(2012-01-08) Comic book review - Pogo Possum through the wild blue yonder

A review of Pogo Possum through the wild blue yonder
Book: Pogo Possum through the wild blue yonder
ISBN: 978-1-56097-869-5
Pages: 290
Author: Walt Kelly, Jimmy Beslin et.al.
Publisher: Fantagraphics
Released: December 2011.

What am I reviewing here? Is it Pogo Possum as a comic or the collection album that Fantagraphics finally released in December 2011? The answer is that it will be both, but first lets take a look at the book. Walt Kellys comic strip Pogo Possum ran from 1949 until 1975, almost two years after Walts death. Beside the daily comic strips that were published in newspapers all over the US there have been over 30 comic albums released and a number of collections as well. After the comic ended, there has been no attempt at publishing all daily and Sunday-strips in one set of volumes. In 2007 that changed as the publisher Fantagraphics announced that they would give the world the whole story from the very first Pogo Possum daily comic strip until the very end including the colored Sunday strips, all in 12 volumes. But time went by and the first volume failed to appear. They claimed to have serious problems finding all the strips in a usable condition and we waited. The first volume would cover the Pogo from 1949 1950, so were talking about something thats 60 years old. In the end it took until fall of 2011 until they finally managed get the book released. And it has been worth the wait, I tell you

The first thing I notice about the book is the good quality, its sturdiness and a binding that seems to be built to last. Only time will tell off course. The book comes with a foreword, editors notice, an index for each week covered of the comic itself, a separate section for the Sunday strips and finally the predecessor of Pogo that ran in the New York star newspaper before it folded. Most of the strips look great and have high contrasts and (for the Sundays) vibrant colors. Sometimes the colors may be a bit too vibrant and there are a small number of the daily strips that lack some sharpness and have an odd contrast range. But those are minor flaws hardly worth mentioning. The overall restoration work is amazing and makes no attempts to improve on the original so that it looks like it was made on a computer. It may come as no surprise as members of Walt Kellys own family have been enrolled in the project.

I have a small concession to make: I was born after Mr. Kelly died, so my knowledge of the comic strip is fairly limited and I started reading it just a few years ago. Also, Im not a native English writer, so please forgive me my sometimes weird grammar.

What about the comic strip itself? As it has ended, we now know how it evolved from the humble beginnings in 1949 until the very end. This collection covers the two first years, 1949 and 1950 and shows how the comic begin finding its form. Its amazing to see that almost all of the important characters were there from the start or at least came into the story early on.
The different story arcs centers around a number of characters living in the Okefenoke swamp in Georgia and how they deal with how they always misunderstand themselves, the others and whats really going on. After a while I get the feeling that the characters are more like concepts and ideas that Walt Kelly plays around with than real characters. He often throws in the events of the day, like in the arc where he lets the incompetent scientist of the swamp, Howland Owl, try to create an Adam Bomb (Atom bomb) out of a yew and a geranium. Yewranium sounds like Uranium when pronounced and that alone makes up the base of the whole story arc. Unlike many other comic strips that either tell lengthy stories or just resort to be gag-a-day comics, Pogo Possum uses variable length arcs. Those arcs continue until Walt Kelly obviously gets fed up with them and changes the subject. Sometimes the story smoothly transitions over to another one and sometimes it just shifts gears without using the clutch. Various events also frequently spawn new characters into the story as they are needed. Some of those characters never reappear, whereas other join the back of the queue until a Deus ex Machina is needed. Walt Kelly once jokingly said that the characters work for another comic when theyre not in Pogo Possum, and why not? The characters apparently know that theyre actors in a comic story, and sometime even use the edges of the panels to lean against or to do things like using them to strike a match against.

The main (and thus always recurring) characters are just a handful with literally hundreds of extras filling in whenever theyre needed. But the one lead character of the story is the eponymous Opossum who is known as Pogo by his friends. He has a mostly kind and gentle demeanor. His best pal Albert is an alligator who smokes cigars, tries to intimidate the others but is deadly afraid of alligators and refuses to calm down even told he is one himself. Then we have the only sane man in the swamp, Porky Pine. What counts as sanity in the swamp may be discussed, but in relative terms he fits the bill. Porky, like Eyeore in Winnie the Pooh by AA Milne, is in a permanent state of gloom and depression. This is in stark contrast to the constantly untroubled mind of Churchy La Femme, the turtle whose mind is free of both common sense and any trace of intelligence. Howland Owl considers himself a scientist and a scholar, which he may be the only one in the world that actually believe. He can barely read, has no idea where science ends and urban legends start and will seldom if ever doubt himself for any reason. Some of the other main characters take a little longer to get into the story. Miz beaver, Deacon Muskrat and Miz Mamselle Hepzibah make their respective appearances in the story after a while. And last but not least, the bad guys, Seminole Sam (salesfox) and Wily Katt (Wild cat) pop on in. The characters are often drawn like they were in motion. Walt Kelly used to work as an animator for Disney, and it shows! Every character changes their pose and facial expression dynamically between the panels and Kelly is very able to make them look like theyre running, walking or falling even when printed on paper.

In my opinion the best part of the whole comic is the dialog. Walt Kellys grasp of mid-west US dialects seems, to say it kindly, to be lacking, but thats actually a great thing. Pogo Possum sports a non-existent, yet very understandable flavor of American-English. And Im pretty sure that Walt Kelly knew exactly what he was doing, as the dialog is extremely vibrant with all its playing with words, double meanings and droll jokes. Some characters even have their own word balloons that mirror their way of talking. Okefenokian, as I would like to call it, is its own language that may count as Engrish by todays standard. If you get stuck reading something, just say it aloud and it should become clear what theyre really saying. Walt Kelly is just a much a great writer as he is a great artist.

In this first volume, the direction that Pogo would later on take is not yet clear. While there are some political jokes already from start, the comic later became politically very active and challenged many of the things Walt Kelly felt was unfair or plain wrong. I look forward to rereading his take on Joseph McCarthy that should be in the next volume if Im not mistaken. A fair warning though, as Pogo matured it included more and more references to the political stage of the day. When you read future volumes from Fantagraphics you might want to have a reference book or perhaps access to the Internet at hand. Im not a US-citizen, so far I have already had resort to the Internet to understand what some jokes are about more than one time.

Many lesser strips use their first panels to build up to a punch line in the last panel. Pogo on the other hand may or may not give you a punch line in the last panel, but you wont notice you had so much fun getting there.

Final verdict: 10/10. A well-executed tribute to a masterful comic.

Tags: Pogo Possum, book review
Posted: 2012-01-08 by Erik Zalitis
Changed: 2012-01-21 by Erik Zalitis

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