A commenter on MGK’s requests post asked for something about Walt Kelly’s Pogo, and while I’m not MGK, I thought I’d take a stab at it. Pogo is sort of in limbo at the moment in terms of availability; Fantagraphics was supposed to have year-by-year Peanuts-style collections ready over a year ago, they have still not been able to release a single volume. (The problem initially was that while the daily strips are available, many of the Sunday strips haven’t been tracked down in book-quality versions. Now it appears there may also be some other issues holding it up as well.) Earlier collections of daily strips are now out of print. So while there’s quite a bit of Walt Kelly online — Doug Gray has some of his comic book stories, and there’s a blog that offers regular doses of Kelly art — book-length reprints are really needed to appreciate what a comic strip does. Particularly a strip like Pogo, which dealt in continuing storylines that could last for months.
While waiting, I decided to and write a bit about a famous Pogo storyline from 1953, which was reprinted in a now out-of-print book (“Phi Beta Pogo”) and has been available online off and on. This is the “Simple J. Malarkey” storyline, the key moment in Pogo‘s transformation from a lightly satirical funny-animal strip to a subject of political controversy — sort of like Captain America.
You can read the story by clicking here. There are four daily strips to a page; click on a thumbnail to read the page. It’s a long story, so for those wanting to skip to the entrance of Malarkey, he first appears at the bottom of page 14.
For newcomers to Pogo, here’s an even-shorter-than-Wikipedia guide to what you need to know: it takes place in the Okeefenokee Swamp, features a bunch of cartoon animals who talk in a pidgin Southern dialect invented by Kelly, and the main characters include Pogo Possum (the everyman), Albert the Alligator (Pogo’s cigar-chomping, blustering, not-too-bright friend), Howland Owl (the pseudo-intellectual), Churchy La Femme the Turtle (a happy idiot who likes singing and hanging out with the Owl), Porkypine (the perpetually depressed, but wise and good-hearted porcupine), Beauregard (the pretentious dog) and Deacon Mushrat (the pious hypocrite who tries to meddle in everyone’s business and talks in Olde English letters).
The storyline begins when the Deacon brings in a friend of his, Mole McAroney, a nearsighted, shifty-looking fellow with no mouth. Mole is a parody of nativist politicians of the era, constantly talking about what is and isn’t a “real American” (“Wacca Pilatka was not a true American name, being mostly Seminole”), and has been brought in to act as a border guard, ridding the swamp of “migratory birds.” He immediately identifies the Owl as a migratory bird and tells him to leave the swamp, and then begins identifying everyone else as a bird and telling them to leave.
The Deacon goes along with the Mole’s plan to drive Owl out of the swamp because he wants to take over Owl’s TV station (actually just a mirror with the glass removed, where everyone plays at being on TV). In the quest to rid the swamp of undesirable birds, Mole is aided by Kelly’s local Communist characters, the Cowbirds — Kelly’s version of a common liberal theme in the early ’50s, which was that Communist-hunting actually played into the hands of the Communists by ripping America apart.
At the height of the “bird-watching” frenzy set off by the arrival of the Mole, the Deacon and Mole bring in a new addition to their bird-watcher’s club, Simple J. Malarkey. This is what set off the frenzy of controversy in the newspapers of the era, though — perhaps figuring that he didn’t want to get too preachy — Kelly actually lessened the political content soon after Malarkey entered the strip. A week or two after he came in, the focus mostly shifted to comedy (including Albert and Beauregard trying to infiltrate the bird-watchers’ club by pretending to be characters from Little Orphan Annie) and suspense (the Mole and Malarkey turn on each other and try to kill each other). But think of how it must have looked in 1953: a character in a comic strip — a funny-animal comic strip created by an ex-Disney animator — based on Senator Joseph McCarthy. We’re not talking about McCarthy after his downfall, either. He had just been re-elected the year before. And here he was in the funnies as a dangerous power-grabbing, Constitution-shredding lunatic. There were all kinds of different reasons why a newspaper might have dropped the strip over something like this, and this was all in the context of a strip that had only started a few years earlier (1948) and was not in the top tier when it came to popularity; dropping Pogo might not have been a wrenching decision for a lot of newspaper editors. But he got by with it and the strip’s popularity increased as the decade went on, in large part because Pogo‘s fanbase was unusually passionate and dedicated and (last but probably not least as far as advertisers were concerned) young.
One thing that keeps the story from going all preachy at the point of Malarkey’s appearance is that Kelly shifts the focus a bit. He’s already done enough, in the Mole storyline, about the threat that the political climate poses to ordinary people. Once Malarkey enters, he mostly does damage to the other bad guys, kicking the Deacon out of the club and forcibly making himself the President, and finally becoming involved in a battle to the death with the Mole. It’s a political theme still, and a relevant one: once you let crazy, power-mad people speak for you, they will destroy you. But it also works as a comedy-adventure story, culminating in one of the most chilling panels ever drawn in comics: Malarkey, who has been dunked in tar (so that only his eyes are visible) appearing in the background with an axe when he discovers that the Mole is out of bullets.
The other thing that keeps the strip from collapsing under all the politics — the way some of Kelly’s later storylines would — is that the basic qualities of the strip are still intact. What Kelly brought to the table above all were his gift for elaborate wordplay (his strips often have such word-filled balloons, and so many throwaway jokes, that you have to read them several times to get them all) and his Disney-schooled drawing: he had the most expressive, cartoony poses and beautiful landscapes on the newspaper page. That’s all there in this story, and the most political turns in the plot are still accompanied by lots of puns, asides and mutterings — many of them from the “Bat Brothers,” three bats Kelly introduced as a sort of resident Vaudeville team. The other great thing is that the focus is still on the main characters, who all act like themselves and get to do what they usually do: Albert gets angry, Owl bows to authority even if he doesn’t understand it, Churchy sings silly songs, Porkypine dispenses wisdom (“A door closes on two sides,” he tells the immigrant-hating Mole, “remember that”), and Pogo is there to sum up Kelly’s basically good-natured philosophy about what to do when confronted with assholes like the Mole and Malarkey: