Guest post by Joe Eaton, and thanks again for the use of the hall
The headline in last Friday’s San Francisco Chronicle read: “Trump filling Cabinet with ‘swamp’ denizens.” And my first thought was “Albert the Alligator for Secretary of Defense!”
Yes, a Pogo reference. Walt Kelly’s “Pogo”—the daily syndicated strip more than the precursor comic books—was a landmark in American cartooning. There’s never been anything quite like it, although George Herrimann’s “Krazy Kat” bears comparison. Herrimann’s strip was more surreal/absurd, though, without “Pogo’s” vein of satire. Kelly used a cast of critters in the Okefenokee Swamp, a real wetland that slops from southeast Georgia into north Florida, to comment on human political and other foibles. (It was pretty much in the funny-animal genre, with occasional appearances by human or humanoid characters: a clan of Cajun satyrs, cave people, centaurs.) When I was growing up in Little Rock, where the strip appeared in the Arkansas Gazette—its editor, Harry Ashmore, was one of that now near-extinct breed of Southern white liberals—“Pogo” was my first exposure to satire. A lot of it went right past me, but what I got, I enjoyed.
Kelly, formerly a Disney animator (he worked on “Dumbo” and “Fantasia”), editorial cartoonist (for the short-lived leftist New York Star and later for the Herald Tribune), and comic-book artist (where Pogo Possum was originally second banana to an African-American boy named Bumbazine and the swamp dwellers spoke a cringeworthy minstrel-show patois), launched the comic strip in 1949. It had a good long run, eventually done in by the cartoonist’s failing health and the format constraints that cramped the crowded word balloons and elaborate swampscapes, counterparts to the buttes and mesas of “Krazy Kat”’s Coconino County. (Herriman drew from personal experience of the Southwest; Kelly hailed from Bridgeport, Connecticut, and first laid eyes on the Okefenokee in 1955.)
Kelly didn’t adapt well to the Sixties; his attempts to include hippie and feminist characters were unfortunate, although to his credit he never veered as far right as “Li’l Abner”’s Al Capp. And he was very much a Cold War liberal, with recurring characters like the Cowbirds, mostly semi-covert Communist Party members (but sometimes professional ex-Communists in the Whittaker Chambers mold.) All through, though, Kelly had no use for bigots or bullies. After his death in 1973, other cartoonists, a couple of decades later, tried to revive the strip. The resuscitation was unsuccessful.
The daily strips were repackaged in a series of trade paperbacks, all long out of print. Fortunately, Fantagraphics Books has been republishing the dailies (and Sundays, in full color) in classy hardcover editions, a couple of years’ worth at a time. They’ve gotten through the vintage years of 1953-54, but there had been a long hiatus and I was afraid the project had been abandoned. Not so: the Fantagraphics web site says 1955-56 will be out in February.
That Chronicle headline was, of course, a reference to President-elect Trump’s (my fingers almost refused to type that phrase) choice of Washington insiders for key administrative positions, despite his avowed intention of “draining the swamp.” Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown had commented: “This isn’t draining the swamp. It’s stocking it with alligators.”
Albert the Alligator was a fine exemplar of his species, a big green cigar-chomping crocodilian, not too bright but good-hearted, with an awkward habit of unintentionally swallowing smaller characters. Why Defense? Because he had a uniform, with a vaguely Masonic hat, and thought he looked great in it. And a cannon, in which he once got his leg stuck. (Graphically, Jeff Smith’s Smiley Bone is Albert without the tail.)
Other potential nominees come to mind. The eponymous Pogo, the strip’s Charlie Brown figure, was a peacemaker but too modest to accept the State Department portfolio. More than one character would be a good fit for Education: Barnstable Bear, who could write but not read, or Miss Sis Boombah, the Rhode Island Red hen, co-founder of Okefenokee University and coach of its intervarsity beanbag team. Howland Owl, a crackpot scientist forever trying to split the atom or shoot his friends into space, would be a natural for NASA. “Pogo” had a large cast, so hundreds of mice, birds, frogs, and bugs would be available for subcabinet appointments.
But who am I kidding? Trump would more likely draw from a pool of unsavory characters like the Mole (originally an avatar of the anti-immigration Senator Pat McCarran, a Nevada Democrat; xenophobia can be bipartisan) who wanted to police the travels of the migratory birds that cross our borders willy-nilly. Maybe Seminole Sam, the con-artist fox (Undersecretary of Poultry Housing?), or Sarcophagus MacAbre, the buzzard? The sanctimonious Deacon Mushrat, a member of the Jack Acid Society, would almost certainly be in the running.
I can’t help speculating what kind of “Pogo” character Trump himself would have been. Kelly included unflattering caricatures of many politicians, domestic and foreign: Joe McCarthy as a rifle-toting wildcat, Nixon as a badger (later a spider), LBJ as a Texas longhorn, Spiro Agnew as a hyena, J. Edgar Hoover as a bulldog, Fidel Castro as a goat. The cartoonist didn’t appear overly fond of pigs (although the Dixieland jazz musician Solid MacHogany was basically a good guy. )William Randolph Hearst, whose papers ran “Krazy Kat” but not “Pogo,” turned up in the strip as a shady pig, as did Nikita Khrushchev. A porcine Trump would be almost too easy.
Anyway, I miss Walt Kelly, just as I miss others—Molly Ivins, Hunter Thompson—whose willingness not just to speak truth to power, but to ridicule the living daylights out of it, would do us all a lot of good just now.