Hal Higdon: On The Run
What `40s comic strip artist would you say had a style closest to that of Walt Kelly? Would you believe Milt Caniff?
by Hal Higdon
WHAT CAN I TELL YOU ABOUT Walt Kelly that won't be covered by other members of the Comic & Fantasy Art Amateur Press Association (CFA/APA)?
David Applegate, for example, is a serious Pogo fan and has numerous Kelly originals, including several Sunday pages that made my mouth water when I viewed them on the wall of David's Town House south of Chicago's Loop.
I have but one Pogo original: a daily from November 22, 1950. It is on the wall beside my desk, only a few feet from me as I type these words into my computer, trying to find something noteworthy to say that might interest other members of CFA/APA and fans of the comic arts who browse this web site.
In the pecking order of Pogo collectibles, it probably does not rank high. None of the main characters appear. There is only Churchy LaFemme, riding in a boat, being carried away by an anonymous cow. No Pogo. No Albert. Two bugs appear in the final panel, providing a final topper to the gag, which probably would only have proved funny if you have been following Pogo regularly in the newspaper, as I was doing at that time. The value of Pogo originals from that era--we are told by Jerry Weist, author of Original Comic Art--is between $800 and $1,200. Not high for what arguably was the funniest and best-drawn funny animal strip to appear on a newspaper comic page.
I might get some argument if I only said "funniest," or only said "best-drawn," but what comic strip of past or present history can match Kelly's Pogo--or even come close? Krazy Kat? There is a cult of comic fans that consider George Herriman's creation the most inspired of all strips, but though Herriman certainly was a capable artist, he can't match Kelly's skill with a brush. Neither could Berke Breathed, creator of Bloom County, a strip that I might concede matched Pogo in the humor category. When it comes to combining both art and gags, Bill Watterson probably comes closest to Kelly, but at least one professional cartoonist I interviewed recently scoffed at Watterson, claiming Calvin and Hobbes was a Pogo knock-off, Hobbes looking almost identical to the tiger drawn by Kelly, although with a personality more closely resembling that of Albert. Calvin was Pogo, of course.
Others among the CFA/APA membership may want to present their favorite candidates to oust Pogo from the top spot--and I welcome your comments--but all I need to do is add one category to assure that those candidates will fall short: Political Relevance. Pogo was not merely a gag-a-day strip similar to Beetle Bailey or Blondie, it also was many days also a four-panel editorial cartoon. Kelly, a former Disney animator who worked on Dumbo and Fantasia (check the credits the next time you view videos of those cartoon features) got his start in the newspapers as an editorial cartoonist for the New York Star in the mid-1940s. He was art editor for the Star. Pogo first appeared in that newspaper, moving to the New York Post in 1949 after the Star failed.
Before that, the strip appeared in comic books with the cigar-chomping alligator getting top billing, as in Albert and Pogo. That's when I first encountered the comic strip, while I was still in elementary school. My mother trashed my giant collection of comic books from the 1930s and 1940s, which would have insured my millionaire status had I kept them until today. At one point I had several of the early comics featuring Pogo and his Friends, but I sold them for some quick cash about the same time I unloaded the first 24 issues of Mad, a decade or so ago. (I probably need to check the attic to be sure.)
I already had begun a collection of original art, while attending the Chicago Academy of Art in the late 1940s. One of my fellow art students was Ed McGeean, who writes a monthly column for the CAPS (Cartoon Artists Professional Society) Newsletter. As I have mentioned in previous articles for CFA/APA, Ed and I often visited the studios of cartoonists in the Chicago area after class on Saturdays. I also discovered that by sending a 3-cent post card to artists saying I was a cartoon student who would like an example of your original art, I often got a positive response. Many of the most valuable art in my collection was acquired this way. In 1949, I graduated from high school and went away to college. For all practical purposes, my collecting ended then.
Yet the Pogo original currently in my possession is dated November 22, 1950, a time when I was a sophomore in college. I was still doing art work, mostly for the student newspaper, and within a year I would begin selling freelance cartoons on a part-time basis to magazines. Despite the fact that I had abandoned my hobby of collecting original comic strip art, I must have reached out to Walt Kelly to secure the original. Among those strips from my early collection, it is the one with the latest date.
KELLY AND CANIFF
At that time I acquired my Pogo original, the strip was barely a year old. Kelly may have felt flattered that someone cared to acquire his work, comic art being considered not valuable at the time. Four decades would pass before I would discover a critical box of comic strip originals that somehow had survived my mother's housekeeping and begin again to collect comic art.
My favorite comic strip artist was and is Milton Caniff, creator of Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon. While I have a single Pogo original on the walls of my office, I have five by Caniff, three of them Sundays. Other Caniffs sit in file drawers awaiting framing or restoration. The artist whose style is most similar to that of Walt Kelly is Milt Caniff.
You disagree? Consider two of the most conspicuous elements in the style of both artists: line and shade. Caniff's brush stroke is an undulating one that defines by its width the form of the object drawn. It is a stroke that slides quickly and naturally from thick to thin and back again. Regard now the line work of Kelly. His lines also ebb and flow, similar to Caniff. Notice the brush lines in the outline of the cow (in my original) that delineate movement. Compare them to the thin-line shading of spots on the cow's body. Kelly often used cross-hatch for half-tone effects on his daily strips. Caniff was more likely to use wrinkles in clothing, or patterns in backgrounds for a mid-tone effect
Consider further the one element in the Caniff art that most defined his style: chiaroscuro, the contrast between light and dark. Caniff was a master at using shadows to add a three-dimensional quality to his work. (In contrast, Caniff's successor on Terry and the Pirates, George Wunder, never could make shadows work right.) Kelly used shadows sparingly, but knew exactly how to position his blacks to define form. In the example shown, note how black is used to create a three-dimensional rowboat. Note the furthermost leg of the cow, black to position it in space. Observe in the last panel, the shadow be neath the cow that launches it in space.
Have other artists of funny-animal strips, before and after, used line and shade to make their drawings leap from the page? Yes, but I submit that none matched Kelly in this skill.
Kelly suffered from diabetes and died in 1973. I am embarrassed to admit that I had abandoned ship before then. To me, Pogo was at its best as a funny- animal strip. This was a strip of poetry as in, "Oh roar a roar for Alice, Nora Alice in the night; for she has seen Aurora Borealis burning bright. Hoo-roar a roar for Alice...." Pogo in its earliest incantation was funny. But inevitably Kelly's political beliefs began to invade the strip. Pogo became politically relevant, the darling of protesters who would emerge in the 1960s. Pogo's statement, "We have met the enemy and they is us," still gets quoted by environmentalists. Political figures disguised as animals began to make frequent appearances in the strip. Who could forget Kelly's characterization of Senator Joseph McCarthy as a wildcat named Simple J. Malarkey? Kelly similarly satirized Castro, Khruschev, Johnson. No one was safe from his pen.
Unfortunately, the politically relevant Pogo was not the same funny animal that had first attracted me to the world of Walt Kelly. Despite my own interest in world history and world politics, the invasion of political characters caused me to lose interest in the strip in its final decade.
Yet Kelly remains a great artist; Pogo, a great comic strip. Walt Kelly and his character Pogo deserve their position as the number one funny animal strip of all time.
The above article originally appeared in issue number 45 (Winter 1998) of CFA/APA,, the official (if irregular) publication of the Comic & Fantasy Art Amateur Press Association. Issue 45 was devoted to the work and life of Walt Kelly. Previous issues have featured Neal Adams, Winsor McCay, the many artists of Superman. and others. For more information on CFA/APA, contact: Bob Koppany, 4840 W. 123rd Street, Hawthorne, CA 90250 (310-679-5604) or Bill Leach, comicart4U@aol.com.
Copyright © 1998 by Hal Higdon. All rights reserved.