Originally published December 19, 2011 at 9:19 AM | Page modified December 19, 2011 at 3:49 PM

Lit Life

Trailblazing 'Pogo' comic strips celebrated

Seattle's Fantagraphics is reviving Walt Kelly's groundbreaking "Pogo" comic strips with a new book and an exhibition at its Georgetown bookshop.

Seattle Times book editor

'Playing Possum: The Pogo Art of Walt Kelly'

This exhibition, featuring Walt Kelly's original artwork for the Pogo comic strip, runs in conjunction with the publication of the book "Pogo — Through the Wild Blue Yonder." Through Jan. 4, Fantagraphics Bookstore, 1201 S. Vale Street (at Airport Way S.), Seattle (206-658-0110 or
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Lit life |

What was it about Pogo that kept my dad coming back after long days spent trying to squeeze a profit from a small business? When he sank into the evening embrace of his easy chair, it was always Walt Kelly's "Pogo" newspaper comic strip, the story of a possum and his swampland friends, that my dad turned to for comfort and even consolation.

Maybe it was the sweet soulfulness of Pogo the Possum or the high-spirited high jinks of Albert the Alligator, Churchy LaFemme the turtle and other Pogo characters. Maybe it was their "swamp talk," a giddy combination of Southernisms, black dialect and Cajun patois. Maybe it was the Arcadian pleasure of life in the Okefenokee Swamp, Pogo's home. Maybe it was the razor-sharp tip of Kelly's satirical pen, which pricked pompous targets such as Red-baiting Sen. Joe McCarthy, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.

Baby boomers remember "Pogo," which ran from 1948 to 1973, the creation of Kelly, a large-living man who died too soon at age 60. Now Seattle's Fantagraphics comics is reintroducing Pogo to past fans and a new generation with the first of 12 projected volumes. "Pogo — Through the Wild Blue Wonder: The Complete Syndicated Comics Strips, Volume 1," foreword by Jimmy Breslin (Fantagraphics, $39.99), collects Pogo strips from their beginnings in the 1948 New York Star through 1950, when "Pogo" was syndicated in several newspapers. Also showing at the Fantagraphics bookstore in Georgetown through Jan. 4 is the exhibit "Playing Possum: The Pogo Art of Walt Kelly," a selection of Kelly's original strips in a 1 ½-by-6-foot format.

"Pogo" collects two years' worth of strips and tells Kelly's story, including his boyhood as an indifferent student and his tutorial at Walt Disney Studios, where he learned to draw three-dimensional living, moving characters. Kelly left Walt Disney, went to work for newspapers and eventually made it big in the newspaper syndication business.

Kelly had an uneasy relationship with the newspapers that ran the strip. Though "Pogo" was hilarious, it could also be extremely pointed. Fantagraphics curator Larry Reid says the Hoover strips, featuring a bulldog with an uncanny resemblance to the FBI director, aggravated Hoover no end. "He was driven to distraction" by the notion that the strips had hidden messages embedded in them, says Reid. "He had cryptographers trying to decipher swamp talk."

Kelly campaigned against segregation in his cartoons, and a number of Southern papers dropped the strip. Toward the end of his career, Kelly embraced environmentalism, which inspired his most famous image: a woeful Pogo picking up litter in the Okefenokee, turning to the reader and saying: "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

The multivolume Pogo project represents a continuation of Fantagraphics' mission of reviving old comics. Though the publisher issues plenty of dark 21st century comics and graphic novels, its publication of the complete "Peanuts" and early versions of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck has been commercially successful, says Reid.

And there's a clear connection between 20th-century comic geniuses like Kelly and his descendants. "The Wild Blue Yonder" includes tributes from Jeff Smith, creator of the "Bone" comics, who says he still studies Kelly's brush technique. And Bill Watterson, creator of the late lamented "Calvin and Hobbes" strips, said, in a speech honoring what would have been Kelly's 75th birthday, that there was nothing like "Pogo" for art, wit and imagination. "There have been a few fine and imaginative strips since Pogo, of course, but none has taken such complete advantage of the cartoon medium," said Watterson. "Pogo shows what a comic strip can really be."

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or On Twitter @gwinnma. Mary Ann Gwinn appears on Classical KING-FM's Arts Channel at

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