What is the point, a sensible fellow might ask, of writing about
Walt Kelly, who
a) was American,
b) died in 1973, and
c) was never
published in Britain?
To which I reply, "Just so. Exactly. An excellent
point", and proceed to celebrate, as common-sense would decree, the
admirabobble Walt, a genius sadly missed.
If you appreciate the poetic force of the phrase "Mumph Quomis",
uttered by an owl with his head in a bucket, or "Rowr" as a lunging bear's
expression of wild rage, or the protest of a pig that "You can't call me a pig
just because I'm a pig," or "We have seen the enemy and he is us" as the title
of a comic book, then you will realise that the only acceptable response to a
Presidential election is the slogan "I Go Pogo." At the instigation of the poet
Carl Sandburg badges to this effect were issued on suitable occasions. How
edifying if they were available now!
Several Presidential elections stumble loudly by as Pogo Possum
and his friends further their mission of awakening citizens to the joys of
life. Walt's response is always apposite. At one election the denizens
participate by conscripting a very tiny bug as candidate. He is a mere boy bug
with whiskery protuberances adorning his headbone and large winning orbs. His
name is Freemount. The only phrase he ever utters is "jus' fine." It proves to
be an effective answer to any political question. Indeed, "What more do you
want?" says his Mum.
Pogo Possum explains the bug's candidacy to the lugubrious Porky
Pine "His Ma and his Auntie got the idea. They's the only residents of Fort
Mudge now, an' a sample poll of the place give him three votes and nothin' for
nobody else." "That," Pogo adds, "is a clear-cut trend."
And so, in due course, P.T. Bridgeport, a circus entrepreneur of
grotesque incompetence, and his assistant, an unemployed Tiger, become the
bug's campaign managers, and headlines such as "Jes' fine, says Bug" appear in
the Press. Need I say more?
More is certainly said, done, and carefully expounded,
particularly by Albert the Alligator, a target-shooter of enviable inaccuracy,
who works out as a plus point for Freemount that "When the opposition calls our
man a beetle it'll be a compliment." (Albert, incidentally, is famous for
attempting to imitate the sound made by a cricket by rubbing his legs together,
achieving only an ignominious "Scritch!") At the end of this moving account of
the bug's election campaign Pogo remarks to Porky Pine:
"One thing fills me
with confidence for the country's future."
"None of us will get
"It is comfortin'"
Pogo should know. On one occasion he was the candidate himself.
He went to sleep under a tree.
I gallop too fast into the complexities of life in
the Okefenokee Swamp.
The collection of bugs, beasts, birds, bats and
only-too-human reflections who inhabit the place are not self-inventing but
leap in and out of the head of Walt Kelly himself, who claimed to be from birth
"a clean-eyed youth of honest Scotch-Irish-English-French-Austrian blood", who
received his education at Warren Harding High School in Bridgeport,
Connecticut, where he ignored learning and drew comic pictures.
working for a time as a reporter he sneaked a job with the Disney Corporation
drawing mice, which wearied him. He left.
During the Second World War he
laboured in the Forces Language Unit and on release was employed as a
cartoonist by an infant newspaper. The New York Star, which vanished after a
year. But during that time he had acquainted the world with Pogo and his
When the paper collapsed Walt held on to Pogo and offered his
services here, there and the other place. Eventually Bob Hall, President of the
Hall Syndicate, told him "I read your Pogo strip and it's funny. When do you
start?" He started, continued, expanded, uplifted, debagged, inspirited for
many sad and merry years, and died in 1973.
His tales of the guileless, trusting Pogo; Howland Owl the
stupid sage; Albert the see-gar chewing, sponging, extravagantly histrionic
alligator, Churchy La Femme the ineptly quarrelsome turtle, the three gambling
bats (one says "Ding it! We looks so alike I cheated myself into a bad hand");
the useless Congersman Frog, the Faithful and gallumphing Hound Dog, and the
rest, are witty, moral, and full of the totally unexpected, which notions and
topics rose up in Walt like geysers in Iceland.
Politics enter through a glass darkly.
In the 1950s the
swamp is haunted by the sinister Simple J. Malarky who is the spitting image of
Senator Joe McCarthy, at that time accusing everything that moved of being a
Communist spy and getting it sacked, banned or imprisoned. There is a J.Edgar
Hoover beast who employs a tiny spider to pose as an asterisk * so that the
meaning of any Press utterance can be altered at will. Spiro Agnew appears at
one point in the guise of a stripe-shirted hyena. Lyndon Johnson gallops aboard
as a Texas longhorn with a bulbous nose.
When a guiltless Albert is tried for the murder of a puppy dog,
which in the middle of the trial emerges unscathed from a cupboard, Malarky
McCarthy comes shouting onto the scene: "Is I hear right? Isn't nobody guilty
of Nothin'? What kind of trial you call that?"
Reading Pogo causes the thought to arise in the mind even of
innocent readers "Good grief, that's just like me!" When Albert, losing at
chess, upsets the board, crying "Earthquake! Earthquake!" I feel a qualm.
And what about the perennially gloomy Porky Pine who grumbles that he's
glad he pricks himself in bed because he deserves it?
There's too much to be said about Walt and his entourage so I
won't say it.
All the same, as I refrain from telling any of his tales,
The inhabitants of the swamp are disturbed by unmentionable
pollutions of the place (including one of Pogo's towels and Albert's
unmentionables) to which the responses "Urg! Gloog! Org!" and "Gack!" seem
inadequate. Churchy, a logical thinker, works out that a major atmospheric
blight is caused by the habit of breathing, and if people refrained from
committing this crime, the problem would be solved. He is surprised and hurt
when the three bats seem reluctant to try the experiment under his supervision.
They are quite willing, though, to campaign for volunteers.
I leave you with this response given by a bug when challenged to
a duel, and asked to choose its weapons: 'See-gars at forty paces.'
could be more reasonable?
I Go Pogo.
* or is he a comma? I studiously forget.