When I was doing my Ph.D. work, I took a course in literary theory and criticism before 1966 with a professor who died shortly after I left for Mondoville, but who remains an academic hero of mine. We read everything from Aristotle to Frye, and along the way, we took a look at the old Marxist Edmund Wilson. “One of the interesting things about Mr. Wilson,” my professor said, “is that he was a journalist, which means that everything he did, regardless of quality, would be forgotten about twenty minutes after he died.”
That’s something I keep in mind as I write this blog, and it’s a thought that springs to mind when I read articles like this one by Stefan Kanfer from City Journal. It’s a look at Walt Kelly’s Pogo, a comic strip that blurred the line between the funny pages and social commentary as effectively as any in the history of the medium. Less abrasive than Al Capp‘s work, much funnier than Doonesbury, and with truly gorgeous penwork, Pogo is a prime exhibit for the comic as capital-A Art. My dad recognized this; he owned a copy of Uncle Pogo So-so Stories (1953) that I read to death when I was a kid, and replaced for him out of my scant grad student funds some years before he died. In some ways, his “Mucky Spleen” (Albert Alligator as hard-boiled p.i.) may have been one of my introductions to the genre.
But except for comic geeks, and excecpt for a line that has been co-opted by everyone who wants to sound profound, Kanfer notes:
[I]n the epoch of oversize graphic novels and diminished newspaper comics, this immensely gifted artist and writer has become a back number. Cartoon aficionados know and revere his work. Alas, general readers have moved on. They’re missing one of the great troves of American comic art and commentary.
He’s right; Kelly, along with Kapp, Mauldin, Herblock, and myriad others whose work I read in my odd childhood, is now in Edmund Wilson territory. Thanks to Mr. Kanfer, whose appreciation of Mr. Kelly may be a step toward righting that wrong.