“I got all the dog-eared marks of a educated man. I is read many a comickal book.” – Albert the Alligator
It’s a bit of a road trip from my whereabouts to Okefenokee Swamp, outside of Waycross, Georgia, but I’ve always sort of idly thought about hoofin’ it there, because in some childish recess of my head, I’m fairly sure Walt Kelly was an honest man, reporting nothing but the truth, and if you get lucky at Okefenokee, you’re going to run into Pogo the Possum, who is absolutely real and a charming tour guide. Albert the Alligator is gonna try to imbroigle you into one of his loony-attic get-rich-quick schemicals, while Churchy LaFemme plays bongos on his own turkle shell. Everyone’s going to be there! Porky Pine, Howland Howl, Beauregard Bugleboy the Hound Dog, Rackety-Coon Chile, Ma’m’selle Hepzibah, and the male Ladybug: Kerrison T. Gramcragger, or JOE for short.
(Also there, political animals of all stripes: the Cowbirds that kow-tow to the party-line; the myopic Molester Mole; the palm-greasing Tammananny Tiger; and Simple J. Malarkey, who points his shotgun at tourists and hollers: “Are you now, or have you ever been..?” But we try to avoid THEM.)
At its height in the ’50s, “Pogo Possum” was the bravest, sharpest comic strip in America, standing up against the demagoguery of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his ilk at a time when playing along with the purveyors of paranoia might have seemed a reasonable tactic. The books and strips still exert an influence on any cartoonist with a feel for anthropomorphism and wordplay. ( Jeff Smith’s “Bone” is pretty much a-thousand-plus pages of Walt Kelly homage. ) If “Peanuts” was resigned to despair against injustice, “Pogo Possum” believed in fighting against hate-mongers, bullies and charlatans.
Both “Peanuts” and “Pogo” managed to get into America’s heart despite their subversion (depressive in the former, aggressive in the latter). They did it because they were genuinely funny, and because they were so FRIKKIN CUTE!
“We have met the enemy, and the enemy is us,” goes the single most famous quote in Pogo history. It’s hard not to share in Pogo’s concern. It’s an ecological cry, a political cry, a philosophical cry. It might as well have come from Milton, exhorting us to meet the Devil within, and it only works in the funny pages because it’s delivered by this cute little critter who is two swollen ears away from Mickey Mouseness, (Walt Kelly worked for Walt Disney Studios for six-defining years, not coincidentally.) It’s hard not to share in Pogo’s concern.
If you’ve never read “Pogo Possum” (quite possible, since it’s been off the papers for 40 years and collections are hard to find) I might have given you the impression that it’s topically dated or politically shrill, but it’s not. These ARE “funny animal” comics, working to please kids and adults, and if the scale tips toward adulthood, well, that’s what makes Kelly just about the best in his genre. (Carl Barks, I suppose, would be waddling close behind, but Barks’ scale tips towards childhood.)
Kelly has a way of using animal jack-assery and swamp-speak malapropisms to reflect great truths. Take a throw away line from Albert the Alligator: “Somebody always innerfears with progress.” I mean, WOW. INNER FEARS. That is just SO right, and Kelly dispenses lines just like that one every other panel.
Often the comics function like a Southern cross between Lewis Carroll and the Marx Brothers, with literalism sliding into surrealism and then looping back to mock reality. Take this sample dialogue from “Kiddin’ on the Keys,” starring the prickly Porky Pine and Seminole Sam the salesman, (who is trying to profit from an abandoned piano). Look how the nonsense perfectly punctures car salesman hucksterism.
SS: “Would you be interested in a piano?”
PP: “I don’t know, I’ve never been IN one.”
SS: “Not even for a short ride? Step inside, friend, and look around. There’s no obligation.”
PP: “The 1950 model had an obligation.”
SS: “Well, we took it off in ’51, nobody ever used it and it was on the way.”
Once they’re both inside the piano:
SS: “You notice how dark it is in here?”
PP: “Yes. Now take your hand off my wallet.”
SS: “Sorry, friend, thought it was mine.”
The turtle, Churchy LaFemme, was named after the classic catchphrase “Cherchez La Femme” which comes from Alexandre Dumas’ “The Mohicans of Paris”. “Cherchez La Femme” (“Search for the Woman”) is a suggestion that behind every great crime, there’s a great dame. In “The Simpsons,” Churchy LaFemme is Homer’s derisive nickname for Ned Flanders. “Cherchez La Femme” is also the title of a Gloria Stefan album. Gloria Estefan, of course, is famous for making sly references to 19th century literature in all her songs. And now you know.