Thursday, January 31, 2008
News of Yore: Walt Kelly Profiled - 1952
Walt Kelly Is Named Cartoonist of Year
By Erwin Knoll (E&P,4/26/52)
In a smoke-filled room in Darien, Conn., a deceptively mild-looking man named Walter Crawford Kelly, Jr., is grooming a dark-horse Presidential candidate. The candidate hails from the deep South—the Okefenokee swamp in Georgia, as a matter of fact—but he isn't a Democrat. Nor a Republican either.
And though he hasn't yet declared his intention to run, "Pogo for President" clubs are being formed all over the country and "I Go Pogo" buttons will soon be seen on every college campus.
Reason we mention all this at this time, besides the obvious political overtones, is the fact that Walt Kelly, who draws "Pogo" for Post-Hall Syndicate, has just been named outstanding cartoonist of the year by his colleagues in the National Cartoonists Society. The sixth annual Billy DeBeck Award, given in honor of the late creator of "Barney Google," was presented to Mr. Kelly Wednesday night at the Society's ANPA Convention dinner.
But to get back to politics, the "Pogo for President" movement seems to be here to stay. The strip, which in less than three years of syndication has built an impressive list of over 250 newspapers, has from the first found its greatest fans among the collegiate set, and it was on the campus that the Presidential boom began. Early this year political bids started showing up in Mr. Kelly's ample fan mail—over 100 letters a week. And several weeks ago Mr. Kelly took formal note of the movement in a letter to some of his campus fans. The letter said, in part:
"It seems a lot of college people want Pogo for President. Nobody has made it clear what they want him President of, but presumably they don't want him for President of Nicaragua or even of General Motors—though they are both nice outfits, no offense.
"What we have come up with is the suspicion that Pogo is in demand for the job of President of these United States. That is, no large party has come out for him unless you count a large party named Harold from Cornell, but many college groups have been demanding something tangible:
some sign, some word, a campaign button, a free trip to Europe. Anything that would indicate Pogo is available would do."
Mr. Kelly has ruled out the free trip to Europe, but the campaign button is in the works. So far, requests for 50,000 buttons have been received.
Walt Kelly is no newcomer to the stresses and strains of a political campaign. In 1948, while working for the late New York Star as art director, political cartoonist and editorial advisor, he drew a series of devastating "mechanical man" cartoons of Governor Thomas E. Dewey, depicting the Republican candidate as an adding machine, a cash register, a tank, a music box and just about every other mechanical device. The cartoons received nationwide attention and were widely reprinted.
It was while working for the Star that Mr. Kelly, in his capacity as art director, directed himself to launch the daily "Pogo" strip. He took his cast of talking animals—they call themselves "nature's screechers"—from a series of children's comic books he had been doing since 1943. (Before that he had worked for Walt Disney Studios for six years.) He still does four "Pogo" comic books a year.
The new strip caught on with Star readers, but the paper didn't stick around long enough to benefit. When the Star folded in January, 1949, the New York Post saw a good thing and took "Pogo" on. Several months later, Post-Hall Syndicate started distributing it nationally, and added a Sunday page. The list of papers hasn't stopped growing since.
Editors who try dropping "Pogo" —several have made the attempt— invariably find the strip has an almost fanatic claque of fans, who usually succeed in getting it restored to the comics page. Mr. Kelly himself is at a loss to explain this great enthusiasm.
"I try to comment on the passing scene," he says, "and get people to stop taking themselves and the world quite as seriously as they seem to be doing. It's a good thing, these days, to make people relax and feel that there's always tomorrow. The Okefenokee swamp, where Pogo and his friends live, is a land of its own, enabling readers to escape into another environment for a few seconds every day. But after all, these are things that so many comic strips try to do, and most of them succeed."
Some of "Pogo's" special appeal may be in the almost hypnotic weirdness of the dialogue, a synthesis of Elizabethan English, French, Negro and Indian dialects heavily interspersed with outrageous puns. Mr. Kelly is a student of languages and a former civilian employee of the Army's Foreign Language Unit. The "Pogo" dialect is definitely not genuine Okefenokee talk, since Mr. Kelly has never been to the swamp country.
But "Pogo's" main asset is undoubtedly the friendly satire which spares no institution from Mr. Kelly's poison pun. His credo when he launched his cartooning career was: "I just want to be friendly and maybe make a buck at it." At 38, Mr. Kelly seems to be succeeding pretty well on both counts.
Labels: New of Yore