Walt Kelly surrounded by some of his characters. Artist: Walt Kelly.

WALT KELLY

Born: 1913 : : : Died: 1973
Job Description: Cartoonist
Worked in: Comic books and newspaper strips
Noted for: Pogo, Disney work and more
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He was a hard-drinking newspaper man, who drew stories about cute little animals and reportedly didn't "get" dirty jokes. He was known for his strong opinions, and for …

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… speaking his mind on them, but couldn't bring himself to take sides in the Disney strike. He was cited as a major influence by such diverse cartoonists as Bill Watterson (Calvin & Hobbes) and R. Crumb (Snatch Comix). Walt Kelly, one of the few true geniuses to work in comics, was loaded with contradictions (not uncommon among geniuses); and yet, beginning to end, his work shows absolute consistency of style and outlook.

Walter Crawford Kelly Jr. was born August 25, 1913 in Philadelphia, but spent his formative years in Bridgeport, CT. It was there that he did his first work in comics. He was a reporter for The Bridgeport Post in 1935, and did a little drawing for the paper on the side. When The Post ran a biography of P.T. Barnum (who was from Bridgeport) in comic strip form, Kelly drew it. That same year, some of his work saw print in comic books. The first issue (December, 1935) of New Comics (which, under the name Adventure Comics, continued coming out until the 1980s) ran two pages of his work, and another two pages were split between More Fun Comics #s 7 and 8 (January and February, 1936). Both were published by one of the companies that later came together to form DC Comics.

But that ended when the woman he was in love with, Helen DeLacey, was transferred to Los Angeles. Kelly followed, and was soon working for Disney. It was there that he honed his talent in both telling a story (he started in the story department in January, 1936) and drawing (he became an animator in '39). But in 1941, when Disney's employees went on strike, Kelly, who had friends on both sides of the picket lines, and Helen, whom he'd married in 1937, moved back East to avoid having to take sides.

Kelly became a comic book cartoonist, working mainly for Dell Comics, which specialized in comic books based on licensed properties. He wrote and drew the lead series in Our Gang Comics, based on an MGM-owned kid gang, through most of the 1940s, and quite a bit of material for Dell's Disney line. This included several years of covers for Walt Disney's Comics & Stories, a well-remembered story casting Donald Duck as Pinocchio, and a brief pantomime series based on Disney's proposed Gremlins feature, which was never produced. He also worked on Santa Claus Funnies, Fairy Tale Parade and other non-licensed comics aimed at very young readers.

But the best remembered of all his Dell work was a creation of his own, Pogo Possum. The Possum first appeared in Animal Comics #1 (Dec-Jan 1941-42), and continued as a regular feature until the title folded, in 1947. By that time, Pogo was starring in occasional issues of Four Color Comics, and in 1949 he got his own comic, which continued until 1954. When Kelly moved back into newspaper comics, in 1948, Pogo was the title character of his strip. The Pogo characters also starred in a lengthy series of graphic novels, some consisting of strip reprints and others fully original, which came out on a regular basis during the 1950s, '60s and early '70s.

In the comic books, Pogo was an extraordinarily successful funny animal for young children, combining innovative use of language with gorgeous drawings. His other two venues also had a lot of verbal pyrotechnics and beautiful artwork, but increasingly became a forum in which Kelly could speak his mind. His was among the first newspaper features to criticize Senator Joseph McCarthy, which he did through his supporting character, Simple J. Malarky. He ridiculed The John Birch Society in his graphic novel, The Jack Acid Society Black Book. Lyndon Johnson, J. Edgar Hoover and dozens of other contemporary political figures appeared in Pogo, caricatured as funny animals. Long before Doonesbury was even a glimmer in Garry Trudeau's eye, Walt Kelly was taking on the Establishment with his swamp-dwelling possum.

As his fame grew, Kelly was loved by many and hated by some, but always respected for his integrity and the quality of his work. He died on October 18, 1973, and the Pogo strip, which had become far too personal a statement to be handled by anyone else, died soon after.

Even today, decades after his death, Pogo has never been completely out of print. In fact, the daily strip version of Pogo is currently being reprinted in its entirety by Fantagraphics Books. The fact that his work is still capable of reaching new readers, despite its sometimes extreme topicality, is a testament to Kelly's genius.

— DDM

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Text ©2002-06 Donald D. Markstein. Art © Walt Kelly estate.