Mention the Seminole comical strip Pogo to l'homme moyen sensuel and if you get any reaction at all, it'll be "Oh, yeah, 'We have met the enemy and he is us' -- now get the goddamn microphone out of my face, I've got some sensuel to moy."
That catchphrase, which, admittedly, boy cartoonist Walt Kelly milked pretty hard in his sunset years, might be the only thing most people remember about ol' Pogo if they remember anything at all, and that's a damned shame. As a technician, Kelly's contribution to the cartoonist's craft is probably even greater than George Herriman's; Kelly's influence is just howlingly obvious in the way Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes characters moved, and how his strips were laid out -- hell, even in his use of vegetation as a framing device. Pioneering, too, was his characters' proscenium-breaking; when Albert Alligator, lighting his see-gar, reaches out and strikes his match on the panel border, you're seeing a form so confident in its maturity that it can afford to be playful.
Kelly's skill as an artist is unassailable. I mean, look at the detail in this next strip! Individual blades of grass! Wood grain! There's actual wood grain on the tree in the first panel! You know why Watterson hung up his spikes, right? It's because newspapers have shrunk the comic strip down to subatomic size; it's pointless to lavish the kind of attention Kelly gave his creations any more; your readers won't even know...
"You are a YOK!" I mean, what can you say?
It's in the realm of language that Kelly truly shone. His daily strip was a wonderful mangrove of puns and portmanteaux, all delivered in a disarming parody of Southern speech (Kelly was himself from Bridgeport, Connecticut -- not exactly a hotbed of Southern literary tradition), and his poetry and song lyrics were so rich with utterly effortless linguistic play that it's impossible not to nominate him as America's answer to Lewis Carroll.
Take Kelly's famous reworking of the "Deck the Halls" Christmas carol (the other thing l'homme might remember: "Deck us all with Boston Charlie/Walla Walla Wash., an' Kalamazoo...." In the liner notes to Songs of the Pogo, reissued in 2003 on Reaction Records, Mark Burstein places Kelly in the nonsense tradition of Carroll and James Joyce:
This is a poetic form that has come to be known as "Anguish Languish" (an "anguished" English language) and popularized by Howard L. Chace in his book of the same title in 1956. It is the substitution of words which, when read silently make no literal sense, but when read aloud take on the sounds and rhythms of another work. His "Ladle Red Rotten Hut" (Little Red Riding Hood) which starts out "Wants pawn term dare worsted ladle gull..." is a well-known classic of the genre.I've found a Sunday strip in Ten Ever-Lovin' Blue-Eyed Years with Pogo where Kelly grabs the ball and runs all the way out of the stadium with it:
Howland Owl (the pompous intellectual): I been up all night thinkin'.
Churchy La Femme (the bon vivant and slightly dense, if goodhearted, turtle): Bully for you!
Owl: I've come up with an idea that will ee-clipse every blinding flash of inspired genius what I is ever had.
Churchy: What a coincidence!
Owl: You mean you is had an idea too?
Churchy: Yes yes yes! Like you say... a idea what unclips every blind flask of unspired geraniums what ever I is had.
Owl: I is had a most wonderful idea what will make us millionaires.
Churchy: A miracle! So is I! At the very same time.
Owl: I had mine at a quarter pas' ten.
Churchy: I had mine at ten oh two.
Owl: Mine is got the ingrediments of scintillating scientific achievement inherent in it.
Churchy: Mine is too! It got the ungreedy minks of single-eightin' sinus siftin' an' cheese mints inherited too!
Owl: Mine is the upshot of a college course I took.
Churchy: Mine is shot up from a coarse college too.
Owl: Mine is a triumphant elegant aurora of the intellect.
Churchy: Mine is a trumpetin' elephant all roarin' off the innerlick, too.
Owl: I is jes' had another great idea, a boon to mankind.
Churchy: Me too! I is ready to boom to mankind too.
Owl: Namely: To chunk you overboard (pushes Churchy into the swamp).
Churchy: I thought of it first (grabs Owl by the nose as he falls).
Owl (floating in the water): We shouldn't compete... We should pool our talents...
Churchy: Looks like we already is.
I mean, good god, was there ever a more economical demonstration of the left-brain/right-brain dichotomy? Somewhere in San Francisco, Griffy and Zippy tip their caps and hoist a bottle of Taco Sauce to Kelly's memory...
There was another area in which Kelly was a pioneer: Pogo was the first cartoon character drafted for a presidential election, the 1952 Eisenhower-Stevenson affair. While Kelly managed to make some fairly hilarious hay from the phenomenon, it wasn't until the 1956 replay that he began to cash in on it. In that year, along with Brill Building maven Norman Monath, he released the record album Songs of the Pogo, a collection of settings of his Carroll-esque song lyrics.
Most of these novelty songs don't very well stand the test of time, probably weren't all that great to begin with. But the ones that do, oh man are they great. My own favorite is "Lines Upon a Tranquil Brow," the first six of which are meditative, moody, fretful, all pensive suspended chords and spoken narration -- by Kelly himself:
Have you ever while pond'ring the ways of the morn,And then there's a complete break in mood, a drunken bump-and-grind Dixieland band awakes and blatters:
Thought to save just a bit, just a drop in the horn;
To pour in the ev'ning or late afternoon
Or during the night when we're shining the moon?
Have you ever cried out while counting the snow
Or watching the tomtit warble hello....
Break out the cigars, this life is for squirrels [fermata]Mighty hard to argue with, I must say.
We're off to the drugstore to whistle at girls?
American place-names are undeniably poetic. You get yourself a bellyful of Walt Whitman, of Carl Sandburg, of John Steinbeck, of Woodie Guthrie, and you're likely to appreciate a country that can give cities such euphonious names as Kalamazoo, Kankakee, Walla Walla, Waukegan, Waco, Tishimingo, Oswego... Snatch yourself a listen to Tom Waits' "Gun Street Girl" from Rain Dogs and you'll see just how incredibly evocative those place-names can be. Or hell, Chuck Berry...
Well, you've never heard anybody take a swan-dive and wallow in American place-names like you're about to. Walt whipped up a fight song for Pogo's 1956 Presidential bid. Ordinarily you'd expect a fight song to be the sort of thing that large crowds of people can sing together in football stadiums. But since Walt didn't really have that restriction, and because he never did anything halfway, he cooked up this astonishing stew of sheer, tongue-twisting, beautiful, baldfaced nonsense. Lewis Carroll ain't even a patch on this thing. Edward Lear can't even whistle it.
Just listen to this thing. "Wheeling, West Virginia, with everything that's in ya..." It just doesn't get better than this. Lyrics below. Warbled with gusto by Walt Himself...
Go Go PogoWe're not privileged to know where ol' Walt is now, o' course, but let's hope it's somewhere like this:
As Maine go oh so Pogo go Key Largo,
Otsego to Frisco go to Fargo,
Okeefenokee playin' possum on a Pogo
Stick around and see the show go over
Landalive a band o' jive will blow go Pogo
I go you go who go to go Polly voo go,
From Caravan Diego, Waco and Oswego,
Tweedle de he go she go we go me go Pogo.
Atascadero, Wheeler, Barrow,
Someplace in Mexico
Delaware, Ohio, and you don't need the text to go
Wheeling, West Virginia
With ev'rything that's in ya.
Down the line you'll see the shine
From Oregon to Caroline!
Oh, eenie meenie minie Kokomo go Pogo.
Tishimingo, sing those lingo, whistling go.
Shamokin to Hoboken, Chenango to Chicango
It's golly, I go goo goo goin' go go Pogo!