For roughly seven years from 1942 to 1949, between leaving the employ of Walt Disney and the start of his work at the New York Star newspaper, Walt Kelly turned out over 2500 pages of comic book art for Western Printing and Lithographing Company and published by Dell Comics. Appearing in over a dozen titles with material ranging from high adventure to whimsical fantasy to slapstick farce, Kelly proved to be as versatile as anyone who has ever worked in comics.
By the time Pogo the Possum #1 hit the stands (the definitive article was dropped after the first issue), the cartoon marsupial had already been appearing in national newspaper syndication for nearly six months. Even though Kelly’s work stopped appearing in all other Dell Comics, during the four year run of Pogo Possum he was also doing illustrations for books such as The Glob, cartoons for magazines such as Life, and personal appearances to promote the strip. There was also friction developing between Kelly and Western over the book publishing rights to the strip. Consequently, the amount of time Kelly spent on each issue seemed to dwindle as the life of the book wore on.
The first issue finds the Okefenokee Repertory Company already set in their characterizations, having developed them over nearly thirty issues of Animal Comics, a couple of guest shots in other magazines and two one-shot comics all to themselves. These are now the same nature’s schreechers that we know from the strip. The atmosphere is relaxed, much like the Sunday strips with none of the darker or political elements of the dailies.
The main difference is in the pacing. With a whole comic book to play in, storylines are sometimes dropped altogether and comic situations and sight gags are often developed over several pages. This is particularly true of later issues when art and story are streamlined and the result resembles an animation storyboard of rapid-fire slapstick.
As a “funny animal” comic, its target audience is children, specifically parents reading to their children. In the 1940s, comics were an inexpensive way to spend quality time with your offspring, laughing, telling stories and, most importantly, having discussions.
Pogo Possum intersperses references to school and nursery rhymes with classical poetry quotes and Latin phrases. Words like “unorthodox”, “bouillabaisse”, and “verisimilitude” appear among the southern colloquial dialect. Word play such as “fire distinguisher”, “nostalgicky”, and “parallelogram-crackers” challenge parental definition. If that’s too easy, try pirate Churchy’s sea-faring dialogue: “He’s a-borin’ down right crost our starborn brow—us better give him a round of grape into his sterns’ls.”
The stories in the first issue follow the formula that is already familiar to Pogo fans from previous comics and strips. Some tomfoolery or misunderstandings lead to a series of slapstick situations that snowball with increasing complexity (and increasing hilarity) pulling in more and more characters along the way (this time including Floyd the flea and Mose Muskrat) until everyone ends up literally in the soup or the swamp or at a fish fry where everything is sorted out or just forgotten.
This snowball formula is used in many of the Disney shorts of the thirties, as well as silent film comedies by Chaplin, Keaton and Laurel & Hardy. Kelly’s experience at Disney probably honed this type of particularly visual storytelling.
Another source of material is classic fairy tales and children’s poetry. Beginning with “Mother Goosery Rinds” in issue #2, there is one such parody in nearly every issue through #11. Two of Kelly’s literary heroes are given the treatment along the way: Edward Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussycat” in #6 and Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” in #10. “Cinderella and the Three Bears” in issue #8 was later redone for the Sunday strips in the late 50s (reprinted in The Pogo Sunday Brunch). The comic book story was itself reprinted in A Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics (1981).
Almost all of issue #3 was recycled in one form or another. “Deep Freeze” was redone for the daily strips in 1968, ‘A School for Mice” was used in dailies in 1950, and “Feelin’ Mighty Hale, and Farewell” was a retelling of an earlier story from Four Color #105 (1946).
“His Hand Has Never Lost Its Kill” in issue #4 is most notable as being obviously not inked by Kelly. As mentioned earlier, Kelly’s work was in such demand that he could not give all of it his full attention. George Ward has spoken in interviews about his work on the comic books, and judging by the varying styles there was probably at least one other assistant as well. The inker on this story had yet to get the fluid brush style down.
In fact, it looks as though assistants were inking most of Pogo Possum from issue #1 on. After the comic book work stopped, they continued to help on the strips and original material that was produced for the Simon and Schuster books.
This work should not be disdained. There is every indication that Kelly wrote and penciled (or at least did layouts) for all of the comic books. The fact that the art style subtly changes from story to story doesn’t make it less entertaining.
Pogo Possum #5 sees a change in page count from 52 to 36 pages. Inside, we’re treated to the self-aware story “The Big Comickal Book Business” wherein the cast responds to a fan letter to “make the book more amusin’.”
One or two-page text stories appear in each issue beginning with #6. This was legally necessary for subscription mailing privileges. Early stories featured Pogo characters but “The Voodoo Man” took over in #9, written in the whimsical Kelly style and accompanied by Kelly-like illustrations. Did Kelly write any of these text stories? Despite his reported dislike of them in the comics, he included original text stories in Gone Pogo and The Pogo Poop Book for Simon and Schuster. The only clue is the by-line to the text piece in #8: “’The Boastful Bird’ by the author.”
The back covers of #s 5, 7 and 9 feature a full-page pin-up as opposed to the usual one-page gag. #9’s pin-up was later used as the basis for the painted cover of Walt Kelly’s Pogo Coloring Book (1953) and reprinted as the cover of The Okefenokee Star #5. That same issue also includes what appears to be the last comic book work inked by Kelly, a 12-page Pogo fairy tale entitled “Little Tommy Tucker.”
By the time #11 was produced, Kelly’s growing commitments were effecting the content. For the second time, a story features characters sitting in the dark. A page of black panels with word balloons is an effective way to catch up on a deadline but once was enough (#9).
By #16, background drawings are sparse or non-existant, layouts are simple and there is little use of perspective. The book is still fun, if quick to read, but obviously it was hastily put together. Reprints from Animal Comics fill-in the back pages of issue #s 14-16, another time-saving method. Kelly reportedly complained about these reprints because the characters had changed so much over the years. But the reprints also have more detailed art and more developed stories than the surrounding new material. They just don’t fit with the looser style. No matter. #16 was to be the last issue.
Coincidentally, the Comics Code Authority was established later that year, effectively inhibiting comic creators for decades to come. While it may not have changed Pogo Possum, it did bring down the curtain on the Golden Age of Comics.