Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Pogo: Through the Wild Blue Wonder

It is a delight to be able to write this review.

When I was seven or eight years old, I was spending the night at my grandmother's house when I found a dog-eared copy of I Go Pogo, a collection of Walt Kelly's comic strips detailing the run for president by a possum from the Okefenokee Swamp. It turned my life upside down: I discovered that those funny strips in the Sunday paper—the only newspaper I had use for when I was that young—could be used to do something other than just make jokes. Those strips could be a real force for social commentary as well. Much later, when I could begin to appreciate such things, I saw that those strips could also hold within them some amazing artwork by some very talented artists. Pogo: Through the Wild Blue Wonder is a definitive example of both aspects of the best comic strips—both Kelly's social commentary and his lavish art are on display for both those who remember the old strip fondly and those who like the best of current strips but are interested in exploring their roots.

It's about time: these are the first words in the collection, and they couldn't be more true. This first volume of a planned 12-volume archive of every daily and Sunday strip of Pogo has been long-delayed; I first read about it becoming available some four or five years ago. One of the introductions describes the delay—the publishers struggled to find source material good enough from which to make clean reproductions. Eventually they did find them though, and the result is a book lovingly put together and annotated. Jimmy Breslin writes a short introduction that includes his best memories of creator Walt Kelly. Biographer Steve Thompson includes a longer introduction that offers a view into the life of Walt Kelly. And then the glorious strips begin.

From the very first panels, it's clear why Pogo is remembered so fondly and how it affected the writers of the best strips that followed: Breathed's Bloom County and sometimes Opus, Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes, and Smith's Bone. What readers generally remember best are the characters in a strip, and Pogo has a cast of hundreds. Pogo Possum himself and his friends Albert Alligator and Pork Q. Pine stand out best, but every character, whether they are named or show up for just a panel or so, is given a full personality and sometimes voice. Kelly also used dialect to humorous effect, using a bastardization of Deep South grammar and phraseology that is funny (sometimes hysterical) without being insulting. Particularly charming is the characters' habit of extending words, especially words ending in –ble with an extra syllable (or "syllabobble" as they would say it).

Also memorable are the situations that the characters find themselves in, reflecting Kelly's plotting and writing skill. Within the first few strips, lovable but dull Albert the Alligator has accidentally swallowed both a jar of swamp water and the tadpole within it that has been vouchsafed to Pogo for babysitting by Miz Frog (in the interest of full disclosure, in the course of this single volume, Albert swallows at least three critters accidentally and is accused of devouring another). By the fourth page, a worm who cannot be convinced to go into Albert's stomach to retrieve the lost tad hollers, "People don't swallow other people by accident!" Truer words probably have never been written in a comic panel, and they provide a clear maxim for how to live one's life. The efforts to retrieve the tadpole are excruciatingly funny and perhaps utterly annoying to other people in the room who want to know what it is you are laughing so hard at (the impulse here to repeat jokes and plotlines is very strong—must be strong…).

Pogo: Through the Wild Blue Wonder also includes the Sunday strips with a valuable introduction by Mark Evanier that describes the differences between producing a daily strip and a Sunday strip. Kelly and other creators had to face the challenge of different papers requiring different formats with only one strip. And so, the first row of panels could be thrown away by individual newspapers, and the writer to ensure that that row would be both entertaining but not crucial to the plotline of the strip. Similarly, the middle panel of the middle row was often deleted by newspapers that broke the strip down into more into fewer panels per row. This "knockout panel" also had to remain valuable to the readers who got it but not be crucial to the storytelling since it would often be missing. With this information in hand, the reader can peruse the strips themselves to see how a writer could handle such an onerous structure and then find themselves suddenly lost in an Okefenokee Swamp richly colored. While the daily panels exhibit mastery of black and white artistry, Kelly used the Sunday strips to experiment with color. Generally speaking, those experiments were tremendously successful, and the strips included are lavish and require more than a quick read-through to appreciate.

Also included in this volume is the short-lived first run of Pogo in an independent paper, The New York Star. Pogo had been published as a comic book for a while, but The New York Star was where it was first attempted as a daily strip. Modern readers can see the gradual evolution of the look of the characters (especially Pork Q. Pine) and also see where gags and jokes were first attempted and then expanded in the syndicated run that is included in the first half of this volume. When The New York Star went out of business, Kelly sought and found syndication and began writing the strips that make up the majority of this dense book.

And finally, R. C. Harvey provides an invaluable commentary about the cultural references in the strips. Recognizing that readers may not be aware of the minutiae of American culture from the 40s and 50s, and that even those who lived through I may have forgotten, Harvey talks about what Pogo and his friends are talking about—the allusions and references that Kelly used in his strip. These details add a deeper dimension to the already delightful work that is collected.

Pogo: Through the Wild Blue Wonder is a reminder of the power of a dying American art form. Pogo itself has had lasting ramifications on American culture, both through its influence on those that followed—comic strips and other forms of entertainment (Pixar movies anyone?)—and directly as it affected the dialogue of the United States ("We have met the enemy and he is us"). But most important of all, Pogo: Through the Wild Blue Wonder, is deeply and heartachingly funny, a reflection of what we sometimes perceive as a simpler time while reminding us that it was more complex than we perhaps remember or know. To any fan of comics, any fan of animation, any fan of American comedy, any fan of gorgeous art or deft writing, any student of cultural studies, I cannot recommend this book enough. This book should be a cornerstone of many many libraries.

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