Thursday, March 06, 2008

I’d Rather Go Pogo

Walt Kelly's Our Gang
, Volume 1 & Volume 2, by Walt Kelly, Fantagraphics, 2006-07

My first introduction to the inimitable Pogo Possum was, in fact, through an imitation. As a paperboy in my preteen and very early teen years, I was a devoted reader of every single comic strip including Dick Tracy, Gasoline Alley, and Rex Morgan, M.D. (even though I found the last three less than thrilling). Every so often a new strip would be introduced which lasted for longer or shorter periods of time. I kept up this habit long after I quit the paper route. To this day, I’ll read every unfunny strip on the page, even Beetle Bailey – which quite frankly I never found funny (with the occasional slight smile induced by Otto the dog).

One day while visiting my grandmother, I picked up the paper I used to deliver and turned to the comics page. In my absence, a curious feature had appeared starring an innocent little possum, an irascible alligator, a know-it-all owl who reminded me of the same animal in Winnie-the-Pooh, a hound dog, a porcupine, and a singing turtle among others. Written by Larry Doyle and Neal Sternecky (then later Kelly’s son and daughter), the strip was more than a bit strange, which caught my attention, but I only got to look at it when I was visiting.

Well, eventually I forgot the strip and went about my life reading terrible things like Hi and Lois, Hagar the Horrible, and Blondie and the like, when one day at the Cleveland Public Library, I saw the cover art of a collected edition of Pogo and remembered the strange little strip. This time, it was love from the word “Go.” The linguistic playground of Kelly’s creation, the socio-political satire, the curious degree of character development (and the comedy extracted from lack thereof), the visual inventiveness predating Calvin & Hobbes by decades, and the incredibly long-running storylines that would eventually be dropped and possibly harkened back to much, much later.

It was all gold.

So, imagine the kind of sensation to be experienced on stumbling across the re-release of Walt Kelly’s pre-Pogo comics adaptation of The Little Rascals, put out by Fantagraphics (a national treasure in publishing houses, by the way). My feelings were akin to hearing a new Beethoven had been unearthed. I grabbed the two volume set, took them home, then sat on them. And sat on them.

It seemed to me, after I’d renewed their three week term a second time that for some reason I was avoiding reading these books. It probably stemmed from an ambivalence about The Little Rascals. I’d watched them, along with The Three Stooges almost every day of my childhood (thanks to Ted Turner), but I never really loved the show. It was just one of the shows you got along with Tom & Jerry and the aforementioned adventures of Moe, Larry, & Curly.

So, finally, I opened the book, and just as promptly shut it again, finding it hard to believe what I’d seen. To look at the newly drawn covers by Jeff Smith (creator of the obviously Pogo-inspired Bone), you would have forgotten the racial tenor of the day, perhaps even your own memories of the rather primitive characterization of Buckwheat. The cover art Buckwheat is like something out of Aaron McGruder. The inside art has all the hallmarks of garbage of the era: the big white oval mouth, the bulgy eyes, the easy pigeonholing (when the gang decides to hold a circus, Buckwheat belts out “I can be the wild man!” then dresses up in skins), etc. etc.

Setting that aside (a big if here, as in, if you can seeing as how this caricature pops up so aggressively repeatedly), the strips themselves are fairly typical “adventure” stories for the time with a dash of humor thrown in. Working from a set of characters not his own, working within genre conventions, Kelly’s Our Gang only occasionally comes alive with what would later be characteristic in his work. .

There are fantastical pirate stories as well as lions and a heaping dose of World War Two era concerns. The kids are frequently involved in schemes to get some money to buy war bonds or some similar civic minded virtuous behavior. I don’t really remember the episodes of the show that well to recall if this is in keeping with what usually took place, but it’s fairly generic enough for the time. In episode after episode, there is much ado. They uncover a gasoline hoarder, sell scrap metal from a vacant lot and turn the money over to the Red Cross, participate in blackout duties, and they uncover a “secret Jap radio station!”

Yes, you read that right.

Much like the preceding racist portrayal of African-Americans, we are here treated to slanty-eyed, bucktoothed Japanese spies working toward the downfall of America. I kept telling myself as I read through the pages “Think of the time it was produced, think of the time it was produced,” and to a degree that is effective when you’re merely reading a novel’s text. I find my tolerance for overtly prejudiced material (regardless of its originating era) severely diminishes when there is an actual visual component provided. The slurs of Faulkner’s characters or Twain’s serve a function to demonstrate the racial attitudes of the time and place. To see the multiple, practiced drawing of such notions is highly disturbing and less easily excused or explained away. To say it is distracting is an understatement.

I mustered through to the end and I don’t wish to make this review merely about the bottom dropping out of my boundless enthusiasm for Walt Kelly. There is plenty to enjoy in Our Gang. When the art isn’t slandering an entire race, the two volumes together demonstrate a very nice visual evolution of Kelly’s style. The early strips in the first volume have a decidedly typical comic book presentation, rather blocked out, squared off edges dominating. As Kelly’s pencil and ink work improved, the lines become more fluid, more loosey-goosey, softening the realism of the characters and associated animals and backgrounds. This visual playfulness would find a fuller, freer expression in Pogo where characters would grab panel edges or lean against them, bowing them out into the next frame.

That these depictions were not indispensable parts of Kelly’s view on mankind is borne out by the flowering of his genius into Pogo. The viciousness of bigotry and the general toxicity of certain branches of conservative thought, as well as very forward thinking environmental concerns, would later become hallmarks of that strip’s material. In fact, to the degree that Kelly unsettled the powers-that-be, J. Edgar Hoover spent a considerable amount of time and manpower attempting to prove that Kelly’s dialect playfulness was in fact Communist messages in code.

Yet in the end, this set of material is unlikely to burnish Kelly’s reputation much as you only get tiny scraps of his genius peeking through the material’s restrictions and shortcomings. The best outcome of such a venture is that the response invigorates Fantagraphics in their reissue of a complete, definitive Pogo, much in the way they’ve done for Peanuts. “It is just unfortunate that in the clumsy hands of a cartoonist all traits become ridiculous…”


Alley Cat said...

Oh my gosh! I'd forgotten all about Pogo! I can't even remember if I liked the strip when my dad was reading it to me.

I never cared for Little Rascals either. I felt like I should like the series because it was a classic, but it never grew on me.

The Critic said...

Talk about sooooo wanting this.

The Critic said...


And plenty more everywhere online.