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Book Review 321: Walt Kelly

May 25, 2014 - Harry Eagar
WALT KELLY: The Life and Art of the Creator of Pogo, by Thomas Andrae and Carsten Laqua. 240 pages, illustrated. Hermes

Thomas Andrae and Carsten Laqua consider Walt Kelly the best cartoonist ever. I agree. Too bad this biography hardly rises above the level of a fanzine.

Kelly wasn’t just superior in each of the cartoonist’s tasks, he was unique in some, such as creating an argot found nowhere else (not unlike P.G. Wodehouse, although Kelly differentiated his voices via typography, too).

He was easily the best caricaturist using animals. Nast did it but he just pasted recognizable faces on animal bodies; and McNelly did skillful personality types but not individuals. Kelly’s best was Joe McCarthy, first as Simple J. Malarkey and later as Wiley Catt.

Though Kelly has a deserved reputation as a McCarthy-killer, and he was satirizing illiberal values from the first (in 1949), he came rather late to McCarthy, 1953. Herblock had caricatured McCarthy (and invented the word McCarthyism) as early as 1950, but Herblock weakened his attack by occasionally depicting McCarthy (and Nixon) as mischievous boys. Kelly never showed McCarthy as anything but the menace he was.

It has been claimed (though not in this book) that Kelly created more characters than any other cartoonist, more than 150.

He was the finest draughtsman ever to do cartoons, with a line as expressive as Caran d’Ache’s, and, needless to say, without Caran’s noxious antisemitism.

As one of few animators to turn to newspaper strips (though he was considered too independent at Disney), he also created motion in his panels that has never even been attempted by the second-raters who are sometimes compared to him, like Breathed and Trudeau.

Finally, he was funny. To everybody but the morons at the FBI who -- unbelievably except that it fits a pattern already known -- assigned codebreakers to find the hidden messages to the Communist underground in “Pogo.”

“Pogo” has also shown staying power. No one reads “L’il Abner” any more, but “Pogo” remains popular among children and adults. I had a nearly complete set of the 30-odd “Pogo” books, but my children discovered them when they got to be about 9 or 10 years old, and read them over and over till they disintegrated.

So much for who Walt Kelly was, which you will glean from this biography, although not much more. His marriages and alcoholism are barely alluded to. Although a fond remembrance by his stepson mentions numerous “antidotes” that his multitudinous friends would tell about him, we do not hear more than a couple of them.

Kelly, at least, would have appreciated “antidotes” and the numerous other illiteracies in this badly edited volume, and with his habit of making satire out of misunderstandings, would probably have laughed until the tears flowed to read this:

“As a concession to the Republican right-wing he chose Richard Nixon as his running mate, a HUAC lawyer who made his reputation by helping prosecute Albert Hiss, a lawyer suspected of leaking atomic secrets to the Soviets.”

Bad as it is, true Pogophiles will want “Walt Kelly” for (not especially adoitly-chosen) reproductions of many strips and especially photographs and fugitive Kellyana not within reach of any but the well-heeled collector.

 
 

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