Thursday, October 14, 2004


I loved reading Walt Kelly’s comics and particularly recall bringing my Pogo books to Maine for summer reading. I think the grownups around me thought I was precocious, pretentious, or both. I just remember the fun of it all.

Later, as it happened, Walt’s daughter was a classmate at Swarthmore (as was Gene Kelly’s daughter: offspring of two famous persons of Irish heritage -- bio of Walt & bio of Gene).

There’s a Pogo review, more of a reminiscence and meditation in the Boston Review:

The Happy Place
John Crowley

Pogo, vols. 1–11
Walt Kelly
Fantagraphics Books, $9.95 each (paper)


[T]he language has nothing in common with any “Southern” speech ever heard; though some of it might be called “stage Southern,” on the model of “stage Irish”—the “ever-lovin’ blue-eyed dag-blagged lil’ scapers” sort of thing—the whole is unrelated even to American illiterate speech. It has less in common with Joel Chandler Harris or other rural wits than it has with the synthetic language of Herriman’s Krazy Kat and, arguably, the Irish dialect of James Joyce. The constancy of puns and wordplay; the subtle transmogrification of words into unrelated but significant other words that shadow them; the misheard, misremembered, and misspoken—the language not only drives the strips forward but embellishes the corners and backgrounds of panel upon panel with play that is not quite nonsense: Sent under separate cover of darkness . . . Support you in the style to which you are a customer . . . It don’t pay to Tinker for Ever with Chance . . . To corn a phrase . . . Girl of the Limberwurst . . . Never dark on the door again...

I can’t argue that the elaborate and continuous verbal play is really distinctly Irish, or even Irish-American, though it was a constant feature of my own household, and seems to me clearly related not only to innate (or at least highly regarded and rewarded) verbal facility but also to a compulsion to put signifiers in doubt where the signified (sex, say, or money, or religion) is hard to approach directly.

CHURCHY: Now, if we clear our throats with ASCAP, we’ll be all set.

MOUSE: (Checks sheet music.) Hold it! “Silent Night” is effective played fortissimo on a steam calliope.

CHURCHY: Our steam calliope was traded to Cleveland for a second baseman an’ a pitchpipe.

MOUSE: Then I’ll carry the tenor (providin’ he has a light rein)

BUN RAB: Here’s the key . . . . (Plays:) bloo bloo

CHURCHY: Bloo? What kind of a key is that?

BUN RAB: Bloo? Old bloo is a Yale key . . . Want to make somethin’ of it?

MOUSE: Yes . . . We could make a lovely bolt for the door.

I think there is an [easy] way to account for what goes on in most of Pogo, though it didn’t occur to me until I had grown up and had children and watched them grow: above all, it seems to me, what goes on in the swamp is very like what goes on in many a backyard. The interplay of imagination and asserted reality, whereby the same small cast continually reinvents itself by donning old clothes, and asserts the new roles (with their concomitant power and responsibility) until weariness sets in or a fight breaks out; the ability to travel great distances and go on long adventures within a very small space; the cheerful forgetting of rages and obsessions as soon as new amusements arise; even the inchoate language and the moral ambiguities seem a part of child-life. What clued me in was the legs and feet: studying these fat little legs and bare toes, I suddenly realized I was looking at children (probably Kelly’s own), and this made a new sense out of the constant inventiveness and play—the spaceships and mechanical men made of junk, the TV station made of an old bureau with an empty mirror frame. The paralyzing shyness of the male characters in the face of sexuality fits with this conception as well—they all court Miz Hepzibah the Parisian skunk, though they never get farther than delivering the flowers (or the pail of fish) before being overcome with nerves and running away, unless food is on offer. So it used to be with little boys and little girls, some of the time anyway, and though it’s different now, it’s not all different.

The activities of the Pogo characters are, like those of children, free from seriousness as we observe them, but not as they are experienced by the characters themselves; if it were not so, they would be trivial. The dark menace that, as I have noted, sometimes intrudes amid them, and sorts them into the few who are brave and wise and the many who are less so, proceeds into their Eden from the outside (adult) world, which they can consider and imitate but not in the end be truly harmed by. And isn’t this what we would wish for children too: that their space be both safe and free? Yet we know the menace to be there.

Pogo is dream-Edenic, a world at once ever-novel and changeless... I loved it unreservedly as a child, and it is bound up with my own childhood; so my necessary expulsion from the one Eden only increases my longtime delight in the other, and also the melancholy at the heart of my contemplation.

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