Know Thy History: Pogo
Not many newspaper funnies characters have a.) campaigned for president in the real world (and not the in-universe cartoon world), and b.) actually started a student riot. I know what you’re saying. “El Santo, you silly goose. Garfield the cat and Garfield the president were two different characters! And that lasagna-inspired student riot in 1873 was totally unrelated.”
But see, I’m not talking about Garfield. I’m talking about Walt Kelly’s Pogo.
These days, webcomic creators trying to drum up business by emblazoning T-shirts with catchphrases. For Walt Kelly, that would’ve been kid’s play. His marketing tactics were far more ambitious. Such as, say, using the 1952 American presidential elections to sell books. In those days, the candidate to beat was Dwight Eisenhower. His infamous slogan — “I Like Ike” — was printed on a ton of buttons.
Kelly followed in kind. He launched a button of his own with the phrase “I Go Pogo.” The publicity stunt was a huge success. (Hey, kids, if you think that your generation invented irony, this is what your grandparents were wearing on their jackets.) Papers gave out 2 million Pogo buttons. Kelly hit the bookstores and campuses, selling books and urging people to vote. He sold 100,000 Pogo books.
Things went a little off the rails when Kelly made a stop at Harvard, though. In an incident that somehow wasn’t written by Dan Harmon, an “I Go Pogo” rally turned into a full blown student riot. The cause? A delayed flight that prevented Kelly from showing time, and 1,600 restless students.
Even when Kelly finally did show up, his speech was interrupted by students racing each other on pogo sticks. The entire riot was masterminded by the editor of the school newspaper (The Harvard Crimson), Laurence D. Salvadore. In a rather Jeff-Winger-esque description, he is recalled as wearing “silk chartreuse socks” and his success with the ladies. Salvadore apparently picked up Kelly, but decided to hang out with him at a nearby bar, fully intending to cause the absence that would escalate things to riot levels. It’s kind of insane that the plan actually worked. Hey, remember the days when cartoonists were such rock stars that people would cause public disturbances if they didn’t show up?
Sorta makes multiple episodes about blanket forts seem tame and believable by comparison.
So what was it about Pogo that made students want to riot? At a glance, it seems like such an innocuous comic. It’s set in a world populated by sweet-looking funny animals straight out of a children’s book. Maybe he did. Pogo and fellow comic strip staple Albert the Alligator debuted in Dell’s Animal Comics back in 1941. While there was a human kid named Bumbazine in early comics, Kelly populated his world with anthropomorphic characters. He felt that he couldn’t get the same amount of emotional range with human characters: “…you can do more with animals. They don’t hurt as easily, and it’s possible to make them more believable in an exaggerated pose.”
There you go, furry artists. Walt Kelly has got your back. And I’m not even kidding. Kelly is the guy behind sexy lady skunk Miz Ma’m’selle Hepzibah. Who was modeled after Kelly’s mistress (who he later married).
The world of Pogo takes place in the listless Okefenokee Swamp — located in the American South. It was the sort of world filled with Spanish moss dripping from the branches of cypress trees. Pogo could often be found cozily paddling a little boat through the swamp waters or lounging around with a fishing pole. Other characters would often be shown in various states of leisure. Okefenokee Swamp was all about slowing your roll.
Pogo‘s cast would grow tremendously over the years: one estimate puts the number of characters at over 1,000. They each represented a different aspect of human nature. Pogo was earnest. Albert was egotistical. Howland Owl was intelligent and a little arrogant. Churchy La Femme, the resident turtle, was superstitious. Porky Pine was a cynic with a heart of gold.
They spoke with a poetic, rural language crafted by Walt Kelly. Kelly was born in Philadelphia and lived his early life in Bridgeport, Connecticut. But he fell in love with the languid sentence structure of rural denizens (in much the same way that Al Capp did, I assume). The characters would speak in twisty dialogue, molding grammar to their own ends and creating words of their own. (Full disclosure: when I was a kid reading Pogo, this sort of dialogue made me very, very sleepy.)
It seems like such an innocent comic for college kids to become obsessed with. Beneath that kid-friendly veneer, though, was the beating heart of political satire.
Kelly coyly claimed that he was against “the extreme Right, the extreme Left, and the extreme Middle”. Honestly, though … he wasn’t really. Kelly’s political leanings were pretty obvious by even even a cursory reading the strip. However, there were some people that thought the strip was ambiguous. Namely, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. He was convinced that Kelly was encrypting subversive messages in the strip. He actually assigned a team of cryptographers to analyze the lettering, the word emphasis, etc.
I think he could’ve saved time and taxpayer money by focusing less on the “subtext” and more on the “text.”
For example, there was Simple J. Malarkey. He’s brought in when Deacon Mushrat and Mole McAroney, two characters with highly nativist leanings, are trying to rid the swamp of migratory birds. The Deacon and Mole bring a third character into their fold, a wildcat who is a pretty transparent parody of Senator Joe McCarthy. (This was while McCarthy was still in office, before he was disgraced for spreading paranoia about the Red Scare.) This didn’t go unnoticed by newspapers: The Providence Bulletin took offense and they threatened to drop the strip if Malarkey showed his face again. So, rather cheekily, Malarkey would appear next with a bag over his head.
In the 1960’s, Kelly would focus his mockery at the conservative Jack Birch Society with his story about “The Jack Acid Society“. (The name of the group was a pun on “jackasses.”) The storyline was one of the longest running in Pogo‘s history. Kelly was less coy about his politics this time; the Jack Acids were guys dressed in Nazi gear spreading fear in the name of stamping out Anti-Americanism. Needless to say, the comic gained a reputation for being controversial. Some papers would eventually drop the strip. Others banished it to the editorial page. Kelly came to a pretty creative solution to sidestep some political powderkegs: whenever he ran a controversial storyline, he would also write a “Fluffy Bunny” cartoon that jittery papers could run in its place.
These days, Pogo is probably best known for the phrase, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” The phrase first appeared on a poster that Kelly drew for the first Earth Day in 1970. It’s a twist from a famous battle cry (“We have met the any and he is ours”) that bears a simple message about environmental responsibility.
Of course, when I was a kid all this stuff went over my head. Well, not really. You’d have to be pretty dense to not pick up on Walt Kelly’s sometimes preachy political messages. I was enamored, though, by the art. Walt Kelly was a former Disney animator, and his skill at bringing funny animals to life shows. The characters, all unique and beautifully designed, are drawn with a tangible sense of movement and possess a deep range of expressions.
The comic went on running even after Kelly had succumbed to complications from diabetes in 1973. It was continued a few years by Kelly’s widow and son until finally coming to an end in 1975. While the title was resurrected in 1989 under Larry Doyle and Neal Sternecky, this iteration of Pogo didn’t last very long.
Ultimately, Pogo’s influence was far reaching. It was the inspiration for cartoonists like Bill Watterson, Gary Trudeau, and Jeff Smith. Kelly was also a strong influence on Jim Henson, who based some early designs on Kelly drawings. It also inspired more than a thousand college students at Harvard. Those students never forgot the little possum who ran for president and started a riot: the Harvard class of ’52 adopted Pogo as their official mascot.
Want more Pogo? Check out the excellent Whirled of Kelly blog.