Fantagraphics’ Pogo: Through the Wild Blue Yonder collects the first two years of Walt Kelly’s creation. It took twice as many years to get the book ready. The company announced in 2007 that it would create the first-ever complete collection for Kelly’s satirical strip about southern-accented talking animals, which Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes) cited as one of his two biggest influences, and which many comics historians consider the greatest of all time.
But it kept being announced and delayed; now that the first volume is ready, four years later, many fans can barely believe it. Everyone knows how much work it takes to restore an old movie or a painting, but it turns out restoring a comic strip can take even longer. The company has reprinted Watterson’s other favourite strip, Peanuts, but Peanuts is so popular that it wasn’t as hard to assemble the material in pristine form.
But Pogo, which started only two years before Peanuts, has always been more of a cult favourite than a massive hit. The story of various animals living together in a swamp, including the title character, a possum, and his best friend, a cigar-smoking alligator, Kelly’s strip combined funny animal slapstick—reflecting his training as a Disney animator—with a sense of political and social engagement that newspaper comics hadn’t seen before.
When the strip introduced a character based on senator Joseph McCarthy (“Simple J. Malarkey”), Kelly became a worldwide cultural hero, but he never got into as many papers as the biggest strips, and his attempts to do animated cartoon specials never took off. Peanuts was mostly preserved because everyone knew there was still money to be made off the strips; with Pogo, a publisher actively had to seek out the panels full of dialect-heavy wordplay and cynical wisdom (“Don’t take life so serious, son—it ain’t no how permanent”). Even though Fantagraphics had reprinted some of Kelly’s work in the past, it found many of the unpublished strips were in no condition to appear in a complete book.
The only alternative to a full restoration would have been to scan them from newspapers, but that tends to look ugly and blurred; to create a collection that could make money, says Fantagraphics vice-president Kim Thompson, they “had to spend money.” The biggest headaches were with the colour Sunday strips, which had mostly never appeared in any of the earlier collections.
Thompson says that the production team, led by Kelly’s daughter Carolyn, “knew where to find the strips pretty quickly.” But many of them looked like the sort of strips you’d cut out of the paper and put on a fridge: Thompson describes them as “off-register, and smudged, and all sorts of things.” Some old pages were so faded it was impossible to know what colour they were supposed to be.
Fantagraphics solved this with its complete Peanuts series by rendering the strips in black and white, but colour is more important for the cartoon animals in Pogo: seeing Albert the Alligator in his original green helps inform the way we visualize him even in the black and white daily strips.
The result is the first book that gives a full sense of what it was like to read Kelly’s pioneering strip from the beginning. The first volume goes up to 1950, when Kelly began to incorporate more pointed humour (including a lynching reference); the McCarthy character hasn’t shown up yet, but allegories about Communist witch-hunting already pop up. But the darker daily strips alternate with cheerful Sunday instalments, demonstrating that Kelly never lost his sense of charm and whimsy.
And it helps that because of the book format, what San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll called Kelly’s “love of high-flown language” is more legible than it often was in newspapers. It took so much time to get these strips together fans might worry about having to wait another four years for the next volume, but Thompson says that shouldn’t be a problem: sales have been strong for the book, and after the “learning curve” of restoring the strips, “we fully expect that future volumes are going to take a lot less time.”