Walt Kelly

Walt Kelly

Infobox Comics creator
name = Walt Kelly

imagesize =
caption =
birthname = Walter Crawford Kelly Jr.
birthdate = birth date|1913|8|25|mf=y
location = Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
deathdate = death date and age|1973|10|18|1913|8|25
deathplace = Woodland Hills, California
nationality = American
area = artist, writer
alias =
notable works = "Pogo"
awards = full list

Walter Crawford Kelly, Jr (August 25, 1913October 18, 1973), known as Walt Kelly, was a cartoonist notable for his comic strip "Pogo" featuring characters that inhabited a portion of the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia.


Walter Crawford Kelly, Jr. was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. While he was still a child, his family moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut where his father worked in a munitions plant. After graduating from Warren Harding High School in 1930, Kelly worked a few odd jobs until landing a position as a crime reporter on the Bridgeport Post. There he took up cartooning and illustrated a biography of Bridgeport native P. T. Barnum.

Kelly is often associated with two other giants of the medium: Milton Caniff ("Terry and the Pirates", "Steve Canyon") and Al Capp ("Li'l Abner"). The three cartoonists were close personal friends and professional associates throughout their adult lives, and occasionally referenced each other in their strips. According to one anecdote, (from "Al Capp Remembered", 1994) Capp and his brother Elliot ducked out of a dull party at Capp's home - leaving Walt Kelly alone to fend for himself entertaining a group of Argentine envoys who didn't speak English. Kelly retaliated by giving away Capp's baby grand piano. According to Capp, who loved to relate the story, Kelly's two perfectly logical reasons for doing so were: "a." to cement diplomatic relations between Argentina and the United States, and "b." "Because you can't play the piano, anyway." Capp said of Kelly, "Walt, when he chooses to be, is one of the funniest men in the world." ("Playboy", December 1965)

Milton Caniff related another anecdote (from "Phi Beta Pogo", 1989) involving Walt Kelly and Al Capp, "two boys from Bridgeport, Connecticut, nose to nose," onstage at a meeting of the Newspaper Comics Council in the sixties. "Walt would say to Al, 'Of course, Al, this is really how you should draw Daisy Mae, I'm only showing you this for your own good.' Then Walt would do a sketch. Capp, of course, got ticked off by this, as you can imagine! So he retaliated by doing "his" version of Pogo. Unfortunately, the drawings are long gone; no recording was made. What a shame! Nobody anticipated there'd be this dueling back and forth between the two of them..."

The Disney Studios

Relocating to Southern California, reportedly in pursuit of his future wife, Helen DeLacy, who had moved there, he found a job at Walt Disney Productions as a storyboard artist and gag man on Donald Duck cartoons and other shorts, requesting a switch to the animation department in 1939. Starting over as an animator, Kelly became an assistant to noted Walt Disney animator Fred Moore, and became close friends with Moore and Ward Kimball, one of Disney's Nine Old Men.

Kelly worked for Disney from January 6, 1936 to September 12, 1941, contributing to films including "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs", "Fantasia", "Dumbo", and The Reluctant Dragon. Kelly once stated that his salary at Disney averaged about a hundred dollars a week. During 1935 and 1936, his work also appeared in early comic books for what later became DC Comics.

Kelly's animation can be seen in "Pinocchio" when Gepetto is first seen inside Monstro the whale, fishing; in "Fantasia" when Bacchus is seen drunkenly riding a donkey during the Beethoven/"Pastoral Symphony" sequence; and in "Dumbo" of the ringmaster and during bits of the crows' sequence; and his drawings are especially recognizable in "The Reluctant Dragon" of the little boy, and in the Mickey Mouse short "The Little Whirlwind" when Mickey is running from the larger tornado.

During the 1941 animators strike, Kelly did not picket the studio, as has often been reported, but took a leave of absence — pleading "family illness" — in order to avoid choosing sides. Surviving correspondence between Kelly and his close friend and fellow animator Ward Kimball chronicles his ambivalence towards the highly charged dispute. Ward Kimball stated in an interview years later that Kelly felt creatively constricted in animation, a collective art form, and possibly over-challenged by the technical demands of the form, and had been looking for a way out when the strike occurred.

Kelly never returned to the studio as an animator, but jobs adapting the studio's films "Pinocchio" and "The Three Caballeros" for Dell Comics — apparently the result of a recommendation from Walt Disney himself — led to a new (and ultimately transitional) career.

Dell Comics

Kelly began a series of comic books based on fairy tales and nursery rhymes along with annuals celebrating Christmas and Easter for Dell Comics. Kelly seems to have written or co-written much of the material he drew for the comics; his unique touches are easily discernible. He also produced a series of stories based on the "Our Gang" film series, provided covers for "Walt Disney's Comics and Stories", illustrated the aforementioned adaptations of two Disney animated features, drew stories featuring Raggedy Ann and Andy and Uncle Wiggily, wrote and drew a lengthy series of comic books promoting a bread company and featuring a character called "Peter Wheat", and did a series of pantomime (i.e. without dialogue) two-page stories featuring Roald Dahl's Gremlins for Walt Disney's Comics and Stories #34-41. [Sampson, Wade "The Return of the Gremlins" http://www.mouseplanet.com/articles.php?art=ww080423ws] Kelly also wrote, drew, and performed during this period on children's records, children's books, and cereal boxes. He was so prolific in the 1940s that it is assumed that the extent of his work can never be completely documented.

Although his health would not allow him to serve in the military [Kelly, Walt: "Phi Beta Pogo", p. 197, Simon and Schuster, 1989.] , during World War II, Kelly also worked in the Army's Foreign Language Unit illustrating manuals, including several on language — a favorite Kelly subject — and one manual on the use of tools depicting his friend Ward Kimball as a caveman.

This period saw the creation of Kelly's most famous character, Pogo, who first saw print in 1943 in Dell's "Animal Comics". The initial stories, probably influenced by Joel Chandler Harris' Uncle Remus stories, pitted a human boy named Bumbazine against wily Albert the Alligator, with Pogo Possum in a supporting role. Albert eventually supplanted Bumbazine for the lead role, and Pogo supplanted Albert, with the sole human character- whom Kelly ultimately considered less believable- disappearing from the series altogether.

Pogo was almost unrecognizable in his initial appearance, resembling a real possum more closely than in his classic form. He gradually assumed a rounder and more appealing shape and construction, much like Mickey Mouse's, including a black nose that he would retain until the eve of his transition to the comics page in 1948.

Kelly's work with Dell continued well into the successful run of the newspaper strip in the early fifties, ending after sixteen issues of "Pogo Possum" (each with all new material) in a dispute over the republication of Kelly's early Pogo and Albert stories in a special comic book called "The Pogo Parade". Having grown tremendously as an artist and writer, Kelly no longer wished to see his earlier work in print.

"New York Star"

He returned to journalism as a political cartoonist after the war. In 1948, while art director of the short-lived "New York Star", Kelly began to produce a pen-and-ink strip of current-events commentary populated by characters from Okefenokee Swamp. The first "Pogo" strip appeared on October 4, 1948. After the "New York Star" folded on Jan. 28, 1949 Kelly arranged for syndication through the Hall Syndicate which relaunched the strip in May 1949. Kelly eventually arranged to acquire the copyright and ownership of the strip, which was uncommon in that era.


"Pogo" was a landmark strip in many ways and Kelly is arguably one of the greatest and most influential of cartoonists in the history of the craft. Kelly combined masterful line and brush-work (learned at the "mouse factory", Disney) with fluent and highly amusing story-telling acted out by an endearing cast of "nature's screechers". He borrowed from various dialectical sources and his own fertile imagination to invent a unique and charming backwoods-patois, heavy on the nonsense, to fit his cartoon swampland. Although "Pogo" stands on its own as a superbly-realised cartoon strip for the ages, it was perhaps Kelly's interjection of political and social satire into the work that was its greatest pioneering accomplishment — such commentary was simply not done in the genre of dailies in Kelly's time.

The principal characters were Pogo the Possum, Albert the Alligator, Churchy LaFemme ("cf". Cherchez la femme), a turtle, Howland Owl, Beauregard (Houndog), Porkypine, and Miss Mamzelle Hepzibah, a French skunk. Kelly used the strip in part as a vehicle for his liberal and humanistic political and social views and satirized, among other things, Senator Joseph McCarthy's anti-Communist demagogy (in the form of a shotgun-wielding bobcat named "Simple J. Malarkey") and the sectarian and dogmatic behavior of Communists.

Another interesting facet of the comic strip were the unique speech balloons that several characters were drawn with. One character, Deacon Mushrat, an educated muskrat, spoke in speech balloons with decorated Gothic style lettering. The village mortician, Sarcophagas Macabre, a vulture, had square, black-framed speech balloons with fine script lettering, resembling funeral announcements. P.T. Bridgeport, a bear and showman and promoter of questionable repute, spoke with speech balloons in highly decorated type, resembling 19th century circus posters.

In 1951 Simon and Schuster issued the first paperback book collection of the strip, simply titled "Pogo", to excellent sales. The book introduced Kelly's unusual format: rather than simply reproduce strips, Kelly edited them heavily, removing many panels, adding many others, and omitting many strips entirely in order to create many short, humorously titled chapters that read in a comic book (rather than comic strip) style. "I Go Pogo" quickly followed the first book. Kelly would go on to produce about thirty titles in this format during his lifetime, with several more issued posthumously. All are highly sought by collectors. Still ultra-prolific, Kelly often wrote and illustrated short poems for these books, and eventually began adding elaborate full-length stories that were specially created for the books. Over time, the amount of special material in these books would grow to the point that some contained no daily or Sunday "Pogo" material and were created by Kelly from scratch.

In 1952 and later, a "Pogo for President" campaign, with followers wearing "I Go Pogo" buttons, became an expression of political protest. "Pogo" was also distinguished by exceptional linguistic inventiveness and playfulness, as expressed, for example, in the Pogo version of songs such as "Deck Us All with Boston Charlie" (for "Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly") and "Ma Bonny lice soda devotion" (for "My Bonnie lies over the ocean").

Perhaps the most famous quotation to come from this series is, "We have met the enemy and he is us" (a paraphrase of Commodore Perry's famous "We have met the enemy and he is ours" from the War of 1812). The earliest form of this expression appeared in his introduction to "The Pogo Papers" (1953); it was used much later in the comic strip and as the title of a collection of strips. This is typical of the wry and politically astute commentary to be found in the daily and Sunday strip. It was distributed by King Features Syndicate to hundreds of newspapers for many years. The individual strips were collected into at least twenty books edited by Kelly, reprinted editions of some of these remain available today. He received the Reuben Award for the series in 1951.

Walt Kelly illustrated "The Glob", a children's book about the evolution of man written by John O'Reilly and published in 1952. The characters and creatures in the book have a distinctly "Pogoian" character.

In 1969, a half-hour animated television special, "The Pogo Special Birthday Special" was produced, and aired on the NBC television network. Kelly himself provided the voices for P.T. Bridgeport, Albert Alligator and Howland Owl. In an interview Ward Kimball, who had worked with Kelly at Disney, quoted Kelly as saying angrily that Chuck Jones had changed the script without Kelly's ok, and altered Miss Mam'selle Hepzibah's face to look more human. [Kelly, Walt: "Phi Beta Pogo", p. 146, Simon and Schuster, 1989.]

Having previously lampooned McCarthy, Kelly was also censored by some papers in the 1960s for portraying Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev as a pig and Fidel Castro as a cigar-smoking goat spouting pseudo-Marxism like "The shortage will be divided amongst the peasants!" [Kelly, Walt: "Instant Pogo", p. 11, Simon and Schuster, 1962.] Kelly had spent time in Cold War Berlin, writing newspaper articles about the situation there. [Kelly, Walt: "Outrageously Pogo", pp. 61-69, Simon and Schuster, 1985.]

During the 1968 political campaign, Kelly's strip depicted rival Presidential candidates Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon as the Tweedle twins (Tweedledum and Tweedledee) but never established which was which: each twin claimed to be "Dee" while identifying the other as "Dum". In later years, Kelly's strip featured caricatures of Nixon depicted as a spider, J. Edgar Hoover as a bulldog, Spiro T. Agnew as a hyena and George C. Wallace as a bantam cock.

Throughout the run of "Pogo", the strip's characters frequently traversed the Okefenokee Swamp aboard a flimsy flat-bottomed boat. Kelly developed the pleasant gimmick of lettering the boat's name on its hull ... the gimmick being that the name changed from one day to the next, and even from panel to panel within the same day's strip, but was always a tribute to some obscure real-life person whom Kelly wished to salute in print.

In contrast to the rigidly straight-edged panels of most other comic strips, the panels of "Pogo" were always defiantly hand-drawn in Kelly's beautiful ink lines with no attempt at straightness. Frequently a "Pogo" character would lean against the edge of the panel, or Albert would strike a match (to light his cigar) against the nearest panel edge, invariably distorting the panel even further.

Walt Kelly died in 1973 in Woodland Hills, California from diabetes complications, following a long and debilitating illness that had cost him a leg. During his final illness, work on the strip had fallen to various assistants (and occasionally reprints), and Kelly characteristically joked about returning to work as soon as he re-grew the leg. He is sometimes listed as having been interred in the Cemetery of the Evergreens in Brooklyn, New York, but there is no grave for him there. He is believed to have been cremated.

Legacy in print and other media

"Pogo" was continued by Kelly's widow, Selby, and various assistants until the summer of 1975. Reprint books continued in a steady stream, including a series reprinting several original books under a single cover according to various themes — romance, elections — that ran into the 1980s. In 1977, a small publisher called the Gregg Press reprinted the first ten "Pogo" books in hardcover editions with dust jackets. In 1995, another small press called Jonas/Winter issued another ten "Pogo" titles in navy blue cloth editions. In the 1980s a series of trade paperbacks- "The Best Of Pogo", "Pogo Even Better", "Outrageously Pogo", "Pluperfect Pogo", and "Phi Beta Pogo" collected material from Kelly fanzine "The Okefenokee Star" and combined examples of Kelly's massive output of non-strip material with new interviews, essays, and in each volume, a complete year of dailies from the strip starting in 1948. These books were unusual in that they were focused on Kelly's entire life and work, rather than just "Pogo" specifically.

In 1980, a clay animation feature film, "Pogo For President" (aka "I Go Pogo") was released, but failed to gain much media attention. Ironically, it was ultimately purchased by The Walt Disney Company and has seen limited release in home formats.

In 1989 the "Los Angeles Times" attempted to revive the strip with other artists, including Kelly's children Carolyn and Peter, under the title "Walt Kelly's Pogo". The new strip ran through the early nineties. Also in 1989, Eclipse Books began publication of a hardcover series called "Walt Kelly's Pogo And Albert" collecting the early Dell "Pogo" comic book stories in color and starting with the characters' first appearance in 1943. The series reached four numbered volumes, with volumes 2, 3, and 4 subtitled "At The Mercy Of Elephants", "Diggin' Fo' Square Roots", and "Dreamin' Of A Wide Catfish", respectively.

In 1992, Fantagraphics Books began a series of chronological strip reprints in paperback form, simply titled "Pogo". Through 2000, the series reached 11 volumes and reprinted daily strips from the first New York Star strip of October 4, 1948 through February 12, 1954.

In 2002, Dark Horse Comics issued Pogo and Albert figures in limited editions as part of their "Classic Comic Character Series" of statues. Issued in lavishly illustrated tin containers, the figures quickly sold out.

In 2003, Reaction Records reissued Kelly's 1956 album "Songs Of The Pogo" on compact disc. The album features Kelly singing his own comic lyrics and nonsense verse to melodies written by Norman Monath. The disc also features the content of Kelly's later recordings, "No" and "Can't", which were issued as children's book-and-record sets in the late sixties, with booklets written and illustrated by Kelly to go along with his recorded performances.

In February 2007 it was announced that Fantagraphics Books would begin publication of "The Complete Pogo", a projected 12-volume series collecting the complete chronological run of daily and Sunday strips, to be overseen by Kelly aficionado and famed comic book creator Jeff Smith.The first volume in the series was scheduled to appear in October 2007, but delays, reportedly resulting from the difficulty in locating early Sunday strips in complete form, have pushed its release until sometime in mid 2009. [Interview: Mark Evanier on 'Kirby: King of Comics' http://www.comicmix.com/news/2008/03/10/interview-mark-evanier-on-kirby-king-of-comics/]

Fantagraphics Books has also published three volumes of a series collecting Kelly's "Our Gang" comic book stories from 1943–1945, with cover art by Jeff Smith and introductions by Leonard Maltin and Kelly chronicler Steve Thompson.


In 1968, the country rock band Poco made their debut at Doug Weston's Troubadour Club in West Hollywood, California under the name "Pogo". After they had performed enough to establish themselves, they were sued by Kelly and subsequently changed the name to "Poco" in order to minimize the damage. Band member Richie Furay said "When the Buffalo-Springfield Roller Company found out we were using their name, they wrote back and said 'Hey, really glad to see the name. Use it, have fun.' It was really neat to have someone encourage us like that. But Walt didn't see things that way."


* 1951: National Cartoonists Society, Reuben Award, Cartoonist of the YearCite web|last=Hahn Library|title=National Cartoonists Society Awards|url=http://www.hahnlibrary.net/comics/awards/reubensum.shtml]
* 1972: National Cartoonists Society, Silver T-Square Extraordinary Service Award


External links

* [http://lambiek.net/artists/k/kelly.htm Walt Kelly biography] on Lambiek Comiclopedia
* [http://www.toonopedia.com/kelly.htm Walt Kelly biography] Toonopedia
* [http://www.pogopossum.com/index.htm OGPI Pogo official site]
* [http://www.animationarchive.org/2007/04/comics-walt-kellys-pogo.html ASIFA-Hollywood salute to Walt Kelly]
* [http://michaelbarrier.com/Essays/WaltKelly1955/WaltKelly1955.html 1955 Walt Kelly publicity photos]

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