatures, his insistence that he likes nobody, even himself, inevitably undermined by his genuine kindness. Every Christmas he brings Pogo a present — waking him at 4 a.m. so his uncharacteristic gesture won't be observed by others — then becomes embarrassed by Pogo's gratitude. There are dozens more regulars and hundreds of walk-ons.
But at the center of the maelstrom is a little possum named Pogo. Robert Warshow wrote that "'Krazy Kat' is about a cat who gets hit on the head with bricks." "Pogo" is about a well-meaning every-possum who gets roped into inane shenanigans. Kelly described Pogo as "the reasonable, patient, softhearted, naive, friendly person we all think we are." While Pogo's friends and neighbors expose the folly of thinking we possess those traits, Pogo simply embodies them. In sequences that Bill Watterson would learn from, Pogo leans and loafs at his ease, snoozing against a fallen log or fishing or drifting lazily down the river on a wooden raft.
Kelly's wonderland, like Lewis Carroll's, is a place of deep humor and concomitantly deep pain — a mixture of childhood and adulthood. It's a place where poetry arises casually, as part of dailiness. An argument between Turtle and Owl about whether it's spring yet — Ol' Groun'hog is consulted about his shadow, but he's trying to sneak back into his den without alerting his wife — ends with the question, as usual, unsettled. Pogo reclines against a rock in his accustomed posture and says to Tammananny Tiger, "Winter's always the first sign of spring anyways." Out of the mouth of possums.
Michael Robbins is the author of "Alien vs. Predator."
Pogo: Bona Fide Balderdash
By Walt Kelly, Fantagraphics, 338 pages, $39.99Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times