Walt Kelly and Pogo Possum. By J.B. Pick.
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 elected."
"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.
After 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 friends.
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, here's one.
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.'
What could be more reasonable?
I Go Pogo.
* or is he a comma? I studiously forget.
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