We Go Pogo: Walt Kelly, Politics and American Satire
By Kerry D. Soper
248 6x9-inch pages
some b/w illos
2012 University Press of Mississippi
Beginning with a short biography of Kelly and an overview of Pogo’s history, Soper goes on to examine all aspects of the cartoonist’s career — his high school drawings; his work on such animated Disney movies as “Dumbo,” “Pinocchio,” and “Fantasia”; his comic book work, and his stint as art director for the short-lived New York Star. Soper taps into Kelly's extensive personal and professional correspondence and interviews with family members, friends, and cartoonists to create a portrait of one of the art form's true masters.
The book is organized by theme rather than chronology, with chapters entitled Comedy and Satire in Pogo, Walt Kelly Pragmatic Auteur, Race and African American Folk Forms, the Aesthetics of Pogo, and Walt Kelly Mid-Century Poplorist.
While Soper is a genial guide through the Kelly oeuvre, he also seems a left-leaning crusader at times bent, strangely, on knocking Kelly off his pedestal. He values Kelly’s anti-authoritarian posture and criticizes the cartoonist if he doesn’t live up to his reputation in that regard, expecting his hero to be greater than his times. He finds Kelly to be blind to sexism, for instance — although Soper acknowledges that “when it came to gender issues, Kelly was a product of his time and profession, and made little effort to see beyond those low horizons.”
In such forays, Soper reveals a lack of understanding about the essential strategy of a newspaper comic strip cartoonist: stay in touch with popular opinion—i.e., don’t get out in front of your readers’ biases too far.
Soper’s grasp of other kindred matters is at times similarly feeble. He thinks Mad magazine replaced Pogo in cultural prominence in the early 1960s, but the two satirical vehicles aimed at entirely different readership. Mad could scarcely replace Pogo.
And Soper often descends into the typical pullulating academic lexicon, a vocabulary gorged with nuance no doubt but more baffling than illuminating because the lingo’s meanings are unfamiliar enough that a dictionary must be consulted in order to sort out Soper’s intent. In one place, for example, he says: “The relentless wordplay and dynamic aesthetics have carnivalesque and deconstructive qualities that both reinforce Kellys’ topical attacks as well as articulate a larger cosmic critique of dogmatism, hierarchies, and scapegoating.”
Puzzles abound in this sentence. What is a “dynamic aesthetic”? “Deconstructive qualilties”—what are those? Are we awash, suddenly, in Derrida’s definition of meaning by contrasting opposites? “Cosmic critique”? I suspect Soper is suddenly in the grip of alliterative rather than actual meaning. Every one of these terms requires clarification (if not definition); and without that, confusion reigns.
Realizing how impenetrable this sentence is, Soper attempts an interpretation in the next: “The comedy and satire of Kelly’s work, in other words, are inextricably intertwined....”
Admittedly, the second sentence, while easier to understand, hasn’t the meaning-packed nuances of the first, which is why so much academic writing is surfeited with multi-syllabic syntax. But if Soper realizes the need for “other words,” why not deploy them throughout and eschew the unreadable?
The book is infected with minor errors. Charles Schulz was not “forced” to adopt the minimalist manner in rendering Peanuts. That’s the way he drew. Al Capp wrote an article attacking Ham Fisher for Atlantic; he was not interviewed.
These are trifling matters, admittedly. But when coupled to Soper’s misapprehensions about how the medium functions and its place in the cultural milieu of the times, trifles add up, making Soper a sometimes unreliable witness.
Soper’s flights of scholarly research and analysis sometimes unearth insightful information that has been buried until now. Before Kelly’s first ten-year contract with Post-Hall syndicate was up, he negotiated a better contract, giving himself ownership of the strip and other kindred benefits. Soper compares the two contracts, word-by-word in places, showing how Kelly asserted his creator’s rights.
So Soper is not all stumbling around in thickets of multi-syllabic syntax or ponderous posturing by any means. Despite the author’s quirky interpretation of cartooning and its function in the popular culture of the times, his misapprehensions, errors, and pretentious academic verbal gyrations, the book is, as the back cover proclaims, “the first comprehensive study of Kelly’s cartoon art and his larger career in the comics business.”
Most of the book is accurate or at least an acceptable appreciation of Kelly’s career as cartoonist and satirist. Often, Soper’s eccentric reading of the facts before him sheds light on aspects of the cartoonist’s achievement that we might otherwise have overlooked. But to avoid the pitfalls Soper has created, the reader must already be familiar with much of the background against which Soper plays out his theories and pronouncements. And if the reader is versed in such matters, the book is an entertaining—and often informative—read.
By the way, the publisher of this book, the University Press of Mississippi, is also the publisher of my latest book, Insider Histories of Cartooning: Rediscovering Forgotten Famous Comics and Their Creators. But to learn more about this sterling tome, you must hie thee to the Usual Place.