“We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
That famous quote is from the comic strip “Pogo,” and truer words were never spoken — even though they were spoken by an anthropomorphic opossum. That little fella, Pogo, was the star of a comic strip written and drawn by Walt Kelly (and his heirs) from 1948 to 1975, and is well remembered for its whimsy, political satire, sociological insight, bigfoot slapstick, philosophical musings and clever wordplay.
But Pogo Possum didn’t begin as we know him now. Kelly penned, “We have met the enemy, and we are his’n” for a cartoon he did as a freelancer for the Bridgeport (Conn.) Post newspaper in 1931. Then came five years honing his craft at the Walt Disney Studios, where he worked on “Dumbo,” “Fantasia” and “Pinocchio.” That translated to drawing Disney and other “funny animal” characters for Dell Comics in the early ’40s, where he created Pogo Possum and Albert the Alligator for the first issue of “Animal Comics” in 1943.
Pogo and Albert were only supporting characters in “Animal Comics,” but took center stage when Kelly took his creations to the New York Star as a newspaper strip in 1948. The Star folded within a year, but “Pogo” immediately relaunched with the Hall Syndicate, whereupon Kelly started the strip over and even redrew some of the Star strips. There were no further perambulations; Kelly had found a home for his swamp critters that would last the rest of his life.
Those wonderful strips entertained generations of Americans, and now, thanks to Fantagraphics, which is archiving the entire run chronologically in a 12-volume hardback set, supervised by Walt’s daughter, Carolyn Kelly.
“Pogo: Through the Wild Blue Wonder — The Complete Syndicated Strips, Vol. 1” arrived in 2011, collecting the Star strips and the syndicated strips through 1950. Those early adventures introduce us to Pogo, Albert, Churchy La Femme, Howland Owl, Beauregard “Houn’Dog” Bugleboy, Deacon Mushrat, Porky Pine, Ma’amselle Hepzibah and other central characters. They also introduced a number of “Pogo” conventions. For example, the name of Pogo’s fishing skiff routinely changed, as Kelly always renamed it in honor of whatever newspaper added “Pogo” to its comics page.
Absent, though, is what we normally associate with “Pogo”: political satire. In those days, as now, it was considered commercial suicide to joke about politics, for fear of alienating half your audience. Kelly wasn’t brave enough to do it — not yet — in these early strips. But it’s coming.
The recent Vol. 2, “Bona Fide Balderdash” ($40), gives us a foreword by satirist Stan Freberg, plus more text by Evanier, R.C. Harvey and others. Of course, the strips are the star, carrying us through 1952.
In these strips we meet the Barnumlike P.T. Bridgeport, and finally politics begins sneaking in the back door. Bridgeport launches the “Pogo for president” campaign — much to Pogo’s distress — which became a quadrennial event.