Growing up I loved the “funnies” in the newspaper, especially the Sunday Funnies when the comic strips had big panels and were in color. My favorites were the usual suspects for that time: Peanuts, Blondie, Dennis the Menace, Steve Roper, Tarzan, Flash Gordon and so on. I really liked Milton Caniff’s illustrating in Steve Canyon and Hal Foster’s in Prince Valiant, but I usually found the story lines in those two strips rather boring.
Pogo was a strip I didn’t appreciate until I was a bit older. That’s because it often contained more mature humor and references that were way over my head. In this way, Pogo was like the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons, which I didn’t get a lot of until later on either, and then in the 1990’s, Pinky and the Brain. Both of those shows included some very dry and sometimes, sophisticated humor. A lot of bad puns, too, but that’s beside the point.
Pogo was the creation of Walt Kelly, whose birthday it is today. He’s not around to celebrate because he died in 1973 at the age of sixty. Kelly was an animator and cartoonist who worked for the Walt Disney studio from 1935 to 1940. After that, he drew for Dell Comics, where in 1941 he created the characters of Pogo the possum and Albert the alligator.
In 1948, while drawing political cartoons for the New York Star, he decided to use Pogo and Albert in a daily strip and thus Pogo was born on October 4, 1948. In syndication, it became one of the most popular strips in the country, appearing in over 400 newspapers and it continued running until a few years after Kelly’s death.
Pogo was a real mixed bag, a combination of wit and broad humor: sometimes it was just silly, sometimes it was social and political satire. It would take too long to describe Pogo – the setting, the characters, etc. I recommend you check out the official Pogo website here to learn about all that.
Even if you’ve never heard of Pogo, chances are you’re familiar with one very famous phrase from the strip. It was a parody of a message received during the War of 1812 by Army General William Henry Harrison from U.S. Navy Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry after the Battle of Lake Erie: “We have met the enemy, and they are ours.” Kelly first used it in the forward to a Pogo book in 1953, in which he defended his attacks on McCarthyism. The best known version of the phrase appeared on a anti-pollution poster for Earth Day 1970.
First, here is the comic strip version featured in daily newspapers a year after that initial Earth Day, and then the passage from the forward of The Pogo Papers.
By the way, today’s comic strips don’t do much for me. The humor is more contemporary, but the artwork is nothing near the quality of old masters like Walt Kelly.
Traces of nobility, gentleness and courage persist in all people, do what we will to stamp out the trend. So, too, do those characteristics which are ugly. It is just unfortunate that in the clumsy hands of a cartoonist all traits become ridiculous, leading to a certain amount of self-conscious expostulation and the desire to join battle.
There is no need to sally forth, for it remains true that those things which make us human are, curiously enough, always close at hand. Resolve then, that on this very ground, with small flags waving and tinny blast on tiny trumpets, we shall meet the enemy, and not only may he be ours, he may be us.
Walt Kelly, 1953
Happy Birthday, Walt. Long live Pogo.