Illustrator Walt Kelly Creates Political Controversy with Pogo

The first volume of Walt Kelly’s newspaper comic Pogo became available at bookstores and online last December. Pogo: Through the Wild Blue Wonder follows Pogo Possum and his friends of Okefenokee Swamp in their first years of publication in 1948 through 1950.

The main character, Pogo Possum, plays one of the few voices of reason in the swamp, though many characters tend to ignore his advice. Pogo, like most of the creatures at the swamp, is not educated, but he does possess a good bit of common sense.

He is joined by characters like Albert, a cigar-smoking alligator, Churchy La Femme, a poetic and dramatic turtle, Howland Owl, an owl who thinks he knows more than he really does, and Porky Pine, a porcupine whose disposition is as prickly as himself. I would exceed my maximum word count for this article if I were to mention all the characters that inhabit Okefenokee Swamp.

One of the many aspects that got Walt Kelly’s work noticed was the art style. It was not uncommon for his colored Sunday page to include pink grass or purple trees. While other newspapers and artists cut corners by using cheap paper and muted colors, Kelly refused to degrade his work. Kelly did the color guides for each comic himself instead of handing the job off to an assistant. His dedicated hands-on approach is what set him apart from other comic artists at the time.

One of my favorite parts of the comic is the country dialect most of the swamp creatures possess. Albert doesn’t smoke cigars, he smokes seegars. Writing out the word in the way the character pronounces the word breathes life into the character. Other characters speak in a font different than the other characters. Deacon Mushrat’s speech is written in a fancy gothic text to show his stuffy and formal attitude.

Although it was not seen too often in the comic’s beginning, Pogo became famous for its political commentary. Kelly would sometimes insert characters into the comic who were caricatures of famous politicians at the time. A plotline in the summer of 1950 included a caricature of Colonel Robert McCormick, who served as colonel in World War I despite his lack of knowledge in the field, playing an unidentifiable creature. It also included a pig that served as a caricature of William Randolph Hearst, who was chief war monger during the Spanish-American War.

Pogo the comic book uses a unique array of animal characters and colorful imagery to convey to readers important topics.

Kelly began his career in art by illustrating for his high school newspaper and yearbook. After working with on the Bridgeport Post providing illustrations, he began working for Disney in early 1936, where he helped animate films and shorts, including Dumbo, Pinocchio and Fantasia. Pogo began publication in The New York Star in 1948 until the Star went under in early 1949. Pogo was quickly picked up and published in the newspaper in May 1949 and continued to run even after Kelly’s death in 1973.

Pogo: Through the Wild Blue Wonder includes Monday through Saturday strips from its beginning on May 16, 1949 through 1950, as well as the colored Sunday strips. It also includes the comics written in The New York Star until its demise. This is the first of a predicted 12 volumes of Pogo Possum, a simple swamp critter from Okefenokee swamp.

John Koniszewski can be reached at john.konizewski@spartans.ut.edu.

1 comment

  1. Hi Sweetheart – As I told you, my sisters and I as well as my mom, were given nicknames by my father either from or based on the Pogo comic. As editions of the Pogo comic are published, you will have to let me know if you come across any of them – Moomhadie (Mom), Mooshoepastafasa (Me), Schambone (Jill), Struddleluderal (Sue) and Razzlerbazzler (Ann). I am spelling strictly phonetically as who knows how these were originally spelled!
    Love, Mom


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