When I was a kid, there were all sorts of paperback volumes of an old cartoon strip lying around the house. It was called Pogo, and was one of my Mom’s favourites; it was full of marvellous drawings of fanciful, adorable creatures that were supposed to be the denizens of Okeefenokee swamp, an actual wildlife preserve that straddles the Florida-Georgia border. The title character was a ‘possum. He served as a sort of bemused stage director to the other animals that carried on all around him, including a porcupine, a mole, an alligator, a hound dog, a little puppy child, all sorts of critters, all beautifully drawn. The author was Walt Kelly, a wise and wonderful man with a wit and insight I was too young to appreciate, at least until I learned some more, a lot of which Walt taught me.
The characters spoke in a strange Southern dialect, and being all of nine years old or so, I didn’t understand all the puns and pop culture references, much less that the creatures of Okeefenokee were players in a rich political allegory that commented on the tumultuous political scene of the fifties and sixties. I just liked the drawings. Walt Kelly had worked in the Disney shop for a while, and his strips transcended the genre, boasting some of the most flat-out beautiful illustrations that ever graced the Sunday funnies. His animals looked real. They struck natural poses, they sat and stood and gesticulated just like the dogs, moose and ‘gators of your mind’s eye were supposed to, and you could imagine how they moved, and what their voices sounded like. Actually, Kelly helped you out there – the dialog balloons above the characters’ heads were often written in fonts that reflected the speaker’s tone of voice. This is P.T. Bridgeport, a carnival-barking bear, and political organizer:
He hung out with a tiger named Tammanany, whose direct descendant, I’ve always thought, later starred in the wonderful Calvin and Hobbes:
Here’s the dour, religious Deacon Mushrat:
There was a turtle named Churchy laFemme, one of Pogo’s inner circle, along with Albert the Alligator, who always had a cigar going.
Pogo was a political cartoon, but before I found that out I was happy just to absorb the many story lines that were simply funny, or sometimes downright sentimental. There was slapstick, and ill-starred romance. There were bad puns, and mangled syntax. Somebody always had a get-rich-quick scheme in the works – Churchy once tried to strike it big with his new product DIRT, which was just exactly as advertised, and seemed a sure winner because nobody could clean without it. Pogo himself was always trying to avoid the alluring Mam’selle Hepzibah, a lovely French skunk (shades of Pepe le Pew) who wished to court him; meanwhile, Pogo’s dear friend, Porky Porcupine, had a desperate unrequited longing for the fetching mam’selle, and was apt to show up with flowers meant for the lady, only to find her chasing Pogo. Or he’d try to serenade her:
Porky always looked angry, and was apt to say testy things. Pogo asked him about his quills, at one point – “Do you ever roll over in your sleep and stick your own self?” “YES AND I’M GLAD” responded Porky. “Don’t like anybody”. But he did. He was fiercely loyal to his possum friend.
It could get a little dark. In Innocence Aloft, the sequel to Mars or Bust, Pogo and Churchy strap into a bucket that uses two geese as engines, flapping towards the heavens, presumably good to go as far as the Red Planet, until the birds begin to squabble about who’s pulling the hardest, and go on strike. They stop flapping and perch obstinately on the bucket’s rim, wings folded, glaring, as the little would-be spacecraft plummets like a rock and its occupants get violently air sick. It’s bad. “I is feared we’ll crash and all die” says Pogo. “I is feared we won’t” says Churchy, ready to hurl.
In between, the absurdities of the American political system were always resurfacing to be lampooned. “Pogo for President” became a running gag, and for a few years there, Pogo campaign paraphernalia became popular, like these buttons:
They came with slogans like “Vote Early, Vote Often”, and “Pogo Won’t Play Possum in the White House”. Within the strip, being dragooned into the race for the White House was the last thing Pogo wanted, of course, no matter how much PT Bridgeport cajoled.
When it came to the social commentary and political satire, I usually didn’t know what Kelly was lampooning, but I just ate it up, and my friends will tell you that I still repeat the phrases that coloured the satire. In Sufferin’ on the Steppes, a poke at the Soviets, Kelly turned his cast of characters into long-suffering Russian proles who spouted slogans and spoke sotto voce of their dissident leanings. One proudly clasps a paper bag, into which he had once shouted “Down with the Gummint!!” (“gummint” was Okeefenokee for “government”). It was still in there, that defiant scream, but when the bag’s opened, the holler that flies out is “Hooray for the Gummint!!”. “Of course, I had to disguise it some”, explains our wily protester. As they stand there at a broken down train station waiting for the 5:15, the tracks all twisted into knots, one of them consults his wristwatch – actually a tiny hourglass affixed to a strap – and realizes it’s plugged with sand fleas. It doesn’t matter anyway, he’s told, since “the 5:15 has been switched to the 7:20, so if it gets here at all today, it’ll be early”. Pogo, playing a loyal citizen, exclaims that he wishes “our noble scientists would invent a Live Forever Pill, so I could work and work and work and work!”
This was mild mockery next to what he did to American politics. All the players were there; Joseph McCarthy was portrayed by a polecat named “Simple J. Malarkey”, and shady operatives like the mole belonged to Okeefenokee’s version of the John Birchers, the “Jack Acid Society”. The mole was a nativist, the sort of xenophobe we see so much of today, while his pal Malarkey was obviously out for blood, cautioning the Deacon that free speech is protected and all, but still:
What a surprise it was to learn many years later about the hysterical excesses of the McCarthy era, and realize that I’d already been there. This McCarthy character – I’d seen him before. I recognized his arrogant scowling mug. Likewise Khruschev (played by a pig), Spiro Agnew ( a sort of dog), and many others.
This stuff was controversial at the time, as was Doonesbury in its heyday. Now and then, conservative papers would refuse to run the strips, and Kelly would supply them innocuous panels filled with bunnies instead, which they ran without knowing they were being mocked. I would’ve run them too, because after all, nobody drew a better bunny than Walt:
Heck, nobody drew a better anything than Walt. Look at this elephant (named Peenie Brickle, Okeefenokee for “peanut brittle”), who always goes unnoticed in a room:
Or this platoon of insects:
Here’s a beautifully rendered rabbit as court reporter, reading aloud the indictment against the Knave of Hearts, on trial for stealing a plate of tarts:
Which brings me to the point. Pogo resonates today because every issue it dealt with, every inanity, every injustice, every bout of demagoguery, was the same as those we face today. The very same. As we listen to the pundits on Fox News scream about purging disloyal federal employees, I’m reminded of the story that surrounded the above-depicted rabbit: Who Stole the Tarts?, a Lewis Carroll-inspired take on the McCarthy witch hunts, with the cartoon courtroom as presided over by Simple J. Malarkey standing in for the House Un-American Activities Committee. The accused was a downcast (and innocent) Churchy La Femme, shackled and hopeless, and Pogo played an increasingly indignant Alice, bridling in the gallery at the unfairness of the proceedings and the smug bullying of the judges. It turns out there was no crime at all – the tarts were never stolen, and in fact are sitting there on open display, right in the courtroom. Lashing out in protest, Alice rails against the bogus evidence and tyrannical procedure (they resolve to enter the verdict before determining guilt or innocence) until she finally wheels on the guards, angrily denouncing them: “Who cares for you? You’re nothing but a pack of cards!”, which indeed they are – a whole pack of animated playing cards armed with pikes, which Alice scatters into the air before awaking from her bad dream.
This was the early 1950s. Here we sit in 2018, waiting for the current house of cards to collapse, and anybody who’d grown up reading Pogo would understand it all perfectly, see it all with crystal clarity. Walt, where are you when we need you?
Kelly understood that the themes of what he referred to as “the passing comedy” would ever repeat themselves. We couldn’t help it – as Pogo famously stated, only slightly paraphrasing Commodore Perry, “We have met the enemy, and he is us”. We’d never wise up, not really; all we could do was relearn the old lessons, and to re-teach us there’d always be a mole in our midst; we’d always be barked at by polecats like Malarkey. A bit of a poet (his version of the Christmas song Deck the Halls became famous, opening with the line “Deck us all with Boston Charlie“), Kelly penned this unassuming, poignant little verse that has stuck with me through the years, and which now seems particularly apt:
For Lewis Carroll and the Children
The gentle journey jars to stop.
The drifting dream is done.
The long-gone goblins loom ahead;
The deadly, who we thought were dead,
Stand waiting, every one.
They’ve returned, all right. Perhaps we can mock them until their nonsense becomes obvious to everyone and they crawl back under their rocks, as Kelly tried to do, and live in relative peace until the next time. Because there’s always a next time.
So be it, Walt seemed to say. Whenever the long gone goblins are back, so too will somebody eventually rise up to exclaim, loud and clear, that they’re nothing but a pack of cards.
I go Pogo.