Currently, I’m fighting with the yearly winter illness that finds me in the dark of the night. So, my brain may not be in the best shape for writing; stick with me. This week I’m reviewing Walt Kelly’s famous daily comic strip: Pogo. The volume I read was Volume 1 Through the Wild Blue Yonder. This collection was put together by, you guessed it, Fantagraphics. You KNOW how they do the Lord’s work. OK, let’s go!
This volume covers the daily strips from late 1948 to 1950. Before I dive into a review, it blows my mind how these guys could produce daily strips like this for years and years. And in the case of Walt Kelly, they were consistently good. A tip of that hat to you, Mr. Kelly.
The premise of Pogo is pretty simple: it’s about the day to day adventures of a cast of swamp characters, Pogo Possum being the lead. You also have Albert Alligator, Howland Owl, Churchy LaFemme (a turtle), and a revolving cast, including my favorite: Porky Pine. Porky is one of those great side characters that, to me, steal the show whenever he’s around.
I don’t know if I’ve ever said this about a comic before, but boy oh boy is Pogo charming. Kelly was able to create a cast of characters that were both fun and inviting. I think largely this is due to the characters being the southern genteel type. The swamp creatures, or perhaps more aptly called critters, are a fun bunch who possess that southern charm that makes readers smile. There are some negative stereotypes that go along with the south, but all characteristics are applied lovingly by Kelly with a wink and a nod. Another part of their charm is the simple lives these critters live. In the swamp it’s a lot of adventures, but it’s also a lot of fishing, laying about, and eating food. It’s a simple life that allows those of us, like myself, who have never been to the south, to relate to these characters. This might sound simple to some, but it is quite easy to distance your characters so much that they become unrelatable. This is, of course, all centered around Pogo Possum who is a moral compass that, for the most part, possesses a common sense that many of the other characters do not. Pogo Possum, I think, is the reader. Even though none of us are possums. Are you?
Let’s keep with the Southern thing for a minute. I think it’s very important to this comic. He was able to write in such perfect dialect that it gave added dimension to the characters. There would be times when they pronounce words in a southern accent and they were spelled out in a way that converted to a perfect sound in my mind. Then there would be times that he would add extra syllables or letters to give extra flavor to the accent, instead of it just being the same for everyone. There were many times ol’ Albert said “Horibobble” and Pogo said “Caterpiggle” (that being for caterpillar). It added a real sense of setting.
A lot of Kelly’s humor comes from language. Kelly used a lot of wordplay in his comics, which is something that comics are quite good for, because you can see the words. Kelly liked to use homophones. For example, when dealing with a bear with a shaved stomach, a character said “is that a bear stomach?” and another replied, “it’s certainly a bare stomach.” That’s not something you can get away with in all mediums, and maybe not even comics if you don’t do it right. But these kind of language jokes are found all throughout this volume. I was particularly pleased with this because I love word play, and think it’s a great strength of sequential comedy.
But for those of you less inclined to laugh at cleverly worded jokes, Kelly was able to craft humorous stories just as well. Whether it’s Albert pretending to be a woodland nymph or everyone thinking Owl was an egg again after being hit by the Fountain of Youth. He was able to create clever, fun, and quick stories to get you to laugh.
Kelly had strong art to match his writing, as well. His characters were all distinguished in some way, and I particularly liked the way he drew expressions. Especially on Porky Pine. He was able to relate how each character felt in every panel, which was very important because he had limited space with his few panels.
Kelly is able to fit a lot in that small space. I really enjoyed studying his panels. His backgrounds were, for the most part, full and detailed. In a humor comic strip, it’s easy to focus on the gag and do minimum effort on the background. But this wasn’t the case. Many of his panels were full of trees, water, rocks, and you know, whatever else you find in a swamp. But there was no Swamp Thing, sorry. He wasn’t around yet. And even when there was more characters and text than background, he was still able to use simple and majorly effective techniques to convey the setting of that day’s strip. Kelly told his stories clearly, and in the end, that’s the big goal of comics.
I should also mention that this issue came with the Sunday color editions, but I think I prefer them in black and white. The color looks pretty old, and I enjoyed seeing the techniques Kelly used to convey setting in black and white. It’s different in color, as I’m sure you know from my previous ramblings.
Speaking of ramblings, let’s call this a wrap! There are currently three volumes, with a fourth on the way, from Fantagraphics. If you can find it in your library, give it a read. These stories will have you chuckling and longing for ol’ Okefenokee Swamp.