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Jim Vadeboncoeur Jr
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Walt Kelly - signature

Walt Kelly - photoWalt Kelly's most famous creation is "Pogo" and his most famous phrase is "We have met the enemy and he is us," a rallying cry for a generation of conservationists.

Walt Kelly - Disney sketcth

He was born in 1913 and his father believed that humans were "bad at talking, bad at remembering language, and bad at spelling; but we are just great at remembering pictures." One can imagine this having a lasting impression on young Walt. From 1935 to 1941, he worked for another famous Walt - Walt Disney. He was a story man and animator with credits on Pinocchio, Dumbo and Fantasia. He was also quick with a pencil and an accomplished letterer, as shown in a bullpen gag above right.

Walt Kelly - Pogo & Albert 1944Walt Kelly - Human in PogoDuring 1935 and 1936, his work also appeared in the fledgling comic book medium working for the company that was to become DC Comics. However, it was in Dell's Animal Comics that Pogo was born in 1941. He was just a featured player in the "Albert the Alligator" strip, but assumed a larger, then starring role within a few years. The panel above left, from issue #9 (June-July 1944), shows the early use of a Kelly trademark, the boat with a name on the side. He would use this technique to salute friends throughout his career. The panel above right, also from the same issue, shows the early usage of human characters, a notion that was abandoned by the time the strip moved from the comic books to the comic pages of the newspapers.

Walt Kelly - Fairy Tale Parade Franklin Booth imitationKelly's work during the 1940's appeared only in comics published by Dell. Along with Animal Comics, he can be found in Fairy Tale Parade and the wonderful Mother Goose Christmas and Easter specials. The most amazing images I've found in his early work show a totally unexpected influence: Franklin Booth! As difficult as that is to believe, there is no denying the antecedents of the image at left. This was inside front cover for Fairy Tale Parade #5 (Feb-Mar 1943) and there was a similar image inside the rear cover. Other, more recognizable influences were Percy Crosby, animated cartoons, and the often overlooked Dan Noonan. The issues of these comics from the early 1940's are treasure troves of cartooning at its finest.

In 1947, he brought his talent to the book world with the Complete Nursery Song Book and in 1948 "Pogo" began to appear in the New York Star, for whom Kelly served as Art Director and Political Cartoonist. The Star existed only from June 23, 1948 to Jan. 28, 1949 and had a peak circulation of 150,000 in New York and Philadelphia. The "Pogo" strip began Oct. 4. The very first strip is shown below (from The Okefenokee Star #1, Spring 1977) and even features a prototype Churchy La Femme.

Walt Kelly - First Pogo newspaper strip

Walt Kelly - Strong Cigars and Lovely WomenWalt Kelly - The GlobBy 1952, Kelly and Pogo were well established. In 1951, he'd illustrated Strong Cigars and Lovely Women, a collection of humorous essays by John Lardner. The first in a long series of reprint books was also released in 1951. It was titled, Pogo and it was followed by I Go Pogo in 1952, The Pogo Papers in 1953, etc, beginning a string of reprints that would continue into the 1970's. 1952 also saw the release of John O'Reilly's The Glob with drawings by Walt. The book was so popular that it was reprinted before it was published. Kelly got to draw cavemen and dinosaurs and saber-tooth tigers and all kinds of wild folks and flora. In 1953, he started a parallel series of annuals featuring reprints of the Sunday strip and new material. With titles likeWalt Kelly - Uncle Pogo So-So Stories Uncle Pogo's So-So Stories and Pogo Stepmother Goose, these hearkened back to the Mother Goose Christmas and Easter specials from Dell Comics. I'm sure that the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show writers were exposed to these as they display a similar nonsensical appeal with their Fractured Fairy Tales.

Walt Kelly - Jack Acid Society Black BookBut Kelly was much more than nonsense and cute li'l animals. What made him extra special was his fearless attacks on political figures that abused their powers. In titles like The Jack Acid Society Black Book, he skewers the McCarthy-ites and their witch hunts. (Note in the two panels at left that the Deacon's speech lettering echoes the early Disney cartoon above.) This was followed in 1966 by my favorite, The Pogo Poop Book, loaded with original material and even featuring a beautiful story, Mouse Into Elephant, done in pencil (featuring a mouse named Gnot-Even - if you had ever wondered where that came from).


Walt Kelly - We Have Met the EnemyWalt Kelly - Pogo Poop BookThe third book in this vein, though by no means solely devoted to it, is the aforementioned We Have Met the Enemy and He is Us, with cover caricatures of the infamous trio of Hoover, Mitchell and Agnew, as shown at left. The Sixties and early Seventies (Kelly died in 1973) was a period of political struggle and polarization in this country. Kelly wore his politics on his strip and was often criticized and censored by more conservative newspapers. He didn't care. He was prepared to lose newspapers rather than his principles. Sometimes the "Pogo" strip would be more biting than the editorial cartoons, but somehow Kelly always managed to insert a joke or an insightful turn of a phrase at the end of each strip. His pen and wit were sharp and I think history has proven them to be dead on target. He is missed.


References

To find out more about Walt Kelly, see:

Five Boyhoods Martin Levin, ed., 1962 Doubleday & Co.
The Who's Who of American Comic Books Jerry Bails & Hames Ware, 1973 and 1997
The Okefenokee Star Swamp Yankee Studios, 1977-1982
The Vadeboncoeur Collection of Knowldege Jim Vadeboncoeur, Jr. 1998

Illustrations copyright by their respective owners.
This page written, designed & © 1998 by Jim Vadeboncoeur, Jr. Updated 2011.

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