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Tucson Weekly Swamp Wisdom

By Gregory McNamee

MARCH 15, 1999:  SWAMP WISDOM: A friend of mine can't wait for Christmas to come around every year, only so he'll have an excuse to wander around singing an odd little ditty to the tune of "Deck The Halls":

Deck us all with Boston Charlie

Walla Walla, Wash., an' Kalamazoo!

Nora's freezin' on the trolley,

Swaller dollar cauliflower, alleygaroo!

As does my friend, I remember the song from my childhood; somehow it was always there, like a church hymn or a nursery rhyme. I didn't connect it then with a button that hipsters wore circa 1960, proclaiming, "I Go Pogo." That button turned up around the time of the Kennedy-Nixon presidential race, echoing the previous race's "I Like Ike." I thought then that it referred to an actual candidate with an unlikely name, a perennial contender along the lines of Adlai Stevenson and Pat Paulsen.

Pogo was real. Well, sort of. The swamp-dwelling possum, like the holiday tune, was the brainchild of Walt Kelly (1913-1973), a cartoonist whose political fun-poking first delighted millions of Americans half a century ago.

Kelly was born in Philadelphia. As a young man, he moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut, where he worked a few odd jobs until landing a position as a crime reporter on the Bridgeport Post. Daily newspaper work did not inspire him much, but fellow reporters who admired the doodles with which Kelly decorated his notepads urged him to try his hand at cartooning.

He did just that. Kelly set off for Walt Disney's new studios in California, and with more courage than credentials, talked his way into a job as an animator for Donald Duck features. Kelly worked throughout the '30s and early '40s for Disney, contributing to films like Fantasia, Snow White, and Dumbo, and learning fine techniques of illustration as he did.

Kelly abandoned those fine techniques when, after World War II, he returned to journalism, this time as a political cartoonist. In 1948, when he was art director of the now-defunct New York Star, Kelly began to produce a purposely unsophisticated pen-and-ink strip of current-events commentary in which country-bumpkin characters from Georgia's Okefenokee Swamp talked about the issues of the day. Five years earlier, he'd published a prototype strip called "Bumbazine and Albert" in the monthly magazine Animal Comics, but Kelly would later claim 1948 as his strip's year of birth.

Cartooning, in those early days of McCarthyism, was a safer venue than straightforward editorial writing; but even so, Kelly managed to land in trouble more than once. Pogo became a kind of liberal reply to Al Capp's conservative L'il Abner, lampooning vice president Richard Nixon, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and even Senator Joseph McCarthy himself (embodied in the cunning cat Simple J. Malarkey). Kelly voiced his views through the mouths of aw-shucks cartoon characters like Pogo the naïve possum; the befuddled but sweet Albert Alligator; the grumpy tortoise Churchy Femme and the even grumpier porcupine called, of course, Porky Pine. That list went on into the hundreds of characters, major and minor, spanning 25 years.

Politicians may not have liked Pogo much, but readers did. Kelly's strip was quickly syndicated and published across the country, and soon Pogo the Possum's nonsensical catchphrases were on everyone's lips:

"Food is no substitute for the real thing."

"Each year is getting shorter."

"We are confronted with insurmountable opportunities."

And most famous of all, Pogo's mangling of John Paul Jones' famous dispatch in commemoration of Earth Day 1971: "We have met the enemy and he is us." So popular was Kelly's strip that the first of his many book collections, called simply Pogo, leapt to the head of the 1951 bestseller list, alongside Herman Wouk's The Caine Mutiny, James Jones' From Here to Eternity and Thor Heyerdahl's Kon-Tiki.

Pogo helped define American political culture for the next two decades. But by the early 1970s, in the era of Watergate and Vietnam, politics no longer seemed a laughing matter in this country, and Kelly's gently good-natured strip waned in popularity as more pointed comics like Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury came to the fore. Kelly is not as well remembered as he should be today, except among the cartoonists he inspired, and in out-of-the-way places like Waycross, Georgia, next door to the Okefenokee Swamp, which holds a weekend-long festival in Kelly's honor every October.

Given the Southern-tinged shenanigans of contemporary Washington, staffed by a whole new generation of ethically challenged, mean-spirited politicos, here on the heels of Pogo's 50th anniversary a revival seems in order.

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