I recently read that Berkeley Breathed is retiring his wonderful character, Opus, after almost 30 years of creating wonderful gentle satire of American culture and politics. Opus is part of a long tradition in comic strips of sharp political satire. From Al Capp and his comic strip Li’l Abner, to Gary Trudeau’s Doonesbury, to Aaron McGruder’s Boondocks, a few comic strips in each generation have taken on the politicians, celebrities, and wall street financiers that dominate the nation’s news. One of the first cartoonists to tackle political subjects in his work was Walt Kelly in his comic strip Pogo. It has the reputation of being one of the best comic strips to ever grace the news page.
Walt Kelly was born on August 25, 1913 in Philadelphia. He drew his first cartoons while he was in high school for the local Bridgeport Post. In 1936 Kelly moved to California and began work in Walt Disney studios, where he worked on the films Pinocchio, Fantasia, The Reluctant Dragon, and Dumbo. He left Disney studios during a bitter strike and moved to New York to work in the comic book industry. It was in a comic book in 1942 that Walt Kelly first introduced the world to his famous character, Pogo the Possum.
Pogo was a sweet possum with a southern accent who lived in the Okefenokee Swamp. He was the sane center in a growing cast of eccentric characters. It included Howland Owl; Churchy Le Femme the turtle; Beauregard Bugleboy the hound dog; and Porkypine the porcupine. They first appeared in the newspaper PM, an experimental left-wing newspaper in the 1940s that also included the political cartoons of Dr. Seuss and Crocket Johnson’s intellectual comic strip Barnaby (Johnson later authored the Harold and the Purple Crayon books). When the Post-Hall Syndicate picked up Pogo, it became a popular national comic, appearing in more than 500 newspapers.
Pogo became the most controversial comic strip of its day because Kelly was not afraid of injecting politics into his strip and tackling some of the most contentious issues of the nation. At the height of Joseph McCarthy’s popularity during the Red Scare of the early 1950s, Kelly created the McCarthy spoof Simple J. Malarkey, a mean bobcat who harassed the characters in Okefenokee Swamp. In 1962, Kelly depicted Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev as a boorish pig and Cuban dictator Fidel Castro as a goat, which caused a Japanese newspaper to drop the strip. Among the other figures that were spoofed by Walt Kelly were Bobby Kennedy, Eugene McCarthy, George Wallace, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, Spiro Agnew and J. Edgar Hoover.
Pogo had a great influence upon many future political cartoonists. Jules Feiffer, the political cartoonist of the Village Voice, said in an interview on the August 1988 issue of the Comics Journal:
“Kelly was just like a bolt of lightning to my perceptions. Beginning with his political cartoons in the New York Star, before I was even aware of Pogo. And then Pogo began in the Star and it really knocked me out. He also made me aware of the dangers of being brilliant six days a week with a Sunday page…”
I discovered Pogo while reading the book America’s Great Comic Strip Artists by Richard Marshall. The strips that I read are wonderfully clever and hilarious. Except for a few anthologies, however, I haven’t really had much of a chance to read more than a small sampling of this brilliant comic strip. I hope that eventually a publisher will take the time to publish a large collection of Pogo, to expose a new generation to the wit and wisdom of Walt Kelly’s legendary comic strip. It is the foundation from which Bloom County, Doonesbury, Boondocks and future political comic strips can build upon.