When I was a kid the only part of the newspaper (kids, ask your parents) I read regularly was the comics. Actually, that persisted even long after I was a kid, but that’s another story. At the time, I didn’t know how syndication worked, I didn’t know how far in advance cartoonists had to write their strips, and my taste was indiscriminate. I read everything on the page, from Garfield to Family Circus to Andy Capp to Peanuts. Sure, there were some that I thought were funnier than others, and at the time I didn’t really understand a lot of Doonesbury (which I didn’t discover at first because it was hidden away on the editorial page). My favorites, though, I would save for last, skipping over them and hopping around the comics page until everything else was done, and then I would stop to savor these last few: Calvin & Hobbes, The Far Side, and Pogo.
At first, when Pogo appeared in my newspaper, I didn’t know it was an old strip that was being reprinted — this was before the days of Google, and all I knew was that a new strip had been subbed in for something else, and I started reading it. I came to love this silly opossum and his swamp-dwelling friends: Albert the alligator, Howland Owl, Churchy LaFemme the turtle. I delighted in their Southern accents, mispronunciations, and malapropisms — a little easier to interpret than Krazy Kat, but with a similar whimsical approach to language.
Of course, Walt Kelly did at times work current events into his comics, so a Joseph McCarthy-ish figure (“Simple J. Malarkey”) showed up in the Okenfenokee Swamp, he seemed a bit out of place. Between these unexpected appearances and my own furthering education, I eventually discovered that Pogo was the work of an earlier time, and I was even more impressed with Kelly’s ability to entertain a kid several decades later. And now, thanks to Fantagraphics Books, I’m sharing that with the next generation: my own kids.
I got some gift cards for Christmas last year, and at the bookstore while pondering what to spend it on, I came across Pogo: Through the Wild Blue Yonder. It’s the first volume of the complete syndicated comic strips, running from roughly May of 1949 until December 1950. The book also includes the brief run of Pogo in the New York Star from October 1948 through January 1949 — several of these strips are actually repeated after the Star shut down and Hall Syndicate picked up Kelly’s strip as a daily. The book collects all of the dailies in one section, and then the Sunday full-color comics in its own section in the back. It works fine because most of the dailies form continuous stories that are separate from the plot lines of the Sundays, since newspapers didn’t always run both.
The book also includes an in-depth introduction by Steve Thompson, all about Kelly’s childhood and early career, and the rise of Pogo. There are also some notes about the Sunday comics in particular, and then some annotations about specific strips at the back of the book. One thing that I’d read about before (when reading Krazy Kat collections) was that early on nobody thought of saving and archiving newspaper strips. They were something to be printed, read, and thrown away. Some people clipped them out and saved them, of course, but for the most part the newspapers didn’t preserve anything.
That’s quite a different story from comics written while I was growing up, when it was a regular practice to collect up a years’ worth of Rose Is Rose strips and print a book. The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, as massive as it is, didn’t have to rely on obsessive collectors who had cut the strips out of the newspapers. (By the way, that’s still on my wish list, in case any of you are doing any early birthday shopping.) But Pogo was a different matter. Many gaps had to be filled in by fans — and in those cases the strips had to be cleaned up and restored if the newspaper was in bad shape. The color Sunday strips especially needed some work, restoring the colors to make them as vivid as they would have been originally.
When I brought Pogo home from the bookstore on a Sunday afternoon, I called my daughters over, and we lay on the floor in the living room and read it together. I read it aloud, because half of the fun of Pogo is hearing the fantastic dialogue penned by Kelly, and my daughters loved it. I’m sure there were things that went over their heads — jokes that rely on experiences they haven’t had, references to past events, wordplay that’s a little too sophisticated. But the beauty of the strip is that does work on so many levels. There’s slapstick humor, cute little talking animals, and keen observations on the human condition — the last made easier to swallow perhaps because the characters aren’t people, as human as they may be.
It’s taken me a few months, but off and on I read the strip to my girls (especially my younger daughter, who is now a big fan), and I’ve read the entire year and a half out loud. (I didn’t read the Star strips, since many of those were similar to strips we’d already seen.) It was a blast, and I’m already impatient for more. As stated in the editor’s note, Pogo ran for twenty-four years altogether, and the plan is to include two years in each volume, for an even dozen. “You may want to go clear about eighteen inches on your bookshelf right now.” Believe me, I’ll make room.