Sunday, August 25, 2013

100 Years of Walt Kelly

(Click any of the images to enlarge.)

August 25, 2013 marks the 100th birthday of Walt Kelly, one of the most important and influential cartoonists of the 20th century.

Kelly grew up in Bridgeport, Connecticutt, and started drawing at a young age.  In the mid-1930s, he contributed to the earliest years of the comic book industry, working for the company that eventually became DC comics.
More Fun Comics, 1936

From there, Kelly went to work for Walt Disney, first as a story artist and then as an animator in Ward Kimball's unit.  Kelly's animation can be seen in shorts like The Nifty Nineties and the features Pinocchio, Dumbo and The Reluctant Dragon.  Truthfully, Kelly gained more from Disney than Disney gained from Kelly.  There were many animators at Disney who were Kelly's superior, but Kelly's time at the studio working with Kimball and Fred Moore had an enormous impact on the quality of his art.

At the time of the Disney strike, Kelly left the studio and returned to the east coast.  Exempt from the World War II draft for health reasons, Kelly returned to comic books where he did a variety of material that showed off his versatility.  He did fairy tale material aimed at young children.  He did the comic book version of Our Gang (later known to baby boomers as The Little Rascals when the films reached TV) and made a conscious effort to draw the Buckwheat character (whose name Kelly shortened to Bucky) in a non-stereotypical manner.  There are four volumes reprinting Kelly's work on this strip.  Finally, he created the cast of Pogo for Animal Comics.

In the late '40s, Kelly went to work for the New York Star, a liberal daily newspaper that only lasted a few years.  He was the art director of the paper, doing editorial cartoons and putting Pogo into comic strip form.  When the paper folded after just a few years, Pogo was syndicated nationally in 1949 and by the early 1950s became a hit, especially with college students.  He continued to work on Pogo until his death in 1973.  In the interim, the strip was the subject of a network animated TV special The Pogo Special Birthday Special, directed by Chuck Jones and a 15 minute animated film, We Have Met the Enemy and He is Us, made by Kelly himself and his third wife Selby.  The strip was collected in a series of trade paperbacks that often included original material.

With all of this, Kelly additionally did a comic book series The Adventures of Peter Wheat, a giveaway comic for Krug's Bakeries and illustrated several books including The Glob by John O'Reilly and I'd Rather Be President by Charles Ellis and Frank Weir.
Kelly illustration from The Glob

Kelly had a fondness for drink and did not look after his health.  He developed diabetes and had a leg amputated as a result of the disease.  When he died in 1973, Pogo was continued by his widow Selby.  Later, it was revived by Doyle and Sternecky and finally by Kelly's daughter Carolyn.  Pogo is currently being reprinted in handsome volumes by Fantagraphics.

Kelly's work was typified by several things.  He created gentle fantasies aimed at children in his comic book work, where children and talking animals engaged in adventures that were free of the violence that dominated many comic books of the time.

He did raucous slapstick in the Our Gang and Pogo comics.
Sarcophagus MacAbre, undertaker

He loved playing with language, mangling words for comic effect and used different lettering styles to indicate the personality of his characters.  He was a poet who alternated between nonsense rhymes and wistfulness. 
Kelly caricatures Truman

Finally, he was an ace caricaturist and political satirist, taking on Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s over his anti-communist witch hunting, and Lyndon Johnson, Spiro Agnew, J. Edgar Hoover, Nikita Khruschev and Fidel Castro in the 1960s.

Kelly's art was heavily influenced by his time in animation.  His designs were of the Disney school in their construction.

His characters acted; their body language explicitly communicated their emotional states.  They stretched and squashed freely.  This came from his knowledge of posing characters for animation.  Animation also influenced his slapstick gags.

Kelly's brush work is awe inspiring
 Finally, his use of the brush for inking is legendary and was the envy of every cartoonist who saw it.  His brush line was lush, supple and expressive, contributing a solidity and dimensionality to his drawings.

What's here is only a tiny sampling of Kelly's output.  If you want to see more images, check here.  If you want to know what Kelly material is available for sale, Ebay has a wide selection.

Illustrator Thomas Haller Buchanan has gone into much greater depth than I have here by putting together a whole online publication dedicated to Kelly on his 100th birthday.

Having gotten to the end of this brief survey of Walt Kelly's career, I realize that I've yet to include a drawing of Pogo himself, the character that Kelly is most known for.  So to end, here he is.
A 1963 Sunday page


Brubaker said...

Pogo is not my all-time favorite strip, but Kelly was very much one of the best cartoonists in the biz, with a drawing chop that not many people can beat.

One aspect that I'm envious of Kelly is his superb handwriting. The lettering in Pogo is very well-done. It's something that I really wish I have the skills to pull off.

Mark Mayerson said...

Sorry to break this to you, but the majority of Pogo strips were not lettered by Kelly. He regularly employed letterers. Henry Shikuma was one.

I don't doubt that Kelly made the decisions regarding the lettering style of characters like Sarcophagus MacAbre or P.T. Bridgeport, but he didn't actually letter the strip.

adam de Vries said...

I remember back in college when Pete Emslie showed me pogo ,I was instantly drawn to them, so much appeal and amazing line work, im a huge fan of Walt's work,I think its so cool to see the blue underline work underneath the ink line love it....
great post Mark
all the best

Brubaker said...

Ah, I figured that he had assistants for lettering.

I still like 'em, anyhow.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Harry McCracken said...

Harry McCracken said...

Sorry for the messed-up comment above. What I meant to say: George Ward, in his interview in the Okefenokee Star, said that Kelly lettered Pogo when he had the time, and enjoyed doing so.

Unknown said...

Absolutely amazing work from Mr. Kelly. I adore his artwork and his great sense of character.