Pogo!

I’m a Pogo fan. I have been ever since I discovered the Pogo books – what these days we’d label trade paper editions – at my Aunt and Uncle’s house when my family visited them. At first I just thought they were “cartoons” or “comics” but as I got older I came to realize they had depth, humor, snap and layering I’d not before encountered.

It was a nine or ten hour drive to their home, so we only visited them once or twice a year. Those books were just about the first thing I headed for once we got there and unpacked for our usually week-long stay.

It wasn’t long before I wanted my own copies, and I got them, sometimes as gifts, sometimes when I saved enough and search them out for myself. I still have most of those copies, but they are quite well thumbed. A decade or two ago so I bought a collector’s set of Pogo books, the 10-volume The Pogo Collector’s Edition published by Jonas/Winter Inc. 1995 which are very nice small (6.25 x 9.25) volumes with fine, sharp graphics. I’ve read the set through once, but the set is not a complete collection of Pogo and the contents don’t include the Sunday strips.

Now, Fantagraphics is producing a new “complete” Pogo is under way. I got the first volume in the mail just the other day. Here’s the description and opinions from the Macleans Canada website:

“Fantagraphics’ Pogo: Through the Wild Blue Yonder collects the first two years of Walt Kelly’s creation. It took twice as many years to get the book ready. The company announced in 2007 that it would create the first-ever complete collection for Kelly’s satirical strip about southern-accented talking animals, which Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes) cited as one of his two biggest influences, and which many comics historians consider the greatest of all time.

But it kept being announced and delayed; now that the first volume is ready, four years later, many fans can barely believe it. Everyone knows how much work it takes to restore an old movie or a painting, but it turns out restoring a comic strip can take even longer. The company has reprinted Watterson’s other favourite strip, Peanuts, but Peanuts is so popular that it wasn’t as hard to assemble the material in pristine form.

But Pogo, which started only two years before Peanuts, has always been more of a cult favourite than a massive hit. The story of various animals living together in a swamp, including the title character, a possum, and his best friend, a cigar-smoking alligator, Kelly’s strip combined funny animal slapstick—reflecting his training as a Disney animator—with a sense of political and social engagement that newspaper comics hadn’t seen before.

When the strip introduced a character based on senator Joseph McCarthy (“Simple J. Malarkey”), Kelly became a worldwide cultural hero, but he never got into as many papers as the biggest strips, and his attempts to do animated cartoon specials never took off. Peanuts was mostly preserved because everyone knew there was still money to be made off the strips; with Pogo, a publisher actively had to seek out the panels full of dialect-heavy wordplay and cynical wisdom (“Don’t take life so serious, son—it ain’t no how permanent”). Even though Fantagraphics had reprinted some of Kelly’s work in the past, it found many of the unpublished strips were in no condition to appear in a complete book.

The only alternative to a full restoration would have been to scan them from newspapers, but that tends to look ugly and blurred; to create a collection that could make money, says Fantagraphics vice-president Kim Thompson, they “had to spend money.” The biggest headaches were with the colour Sunday strips, which had mostly never appeared in any of the earlier collections.

Thompson says that the production team, led by Kelly’s daughter Carolyn, “knew where to find the strips pretty quickly.” But many of them looked like the sort of strips you’d cut out of the paper and put on a fridge: Thompson describes them as “off-register, and smudged, and all sorts of things.” Some old pages were so faded it was impossible to know what colour they were supposed to be.

Fantagraphics solved this with its complete Peanuts series by rendering the strips in black and white, but colour is more important for the cartoon animals in Pogo: seeing Albert the Alligator in his original green helps inform the way we visualize him even in the black and white daily strips.

The result is the first book that gives a full sense of what it was like to read Kelly’s pioneering strip from the beginning. The first volume goes up to 1950, when Kelly began to incorporate more pointed humour (including a lynching reference); the McCarthy character hasn’t shown up yet, but allegories about Communist witch-hunting already pop up. But the darker daily strips alternate with cheerful Sunday instalments, demonstrating that Kelly never lost his sense of charm and whimsy.

And it helps that because of the book format, what San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll called Kelly’s “love of high-flown language” is more legible than it often was in newspapers. It took so much time to get these strips together fans might worry about having to wait another four years for the next volume, but Thompson says that shouldn’t be a problem: sales have been strong for the book, and after the “learning curve” of restoring the strips, “we fully expect that future volumes are going to take a lot less time.””

I hope they’re right, because this volume is really nice and I’m already eager for MORE!

About Richard Robinson

Enjoying life in Portland, OR
This entry was posted in books, New Arrivals and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Pogo!

  1. Jeff Meyerson says:

    How much are they going for, if one may ask?

  2. Richard says:

    Fantagraphics price is $39.99, Amazon has it for $25.24. I got a few more bucks off for doing a pre-order, but it’s now been published…

  3. Cap'n Bob says:

    I was too young to get the references when I first discovered Pogo and therefore never was a dedicated reader. I did admire the cartooning, though. I’d probably like it a lot more nowadays.

  4. Hopefully, this volume will sell well so more volumes will be possible. Other than your review, I haven’t seen anything announcing this book.

  5. How have I missed these? I bet I would like them but haven’t read any.

  6. Patti Abbott says:

    This looks lovely.

  7. Richard says:

    I hope there is more press on this one, George.

    Patti, this might make a good Phil Christmas gift. Did I mention the forward is by Jimmy Breslin?

    Charles, you’d probably love Pogo.

    Bob, there are some characters in the Pogo strip that are grumpy enough, and politically grumpy enough, that you’d really connect with them.

  8. Cap'n Bob says:

    Just what are you suggesting, Richard? I think everyone knows that I’m the living embodiment of forebearance.

  9. Todd Mason says:

    OK, I’m impressed how no one here except you yourself, Rick, had anything to say about the book when I posted on it, several days ago. Particularly George. And Patti.

    Thoroughly impressed. Encourages thought.

  10. Carl V. says:

    I have been super impressed with the Peanuts releases from Fantagraphics, so I am pretty confident they will do a great job with these as well. I’ve read a little Pogo, but not much. Certainly not enough to have formed any opinion of it. As these make their way to the library I will have to check them out.

  11. Richard says:

    Bob, “the living embodiment of forbearance”. Of course, that’s EXACTLY what I was suggesting. I just looked up “the living embodiment of forbearance” in the dictionary, and a photograph of you was there. Yup.

  12. Richard says:

    Todd, don’t think too hard on it, there are more comments on this here because I told the little personal story about going to my aunt and uncle’s house as a kid.

    Carl, Fantagraphics has been doing really nice graphic novels and collections for a very long time.

  13. Todd Mason says:

    Rick, would you agree, if you’ve been able to crack it, that the first year strips are not quite as fully formed as they would soon become (almost necessarily)…the S&S collections of the earliest stuff included tweaked strips, which I find I prefer. But I’m glad to have this volume…just not sure it’s best intro to what the strip would become.

  14. Richard says:

    Yes, more later, I’m up at 2:30 a.m. flipping the bird in the brine solution (take that however you want, I guess) since we’re having the T-meal today, Wednesday, rather then Thursday due to the natural nature of turkey thawing, shopping for cheap birds and the brining process. ** Yawn **

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