Sunday, June 21, 2009

Prehysterical Pogo

Updated with a new link at the bottom.

Walt Kelly started his career on the east coast in early comic books, pre-Superman. He then shifted to working at Disney, where he was initially in the story department and later moved to being an animator. His credits include features like Pinocchio, Dumbo and The Reluctant Dragon and shorts like The Nifty Nineties.

He left Disney at the time of the strike and returned to the east coast, where he spent the bulk of the 1940s creating comic book stories for Dell comics of various kinds. One of his strips in Animal Comics developed into Pogo. Starting in 1948, Kelly went to work for the New York Star as an illustrator and art director. He took Pogo along with him as a comic strip. When the Star folded, Pogo found a home in syndication and continued beyond Kelly's death.

In 1966, something happened to Kelly to cause him to send his characters to Mars (though it turned out to be the Australian outback). Perhaps it was boredom or perhaps Kelly was inspired by something, but the 14 month sequence in Prehysteria became the artistic highlight of his time drawing Pogo. The setting allowed him to create fantasy characters and landscapes more elaborate than anything he'd previously done in the strip.

Thomas Haller Buchanan, with the help of Ger Apeldoorn, has created a blog that intends to reprint the entire sequence (with some related sidetrips). The place to start is at the bottom of this page and continue upwards.

Kelly is not to everyone's taste. However, even if you don't share his sense of humour or interest in politics, you have to admire his cartooning chops. His use of the brush is universally admired by cartoonists and his poses are highly influenced by animation, using a character's whole body to communicate the character's emotional state. If you are unfamiliar with Kelly's work, I urge you to take a look.

(Specifically, look at this Sunday page. If that isn't a thing of cartoon beauty, I don't know what is.)


Pete Emslie said...

As much as I grew up loving good cartoon animation, it was good cartoon illustration that ultimately steered me down my career path. And Walt Kelly's Pogo gets the nod as the biggest influence on me. I love the dimensional solidity of his drawings, further enhanced with that calligraphic brush inking that "sculpts" his art into final form. I have only seen a smattering of his Prehysterical strips, so I'll be very keen to see more of this work at the site you've mentioned. Much thanks for making me aware of this, Mark!

J. J. Hunsecker said...

>>Kelly is not to everyone's taste.

I find that hard to believe, but I guess there must be some people in this world who don't appreciate Kelly's beautiful, slick drawings, and incisive, caustic wit. So be it.

Thad said...

I liked the point he made about Pogo's "nothingness" being similar to Seinfeld's. I never thought of it before, but I agree with him.

Of all the 'comedy' strips ever made, Walt Kelly's Pogo is by far my favorite. The art isn't a put-on and the humor isn't whiny like in Peanuts, nor are the characters so stupid that you can't identify with anyone like in Li'l Abner. This serial has made me want to pull out all of my Kelly scan CDs again. Thanks, Mark!

Pete Emslie said...

One thing I always loved about Pogo is the sense of animation to it, not only in the expressions and body language of the main characters in dialogue, but also of what's happening around them as they speak. Often, there will be some secondary bit of business going on in the panels, usually featuring some minor character like Grundoon exploring something in his innocent curiosity, or some incidental, frogs, mice or bugs carrying on about something. With Kelly, one always got a lot of visual mileage for the money, yet always staged in a clear and uncluttered manner.

Anonymous said...

With Kelly, one always got a lot of visual mileage for the money, yet always staged in a clear and uncluttered manner.

Agreement. As much as I love Jim Tyer (a maker of 'animated' comics if there ever was one), a problem I have with a lot of his comic book work is that it's cluttered to the point that the layout is just plain weak. He tries to fit too much funny stuff without hierarchy of any kind, and it just comes off as a screaming mess. Kelly, on the other hand, fits just as many ideas into one panel, but elegantly.

Eric Noble said...

This makes we want to try and find old Kelly reprints. It is some of the most beautiful comic strip artwork I've ever seen.

Nancy said...

Kelly's storyboard drawings were even more impressive than his comic strips. his unproduced television show EVERY DAY HAS HIS DOG is gorgeously done, and you can also see artwork from WE HAVE MET THE ENEMY online--he was one of the most amazing cartoonists who ever lived, he was outstanding as an actor, a first rate animator, and also excelled at writing, journalism and many other skills related, or unrelated, to cartooning. I wonder when a good biography of this man will be written?.

Martin Juneau said...

Sorry if Walt Kelly sounds new or unfamiliar for me. Peoples here from Canada should learn about his universe but i can recognise his works in Pinnochio and Dumbo.

Greg said...

I urge anyone wanting Kelly material to go onto eBay and pick up some of the old paperbacks, which collect runs of the strip with the addition of extra can find most of 'em for very cheap, often around $5. "Pandemonia" is one the rarer ones but even that's available. The early stuff is really fun - you can't go wrong with "Pogo", "I Go Pogo", "Incompleat Pogo", "Potluck Pogo", or "The Pogo Papers" whic collect dailies, and any of the books with "Sunday" or "Sundae" in the title collect, well, you know.