One of the things that people quickly learn about me when we first meet is that I have an incredibly deep love for comics. That passion just comes out eventually in most every conversation, in the same way that a car nut constantly brings up cars or a knitter eventually brings the conversation to knitting.
And those friends and acquaintances often ask me when I first got into comics. But the thing is, I don't remember a point in my life when I didn't read comics. As far as I can recall, I've always read them (except for a few years here and there when I was buried in college work or elbows-deep with my kids' diapers).
One of my most treasured memories of my young childhood is the weekly ritual that my dad and I had on Saturday nights when we'd drive from our house in Rosedale, Queens, out to a newsstand on Long Island where we'd share egg creams and pick up the Sunday New York Daily News with its beautifully lurid comic section wrapping the thick and newspaper. Dondi was always on the front of the Daily News Sunday section. Damn that Dondi. I hated Dondi with his blank eyes and boring adventures. Dondi was plain weird and dull (I had no appreciation of the lovely art style of Irwin Hasen at the time. What can I say? I wasn't the most sophisticated kid.)
I couldn't have been very old then — we moved out of Queens in the middle of my fourth grade year, which means I was maybe 10 years old at the time. But I remember going with Dad to have egg creams and get the papers for several years — that trip was our "man's ritual," and the thought of those days makes me miss my dad once again. It's been six years since lung cancer took him from me. I feel his loss most every day.
See, Dad never stopped encouraging my love of comics. No, scratch that. Dad didn't encourage my love of comics. Dad encouraged my love of reading. Dad barely finished high school, but there was never any question that my sister and I would always be encouraged to embrace our intelligence, to always be independent minded readers who made up our own minds about the world. When he bought the News, Dad also bought The New York Times as well. Dad and I had great conversations over the years about Jimmy Carter and stagflation and eventually about Reaganomics when I reached high school. Dad wanted me to consider the world around me. He believed that worldliness involved both high and low culture — both comic books and the news, both fun and reality.
But while dad didn't quite totally understand the whole reason I loved comics, there were a few that he knew and appreciated in his own way. One of those comics was Walt Kelly's brilliant Pogo.
The year after we moved out of New York City, to bucolic Cooperstown, New York, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame (Dad got a job at the hospital there), my teacher (whom I adored at the time and am embarrassed to say I forgot his name) had some old paperback books that he shared with me. He of course also knew of my love of comics — I probably bored the poor man with my daily rants about Steve Gerber's crazy existential headtrip creations — and my teacher decided to share one of his favorite old comics with this avid reader.
He lent me his paperback collections of Walt Kelly's Pogo strips. These small paperback trades had smart punning names like The Pluperfect Pogo and Ten Ever-Lovin' Years with Pogo and were filled with the most wonderfully creative and charming stories. There was a clever possum at the center, and all kinds of crazy characters orbiting around him — Pogo's friend Albert the Alligator, a deep-browed politician type named Simple J. Malarkey, whose squalid self-interested resonated deeply for a precocious reader in that post-Watergate era, the adorable skunk Churchy LaFemme and all the others. Their wordplay was delightful, their stores this kind of shaggy dog tale that meandered from one place to another.
This stuff was perfect for an 11 year-old in 1977. Better yet, my teacher and my dad appreciated this stuff too. Truly, how could one ask for a better experience than that?
Looking back, we obviously all experienced these amazing creations in different ways. I just saw the funny animals making ingenious puns and having odd adventures. Dad and my teacher saw the satirical storylines and understood the jokes about Eisenhower's golf obsession or the satirical Jack Acid Society. But we all adored Pogo deeply. As the saying goes, we went Pogo!
Which brings me to Fantagraphics's ongoing collection of Pogo strips, of which this book collects the strips that ran in 1951 and 1952.
The collection of strips in this book is obviously from very early in this strip's run since this is volume two of the series. But it's striking just how well thought-out this comic reads. Often a new comic strip will take five or six years to really hit its stride. But even three or four years into the run of Pogo, everything seems charmingly in its correct place.
The first thing that strikes a reader leafing through this book is the incredible level of craftsmanship that Walt Kelly lavishes on his comic strip. Characters are fully realized and gorgeously rendered. The world of those delightful characters feels tremendously lavish and vivid. Kelly's strip came from an era of deep graphical inventiveness. Pogo displays that creativity in most every panel, from the free-hand panel borders — no T-squares here! — to the gorgeous mix of thick and thin line in his character depictions to the tremendous sense of atmosphere in the strips themselves.
This is bravura cartooning. Even looking at this very early work by Kelly, there's no doubt why the artist is seen as a real master of comic art. It's almost shocking to realize that Kelly actually gets even better from here, that his stories get more complex and wonderful, and his artwork gets even still more refined.
And yet, despite — or maybe because of — the incredible level of craftsmanship on display in literally every line shown on every page of this book, Kelly's work is has an extremely relaxed. Pogo is easygoing, like a warm summer day in the Deep South. Characters have time to have charmingly nonsensical conversations with each other, make wildly clever and sometimes weird puns with each other, engage in oddball little adventures that flow out of incredibly charming wordplay that makes the stories light up.
So many of the stories and strips gain their charm from that wonderfully silly wordplay. The wacky Christmas carols ("Deck us all with Boston Charlie") are an absolute delight, but this thick book is filled with similarly charming strips all waiting to be discovered. I don't want to spoil much by talking too much about what you'll find here because a lot of the thrill of Pogo is following the meandering threads of the stories, floating down the crazy little tales like a lazy ride down a relaxed Southern river. It's pure, unhurried artfulness created by a real comics master.
It's easy to see why adults adored Pogo as much as — if not more than – kids loved it. This book is pure magic, suitable for both a fourth grade teacher and a fourth grader.