Walt Kelly (1913-1973) was the creator of the popular and acclaimed comic strip "Pogo," whose memorable characters and potent political satire set a new standard for topical humor and complexity. The work of Kelly influenced the creators of Bone, "Calvin and Hobbes," "Liberty Meadows," "Mutts," and hundreds of other comic strips and books.
Walter Crawford Kelly was born on August 25, 1913, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. While he was still a child, Kelly's family moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut. Kelly's father worked in a munitions plant but dabbled in painting and drawing. He exposed Kelly to art and art technique. In high school, Kelly drew illustrations and cartoons for the school paper and yearbook and illustrated a biography of Bridgeport native P.T. Barnum for the local newspaper.
Kelly graduated from high school in 1930. That same year he met Helen DeLacy at a choir practice. For the next five years, Kelly pursued DeLacy, who was a few years older than him. DeLacy took a job as a Girl Scout executive in southern California in 1935, hoping to leave Kelly behind. But Kelly left his job at General Electric in Bridgeport and moved to Los Angeles, not only to be near DeLacy, but also to work for Walt Disney Studios. There, he finally won her over and they eventually married.
The Disney Years
At Disney, Kelly started as a story man and sketch artist on Pinocchio and then became an assistant animator. In addition to working on short subjects, Kelly animated sequences in Fantasia and Dumbo. But Kelly had problems at the studio, according to his long-time friend, Disney animator Ward Kimball. Most of the creative staff dressed in casual clothes, but Kelly always worked in a three-piece suit, starched collar and bow tie. And his highly personal drawing style made it hard for him to copy model sheets that others designed. Scenes Kelly drew were too distinct, spoiling the seamlessness of the animation. "When Kelly worked with other people, he would always manage to change the drawing of the character a little," Kimball told interviewers Thomas Andrae and Geoffrey Blum in 1988. "Maybe, in hindsight, we should have made our drawings look like his. He drew very funny Mickeys."
Kelly grew tired of trying to suppress his style. He was more of a writer than an animator and wanted to do his own work and be his own boss. A strike by animators at Disney in 1941 was a turning point for Kelly. Although he agreed with the strikers, mainly in-betweeners and assistants, he had friends in supervisory positions as well, and he did not want to be forced to choose between the two camps. The strike provided the impetus for Kelly to leave Disney. He took a leave of absence, claiming that his sister was ill, and moved back to Connecticut.
After months of commuting to New York City looking for freelance work, Kelly took advantage of a contact Disney provided him at Western Printing and Lithographing Company, a magazine and children's book printer that produced Disney and Dell comics. Kelly began writing comic books for Western. In late 1942, his first original comic story, "Albert Takes the Cake," appeared in the inaugural issue of Animal Comics. It was the first appearance of the character that would make Kelly famous, Pogo Possum. Pogo and other residents, including Albert the Alligator and a small boy named Bumbazine, lived in and around a swamp Kelly imagined somewhere in the southern United States. Pogo and Bumbazine were both thoughtful, intelligent characters that provided contrast to the antics of others, and Kelly soon realized they were redundant. Bumbazine soon left the stories, which continued to run in Animal Comics, and human beings would never again appear in Kelly's swamp.
Health problems kept Kelly from military service during World War II. Instead, he illustrated dictionaries and guidebooks for the U. S. Army. He also continued drawing for Dell comic titles such as Our Gang and Raggedy Ann and Andy.
Animal Comics ended its run in 1947. In June 1948, just as Kelly was about to attempt a career as a political cartoonist, a new opportunity came his way. The independent liberal newspaper PM changed owners. The new owners changed the name to the New York Star and hired Kelly as art director and general illustrator. Kelly provided spot drawings, decorative borders, and even the daily "ears" that accompanied the one-word weather forecasts on the mast-head. He also became the paper's political cartoonist. Comics historian R. C. Harvey called Kelly's political cartoons "entirely competent, journeyman efforts" but "scarcely brilliant." They were only a foretaste of what was to come.
Pogo Meets the Papers
In September 1948, Kelly decided to start his own comic strip at the Star, using the swamp creatures from his earlier story but making the strip more sophisticated. Kelly indulged his love of language with stronger Southern accents, more colorful word choices, malapropisms, and plenty of puns. But the Star folded in January 1949.
Kelly shopped the strip around to a number of syndicates, and Post-Hall agreed to give it a try. Pogo debuted nationally on May 16, 1949. Kelly reused some of the material from the Star strips with revisions. Over the next year, Pogo grew in circulation, while Kelly's style matured greatly.
Kelly and his wife had three children, Kathy, Carolyn, and Peter, but in 1951 their marriage ended. He soon married his second wife, Stephanie, who may have been the model for Pogo's love interest, Mam'selle Hepzibah, a cute skunk with a French accent. They would also have three children, Andrew, John, and Stephen.
Pogo Meets the Real World
In 1952, Kelly began to hit his stride with Pogo. The possum threw his hat into the ring for the U.S. presidential election. He became the candidate of many college students, and the slogan "I Go Pogo" appeared on posters and lapel pins. Pogo would run for president in every election through 1972 and again in 1988. Also in 1952, the first caricature of an identifiable public figure appeared in Pogo, a bullying backwoods wildcat named Simple J. Malarkey, who bore more than a passing resemblance to U.S. Senator Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin.
McCarthy was becoming famous and powerful by investigating the U.S. Army and searching for Communists in the U.S. State Department. He used misinformation and bullying to manipulate the media and Senate witnesses to support his claims. These were tactics that Kelly despised, and he made Malarkey look evil and dangerous. Some newspapers complained that the comics pages were not the place for politics. Some editors moved the strip to the editorial page, others dropped it all together, and a few demanded that Kelly stop drawing caricatures of McCarthy. Kelly responded by putting Malarkey's head in a sack. That only made Malarkey more ominous, since the sack resembled the hoods worn by Klansmen or executioners.
The rest of the 1950s was Pogo's heyday. Kelly reviewed books, wrote articles and nonsense verse, illustrated books, drew magazine covers, delivered hundreds of lectures, and wrote and sang some of the strip's many songs in the record Songs of the Pogo. Kelly's peers elected him president of the National Cartoonists Society.
Still a Political Cartoonist
Though an unapologetic liberal, Kelly was never afraid to poke fun at any politician. In 1968, Pogo strips featured characters based on Democratic presidential candidates Bobby Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy. The 1970s brought even more acidic caricatures of U.S. Vice President Spiro Agnew and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Once again, some newspapers dropped Pogo and others moved it off the comics page. This time, Kelly provided replacement "bunny strips," non-political gags often featuring cute rabbits.
Kelly's strips championed the underdog, the powerless, and the threatened. In the late 1960s, his attention turned to the environment, and he provided the world with an unforgettable slogan. As Pogo looked upon a large pile of trash that was cluttering the swamp, he said: "We have met the enemy, and he is us." This was a paraphrase of a famous dispatch announcing the victory at the battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812: "We have met the enemy, and they are ours." Kelly's version became a household catch phrase.
Ventured into TV
By the 1960s, Kelly's heart disease, diabetes, smoking, drinking, and hard work began to catch up with him. His wife, Stephanie, was diagnosed with cancer. His assistants, George Ward and Henry Shikuma, began to take over more of the art chores on Pogo, and Kelly cut back on some of his outside interests. In the late 1960s, Kelly began to toy with the idea of animating his characters. Legendary cartoon director Chuck Jones, famous for his Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck cartoons in the 1950s, teamed up with Kelly to produce a half-hour television cartoon, The Pogo Special Birthday Special. Selby Daley of MGM Studios, who had also worked for Disney in the 1930s, became Kelly's assistant on the production.
The Pogo Special Birthday Special aired in May 1969, and although it was a ratings success, it disappointed fans of the comic strip. Most disappointed was Kelly. The characters—although they were speaking Kelly's words, and in some cases, even using his voice—were drawn in a style that unmistakably belonged to Jones, not Kelly. After his wife died in early 1970, Kelly decided that he wanted to see his characters animated correctly, and he began to work with Selby Daley on a new television special, We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us.
In October 1972, Kelly had his left leg amputated above the knee due to diabetes. He and Daley were married in the intensive care ward a half-hour before Kelly was wheeled into surgery. The two lived in New York City for the next year. In the fall of 1973, Kelly and Selby traveled to Hollywood to work on We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us. Though under doctor's orders not to drink alcohol, Kelly had one or two drinks. He lapsed into a coma. He died in the Motion Picture and Television Hospital in Woodland Hills, California, on October 18, 1973. The film, though completed by Daley, was never broadcast.
After Kelly's death, Daley and Kelly's son Stephen, with the help of several assistants, continued the strip for a few years. In 1989, the Walt Kelly Estate authorized a new version, titled Walt Kelly's Pogo. The strip was written by Larry Doyle and drawn by Neal Sternecky. After Doyle left the strip in 1991, Sternecky went solo with it until 1992, when Kelly's children Pete and Carolyn took over. It only lasted one more year.
All other attempts at Pogo strips paled in comparison to Kelly's originals. Simon and Schuster, for years the publisher of Pogo in book form, kept many of the 30-plus titles in print long past Kelly's death and the strip's disappearance from the newspapers. Early editions of the books are prized by collectors and command large sums of money. Another publisher is currently taking on the daunting task of reprinting the entire run of Pogo daily strips in multiple volumes, each with remarks by R. C. Harvey.
Pogo broke the ground for comic strips that followed, especially those that wanted to say something about the world. Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury and Berke Breathed's Bloom County both featured political commentary. Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes borrowed a lot of Pogo's sense of whimsy and humanity.
Jeff Smith, creator of Bone, a fantasy comic book that is published around the world, wrote: "Whenever I get to thinking I've got this whole cartooning gig down cold, I just pull out a Pogo book and see how much better it can be."
Kelly, Mrs. Walt and Bill Crouch, Outrageously Pogo, Simon and Schuster, 1985.
Kelly, Mrs. Walt and Bill Crouch, Phi Beta Pogo, Simon and Schuster, 1989.
Kelly, Mrs. Walt and Bill Crouch, Pluperfect Pogo, Simon and Schuster, 1987.
Kelly, Walt, Pogo, Volume 1, Fantagraphics Books, 1992.
Levin, Martin, ed., Five Boyhoods, Doubleday, 1962.