I Heart Indies

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

What I Learned from Pogo

A generation who never read Walt Kelly's comic strip Pogo has grown up and had kids of their own.  I'm sure the cognoscentia among them have at least heard of the strip, but you can't be sure.  How really wierd that such a cartoon was ever in the papers.  It was political, of course, or often was, but not overtly like Doonesbury; it was a strip about talking animals for heavens' sake.  The politics wasn't about issues so much as about characters, which makes for the funniest humor anyway.
It looked like it ought to be a children's strip, but for the longest time I gave it a wide berth on the funny pages.  I'd read Mary Worth before I read Pogo.  In the Sunday comics - amid the bright Easter Eggs of Peanuts and Andy Capp, Pogo was a world of somber greens and muddy browns.  Albert might be a talking, cigar-smoking alligator, but the stump he sat on looked like a real stump, and the swamp he lived in looked like a real swamp.  As an aspiring cartoonist, however, I began dutifully reading it, but without the least shred of amusement.  The heavy dialect made the conversations nearly opaque to me, and while the Sunday strips were sometimes interesting, the daily strips seemed like bland snippets of conversations, that barely generated a punchline.
Then I came across a book called Pogo in Pandemonium.  It was a story where Pogo is transported to a distant land for the Olympics.  It was wonderful!  I read and reread it until the cover came off.  Naturally, after that, I began reading the comics more carefully.  I bought several more books over the years and I began recognizing strips I'd seen in the daily papers.  Then it began to sink in what Kelly was doing.  I had thought that the comic strips and the books were two separate things, that he whipped off a comic strip every morning and then spent the rest of the day working on his next book - but no.  Each strip was a part of a continuing and incredibly elaborate story.  I know there are plenty of strips that do this - they're called continuity strips in the trade - but with Pogo, the junctures were seamless.  If Churchy and Howland were crossing a bridge on Monday, Tuesday would show them leaving the same bridge behind them, as they continued their conversation.  Check this out - there is no other strip that I know of that doesn't have jumps and skips, repetitions and gaps - but the characters in Pogo lived in a smooth-flowing time of their own, unconscious it was cut into bits for the benefit of a daily paper.
Of course, Kelly - and the artists that worked with him - were first-rate caricaturists: who can forget Spiro Agnew as a hyenna?  A hyenna that thinks he's a bear?  And Kelly's humor, once I came to appreciate it, was the funniest work in the paper.  He could soar heights of pseudo-logical whimsey in the daily strips and get down and roll in slapstick in the Sundays.
But the thing he taught me was that a narrative is made out of little moments.  Sections as small as one panel in a four-panel strip - each marvelous in its own way for its wit and beauty - could join to the next, and the next, and the next, to tell a story that would unfold over a whole year, ending with Porky's annual New Year's Breakfast with Pogo.
"You got a spoon for these, son?  Eating scrambled eggs with a fork takes a college education."
I miss you, Kelly.

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