On August 25, 1913, Walt Kelly, a clear-eyed youth of honest Scotch-Irish-English-French-Austrian blood found himself in Philadelphia, Pa. He was one day old, and although his ancestors had been rooted along the shores of the Delaware for 150 years, he immediately hatched a plan. Two years later, he was in Bridgeport, Connecticut, complete with father, mother, sister and sixteen teeth, all his own.
Ten years later to the day, he was twelve years and one day old. He had survived fire (fell into the coal scuttle with a jack-o-lantern in 1919), flood (homemade boat struck a swimming duck and splintered, 1923), starvation (lost the lunch on a fishing expedition with father, 1924), savage beasts (rabid rabbit shot to death on other side of town, 1924), disease and pestilence (chicken pox and mumps, 1918), and education (6 years grammar school).
Sometime in the next four years he studied French and the French teacher at Warren Harding High School in Bridgeport. Thus fully prepared for life, he arrived at a factory that made ladies’ underwear around 1930 and got a job sweeping floors. Three weeks of this and he decided money did not count. He abandoned his lucrative position and took a job with a newspaper as a reporter.
His preparation for this full-time job was a little radical for Kelly. He had worked part-time for the same newspaper as a high school reporter and a political cartoonist since the age of 13, and had also been one of the editors of the school paper. Six years later, he was in Hollywood drawing mice (which is not the same thing as attracting mice, though there is some truth in that thought also.)
He worked (a jest, really) for Walt Disney while that worthy and 1,500 other worthies turned out Snow White, Fantasia, Pinocchio, Dumbo, The Reluctant Dragon and Baby Weems. At a showing of the last, he quietly disappeared and next turned up on the Mojave Desert trudging east.
Back in the USA once more, Kelly went straight. He got a job doing comic books, fooled around with the Foreign Language Unit of the Army during the war, illustrating grunts and groans and made friends in the newspaper and publishing business. Printers ink was in the boy’s blood, a condition that so affected his veins that friends called him Zebra Kelly. They called him so loudly in 1948 that he was forced to pay off some debts and took a job with a new newspaper. This paper, The New York Star, declared that it was a paper with a purpose (as opposed to the other papers on God’s Earth, all of which were apparently purposeless).
Kelly drew political cartoons for the 1948 campaign, dressing Mr. Dewey up like an adding machine; he was art director, became a senior editor and decided to resurrect a comic character he had invented back in the palmy or «comic book» days. Loaded with Kelly art, the Star rocketed to earth after streaking its purpose across the heavens for six months. In the ensuing crash and confusion Kelly grabbed his comic character, Pogo Possum, and headed for high ground.
Pogo had already had a strange career. He had started out as a spear carrier in a comic book feature about 1943. One trouble then was that he looked just like a possum.
As time went on, this condition was remedied and Pogo took on a lead role. Just when the feature was going great the comic book folded. It had been called Animal Comics and a survey was made to find why it collapsed. Cornering children when their parents were looking the other way, Kelly asked questions. The answers all added up to the same thing: «That comic book didn’t have no action in it. Nobody shot nobody. It was full of mice in red and blue pants. It stunk.»
At any rate, Pogo was a dead possum for two years, until the Star tried him out as a comic strip actor. The mail for the two months of Pogo’s life in the Star encouraged Kelly to try and make a good feature out of the Possum.
After the fold, Kelly took the strip to three or four syndicate offices. One lady editor insisted that she did not want to buy a duck. Kelly pointed out that it was a possum he had by the tail. The lady said you can’t even tell one animal from another, let alone draw one. Another editor offered Kelly a job taking care of his comic book division. A third editor laughed, which only encouraged Kelly. Then he said nobody would understand the strip. «Try it out on ordinary people,» he roared. «You’ll see.»
Kelly, who thought of himself as about as ordinary as they come, still had faith in the strip. He borrowed every nickel he could lay his hands on and took a cross-town bus to The Hall Syndicate. He had already had a call from Bob Hall, president of the syndicate, which was lucky because Kelly couldn’t afford to call Hall.
Bob said, much to Kelly’s surprise, «Fellow, I read your Pogo strip and it’s funny. When do you want to start?»
It was as simple as that. Twenty three years after he had started drawing for the Bridgeport Post and dreaming of a comic strip, Kelly had signed with a big-time syndicate. In May 1949 the strip ran, somewhat on a trial basis, in about four newspapers. Within five years, it was in about four hundred papers and sales are still being made.
Pogo books have sold more than a million copies, and over 1,500,000 comic books were sold each year. Mail from enthusiastic readers is a major problem, albeit a flattering one. Two stenographers work at answering mail and clipping drawings and sending off books. Kelly, besides writing and drawing the strip, travels and speaks before fifty or more civic and college groups each year. His theme: The American Press is the last free voice of the world. It offers a rare opportunity to students despite its acknowledged frailties.
Comment in the mail and through the press and other reviews has been less flattering. Carl Sandburg said that many comics were too sad, but, «I GO POGO.» Francis Taylor, Director of the Metropolitan Museum, said before the Herald Tribune Forum: «Pogo has not yet supplanted Shakespeare or the King James version of the Bible in our schools.»
Feeling that Shakespeare and the Bible will long hold their place, Kelly is of course thankful that such notables see fit to mention his work. But his greatest reward comes from letters from children and mothers, from simple working people, some of them nearly illiterate. Numbers of these end with thanks for the joy Pogo gives them and conclude, «God bless you.»
Kelly, a father himself, and still a working man, has one eye on the news of the day and the other on a child’s head lighted by the sunlight as he says, «God keep us all.»
— Written by Walt Kelly for the Hall Syndicate, 1954