The contemporary daily newspaper comics section is a graveyard. The situation is beyond dire—the newspaper comic strip isn’t dying, it’s already dead, a useless, putrefying mass of bland suburban dramedy, low-rent absurdism, factory-produced funny animals, and decades-old relics from a better era. Even the reprints of classic Peanuts strips feels stale now, 12 years after Charles Schulz’s death. It’s hard to imagine what the audience for this sad, withered back page of the standard daily newspaper is. Do newspaper editors think about it? It doesn’t look like it.
There’s no real reason to mourn the newspaper strip’s passing, though. Like vinyl, prime-time TV, and video arcades, it was a product of its time—a period when daily newspapers themselves were vital, vibrant, colorful, and thriving. Great comics art hasn’t disappeared, it’s just migrated, first to mainstream comics, then to the underground and alternative press, and finally to the Internet (and elsewhere).
But that doesn’t mean it should be forgotten. And no publisher has done more to preserve the Great American Newspaper Strip than the Seattle-based Fantagraphics, which has undertaken an audacious program of reprints in the last decade. Reissues have been a priority for the independent company since it was founded in 1976, but this latest round of deluxe, chronological hardcover editions—of Peanuts, Prince Valiant, Captain Easy, Popeye, and Mickey Mouse—has been a remarkable achievement, especially considering the company’s meager resources. (Most critics assume that the best-selling Peanuts reissues subsidize all the rest.) The books are large-scale, and are based, as much as possible, on original art—an effort that requires patience, detective work, and the instincts of an archaeologist.
The most recent addition to the Fantagraphics line is the most anticipated: Walt Kelly’s unassailable funny-animal strip about Pogo the possum and his cadre of friends and antagonists in the Okefenokee Swamp. The first of 12 planned volumes, Through the Wild Blue Yonder: The Complete Syndicated Comic Strips Volume 1, finally appeared in December, four years after the project was announced; it collects the first 18 months of the strip, both dailies and the full-color Sundays, from the middle of 1949 to the end of 1950, and includes a lengthy introduction and a foreword by Jimmy Breslin.
The appeal of Pogo is impossible to ignore but hard to describe. Like Osamu Tezuka (Astro Boy, Buddha), a big part of Kelly’s genius lies in plain old expert craftsmanship: His character design and composition are flawless, as are the timing of his gags and the pacing of stories over the course of a week or two. His skill was such that his hand almost became invisible—it’s easy to imagine Pogo’s Okefenokee as a real place, and the characters as living creatures with lives off the page.
Kelly wasn’t a modernist visionary like Krazy Kat creator George Herriman or an obsessive stylist like Little Nemo’s Winsor McCay; Pogo remained accessible throughout its run, even as the wordplay became more intricate and Kelly’s satire more bitter. But it was a smart strip, and an exceedingly humane one; for all its political bile in later years, Kelly was a generous writer. He forgave the craven self-interest of Albert the Alligator, Churchy LaFemme, and Howland Owl, if not, in later years, the gross corruption of Molester Mole and Joe McCarthy-analogue Simple J. Malarkey.
Through the Wild Blue Yonder includes three months of early strips that appeared in The New York Star prior to Pogo’s national syndication. (The character first appeared in comic books in 1941.) Most are reprised in more developed form in the early syndicated strips, and demonstrate Kelly’s long apprenticeship with the character. By the time the national strip appeared, Pogo and his world were almost exactly as they would remain until Kelly’s death in 1973. (His wife drew the strip for another year and a half after he died.) The political stuff didn’t take hold until later, but Kelly just needed the right circumstances and a little refinement for his satirical tone, present from the start, to support his commonsensical political voice.
Fantagraphics says the second volume won’t take four years. Let’s hope not; if the company can pull off a complete edition of Kelly’s masterpiece—especially a full series as lovely as the first volume promises—in 12 years, it will be a publishing masterpiece of its own.