Years in the making and well worth the wait, “Pogo: Through the Wild Blue Yonder’’ collects the daily and Sunday panels of the earliest years of Walt Kelly’s justly celebrated comic strip. There are 11 more volumes to go in this worthy resurrection of a cultural signpost that stretched from the late 1940s into the early 1970s. Fans of natural, fresh brushwork, an inimitable way with words, affection for American vernacular, and a
colorful, pioneering political attitude anomalous in those largely black-and-white times will revel in this oversize, carefully curated memento of a fondly remembered cultural icon.
These strips were first published in the New York Star and shortly thereafter went into syndication, appearing in hundreds of newspapers between the end of 1948 and 1951, when Simon and Schuster published the first “Pogo’’ collection. “Pogo’’ remained strongly popular for two decades before seeing a decline in interest capped by Kelly’s death in 1973.
The strips here are organized by week and separated into daily and Sunday sections. The book features an introduction by Kelly biographer Steve Thompson and includes annotations by R.C. Harvey and a foreword by legendary newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin.
“Pogo’’ was the first overtly liberal comic strip, a platform for Kelly to rail against the hypocrisy and hysteria of an era rife with jingoism and racism. Pogo himself was a remarkably tolerant opossum, the central figure of an animal society in Okefenokee Swamp, an area straddling southern Georgia and northern Florida. The swamp, itself a character, is the humid setting for relationships involving Pogo, his best friend Albert the alligator; the noble hound dog Beauregard Bugleboy; Porky, the grouchy porcupine who often gives the story line its pathos; and many more, from these majors to a bug so minor he’s invisible.
The complexity of this cute but caustic allegorical world prefigures that of such strips as “Calvin & Hobbes,’’ which also uses animals as stand-ins for humans, and “Doonesbury,’’ which, like “Pogo,’’ is decidedly topical and irreverent. “Pogo,’’ after all, has been credited with being the first comic to skewer Senator Joseph McCarthy, the red-baiter embodied in Simple J. Malarkey, a stubble-faced wildcat Kelly courageously introduced in 1953. Over the years, the strip would go on to poke fun at controversial politicians and public officials such as George Wallace, J. Edgar Hoover, and Richard Nixon.
No matter how acid his satire could be, however, Kelly always seemed to be having fun. Small wonder the Harvard Crimson endorsed Pogo for president in 1952, when Kelly threw the character’s hat in the ring against Republican Dwight Eisenhower and Democrat Adlai Stevenson (there even were “I Go Pogo’’ buttons).
The attraction of “Pogo’’ was not all politics. The panels, some standalone, some serial, burst with rogues like Wiley Cat and rubes like Churchy La Femme, a turtle given to robust declamations of fractured Christmas carols (“Deck us all with Boston Charlie,’’ “Good King Sourkraut’’) They attest to community no matter how confrontational the characters are.
And while Kelly is best known for political satire he was not above simply nudging the faults and foibles we all share though the bickering and cajoling of his characters in their tortured, mock Southern drawl: “Jes’ keep yo’ eye peeled whilst I DEE-barks from the boat . . . you gotta act elegant,’’ Albert tells Pogo before a board smacks him in the snout in the following panel. “Man, you sure is messin’ with the high-tone manners,’’ Pogo scolds.
Most of this works wonderfully, though some registration in the color Sunday funnies is spotty and Breslin’s foreword is more loose personal recollection than enlightening. “Through the Wild Blue Yonder’’ is a labor of love, assembled with the help of Kelly’s heirs and comics experts who effectively contextualize “Pogo,’’ that singular and enduring achievement. This oversize book, which reads like a newspaper, revisits a fabulous, funny, and all-American world lost for far too long.
Correction: An earlier version of this article erroneously said Dwight Eisenhower was the incumbent candidate for president in 1952. Eisenhower was first elected in 1952.