Walt Kelly was a cartoonist notable for his comic strip Pogo featuring characters that inhabited a portion of the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia. The strip was famous for its sophisticated humor and keen political satire. Kelly was trained as an animator at Walt Disney Studios (he worked on cartoon shorts and Pinocchio, Fantasia, and Dumbo), he left the studio during a labor dispute in 1941. His irreverent and topical portrayal of the changing American and global political scene through his comic strip Pogo brought humor to his readers and poignancy to the moment.
Kelly began a series of comic books based on fairy tales and nursery rhymes along with annuals celebrating Christmas and Easter for Dell Comics. He also produced a series of stories based on the Our Gang film series, provided covers for Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories and illustrated adaptations of Snow White, Pinocchio, and The Three Caballeros. This period saw the creation of Kelly’s most famous character, Pogo, who first saw print in 1943 in Dell’s Animal Comics. His health would not allow him to work as a service man, so during WWII, Kelly worked in the Army’s Foreign Language Unit illustrating manuals. He returned to journalism as a political cartoonist after the war. In 1948, while art director of the short-lived New York Star, Kelly began to produce a pen-and-ink strip of current-events commentary populated by characters from Okefenokee Swamp. The first Pogo strip appeared on October 4, 1948. After the New York Star folded on Jan. 28, 1949 Kelly arranged for syndication through the Hall Syndicate which re-launched the strip in May of 1949. Kelly eventually arranged to acquire the copyright and ownership of the strip, uncommon in that era.
Pogo was a landmark strip in many ways and Kelly is arguably one of the greatest and most influential of cartoonists in the history of the craft. Kelly combined masterful line and brush-work (learned at the “mouse factory,” Disney) with fluent and highly amusing story-telling acted out by an endearing cast of “nature’s screechers.” He borrowed from various dialectical sources and his own fertile imagination to invent a unique and charming backwoods-patois, heavy on the nonsense, to fit his cartoon swampland. Although Pogo stands on its own as a superbly-realized cartoon strip for the ages, it was perhaps Kelly’s interjection of political and social satire into the work that was its greatest pioneering accomplishment- such commentary was simply not done in the genre of dailies in Kelly’s time.
The principal characters were Pogo the Possum; Albert the Alligator; Churchy LaFemme (cf Cherchez la femme), a turtle; Howland owl; Beauregard (Houndog); Porkypine, and Miss Mamzelle Hepzibah, a French skunk. Kelly used the strip in part as a vehicle for his liberal and humanistic political and social views and satirized, among other things, Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist demagogy (in the form of a shotgun-wielding bobcat named “Simple J. Malarkey”) and the sectarian and dogmatic behavior of Communists.
Another interesting facet of the comic strip were the unique speech balloons Kelly drew several characters. One character, Deacon Mushrat, an educated muskrat, spoke in speech balloons with decorated Gothic style lettering. The village mortician, Sarcophagas Macabre, a vulture, had square, black-framed speech balloons with fine script lettering, resembling funeral announcements. P.T. Bridgeport, a bear and showman/promoter of questionable repute, spoke with speech balloons in highly decorated type, resembling nineteenth century circus posters.
In 1969, a half-hour animated television special, The Pogo Special Birthday Special was produced, and aired on the NBC television network. Kelly himself provided the voices for P.T. Bridgeport, Albert Alligator, and Howland Owl.