Us Is Doomed: On Walt Kelly and Mr. Fish

By F.X. FeeneySeptember 17, 2012

Us Is Doomed: On Walt Kelly and Mr. Fish

Go Fish by Mr. Fish
Pogo by Walt Kelly

“EDITORIAL CARTOONS ARE STALE, Simplistic, and Just Not Funny,” read a recent headline in Slate. “If you study all of the recent Pulitzer winners in the cartooning category,” writes Farhad Manjoo, “you’ll see that single-panel editorial cartoons are an increasingly timeworn form. Even the best ones traffic in blunt, one-dimensional jokes, rarely exhibiting nuance, irony, or subtext.” Particularly galling for him are the clichés that afflict the form, visual semaphores trotted out by prize-winner after prize-winner, in which “the government is an ailing Uncle Sam or a sinking ship (helpfully labeled ‘USA’), Washington is a circus, and there are lots of elephants and donkeys.”

One can readily sympathize with Manjoo’s howl of boredom, given that he was restricting his attention to those cartoons most frequently anointed by the Pulitzer Prize. Yet this is a bit like asking the Oscar winner for Best Picture to actually be the finest, deepest, most innovative movie of a given year. Prizes by their natures reward a conventional mindset which mirrors those doing the judging. If you want the good stuff, you have to look to the visions of individuals.

Dwayne Booth, better known as “Mr. Fish,” and Walt Kelly, the creator of Pogo, offer two vibrant examples of political cartooning as it is practiced at its heights. Booth may modestly argue that this is not saying much — but then he has been, by his own account, in love and at war with the notion of “genius” since his teens. Walt Kelly seems never to have troubled himself with either the notion or the word: he simply put it into effect, day after day, for a quarter-century. Anyone who thinks political cartooning is stale need only take a closer look at these two bodies of work.

“I am not a cartoonist,” insists Dwayne Booth, the certifiably brilliant cartoonist who signs himself “Mr. Fish.” This insistence (akin to Magritte’s painting a pipe but labeling it, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”) is comically perverse, but entirely in character. Fore and aft in his debut book Go Fish, Booth/Fish tells us what he does is “not editorial cartooning,” despite the editorial pages being where his work inevitably appears. “A guy who wears a cowboy hat isn’t always trying to be John Wayne. Sometimes he’s trying to be Jon Voight.” As he stresses in his take-no-prisoners appendix at the book’s back, “Editorial Cartooning has never had a Mozart, much less a Bob Dylan. ,… The occupation of cartoonist is too narrowly defined to contain within it something so vast as the concept of genius.”

I’m not so sure about this; certainly Kelly’s body of work would argue otherwise, if we define “genius” as the ability to originate whole worlds. And Booth possesses, if not genius, at the very least an exceptional talent, which typically manifests a dynamic identity purely through one’s work, whatever that work may be. The more emotionally and intellectually involving, the better, and the work collected in Go Fish achieves this, even at first glance. To give Booth’s chosen secret identity its due (the name is shared with an obscure Marvel Comics super-villain), Mr. Fish is possessed of a highly flexible, fluid and adaptable graphic style — one which expresses his unremitting outrage at the state of the world in such varied ways as to constitute a hallelujah chorus of invective.

The 340 drawings that comprise his first book include many “previously unpublished anywhere outside of Mr. Fish’s ever-blackening soul.” This we are told in the fine print of the copyright page. (The author’s dry sarcasm informs even the minutest corners of the artifact in hand, one of its native pleasures.) Still, many of these drawings will have a dreamy familiarity to readers of L.A. Weekly, The Village Voice, Harper’s Magazine, and Truthdig, especially those recalled from the darkest depths of the Bush-Cheney years, when Booth’s images served as a singularly sane set of scourges at a time of otherwise frozen protest.

Now that dissent has at long last come to occupy (indeed, Occupy) the mass media, Mr. Fish is more biting, more vehement than ever. Bush as Booth depicts him was a self-evident stooge — merely to draw and quote the guy accurately is to skewer him without mercy — but Barack Obama, as seen through the Fish-eye lens, is a far more profound, problematic disappointment. Above a smooth Rodin-like nude of Obama, who squints back at us in wry self-defense, the caption warns: “An emperor without clothes, when lavished with praise from those enamored by his beauty, will never know shame and will never lead with humility or empathy or grace.

The photographic elegance and immediacy with which this drawing is executed is typical of the most refined Mr. Fish style. Many of his more potent jabs at public figures are drawn from existing news photos, or frames from documentary footage, but — as in the work of Drew Friedman — Booth’s wit and attention to detail make visible every petty, ugly trait and hint of hidden agenda that lies beyond the ken of a mere camera. The faces and postures are so uniquely traced and dreamily recombined as to leave their source materials behind in a fog of déjà vu. George W. Bush must have visited Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall — I’m guessing — at some point or other. Or perhaps he was instead recorded reaching to touch a crucifix, or the name on an American monument. It no longer matters. Mr. Fish adds a propeller-beanie where the yarmulke would go, and right at the spot where W’s outstretched fingers most sensitively plead for strength, we find an image of Moe Howard scowling back. Eight years of one knuckle-headed presidency, in a declarative nutshell.

Stick figures and big-nosed, banana-foot cartoon people telegraph other ideas. Obama is depicted at one point in a deft parody of Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts, tenderly grinning in a pumpkin patch under a sign that reads: “Welcome, Great Recovery.” Elsewhere, collage is the method. Deep in that arctic of unmapped freeze-frames in our memory banks there is evidently a shot of Obama laughing with his tongue out. Mr. Fish has found it; traced it; cocked it at a sarcastic angle. So when Dr. King asks, “What’s your dream?” Obama can leer: “To not piss off rich people — that’s really about it.” In a few other cases words alone suffice, in magnified juxtaposition: the word “me” repeating in slate gray, herding a minority in red of the words “we” to the nearest exit.

One iconic, softly penciled wide screen renders Obama as a superhero — one of the few openly hopeful panels in the book — and re-iterates this “we” theme with an illuminating intensity: “It was at that moment,” reads the caption, “with the stench of Rome smoldering in his profit margins, that Captain America first started to realize that heroism might not be about continuing the brutal propagation of U.S. interests ahead of everybody else’s in the world. But rather it might be about having the courage to remove the periods from the national monogram and to allow the remaining ‘US’ to encompass all of the interests of everybody in the world…

A fascinated hostility to joining in of any kind is one of the themes that animates Go Fish. Respect for individual nature — above all for those individuals most opposed to mass-media, mass-opinion, mass anything — is the one reliable affirmation that makes any sense to this artist. In one of the several funny, erudite mini-memoirs that serve as intermissions between chapters, Booth recollects: “My first serious flirtation with wanting to become an expatriate came in 1973 when I realized that the ‘I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke’ commercial by the Coca-Cola Company wasn’t going to assuage the country’s pandemic social unrest, nor was it going to end the war in Vietnam.”

Mind you, Booth was seven years old when he had this revelation — yet one believes him. Everywhere one’s eyes fall he projects the scissor-handed alienation of a lifelong adherent to the calling of Outsider. Elsewhere in the book, he remembers quoting John Lennon to his angry mother when she was pleading with him not to quit college: “If there is such a thing as genius, I am one, and if there isn’t, I don’t care.” To judge by the still-fresh jolt of the Ronald Reagan sketch that dates from this period, he had reason to be proud. All the same, his mother is admirably unimpressed by his argument — he is after all, quoting someone else — and the girlfriend who wants only to seduce him later that same evening is so put off by the same defiant ferocity that she ends their ultimately sexless evening with a polite handshake — “too distracted to make another date with me,” he drily recalls, “her worldview [having been] replaced with my unmistakable, dare I say, superhuman clarity of vision.”

The contradiction built into these accounts, which argue that “genius” is alien to the journalistic, mass-media demands of all editorial cartooning — his own included — all the while dramatizing the heights at which he aimed then, and still aims: this contradiction constitutes the very backbone of this book’s drama. Healthy as it is of Booth to resist the g-word, he is bursting with the requisite passion and skill, and (true to the moral laws of such a gift) figured it out early. He comfortably inhabits his youthful arrogance. He represents it honestly yet subverts it with self-mockery. He is as unseduced by his own hype as he is by Obama’s, if only because that is the price his deeper freedom demands.

Most interestingly, Booth’s contrarian instincts set him on a collision course even with one of the few politicians he actually favors. Congressman Dennis Kucinich, “steam coming out of his ears,” hangs up on him mere minutes into a telephone interview, in one chapter. He was holding the rebel Democrat’s feet to a logical bonfire born of his campaign rhetoric: “You refer to our participation in Iraq as an illegal operation,” Booth challenges. “Doesn’t that automatically mean that our mission as occupiers is criminal, and that those engaged in the actual occupying are criminals?”

Those are not my words,” shouts Kucinich, mindful that millions of votes depend on the delicacy with which he can oppose the war but “support the troops” — a self-defeating strategy, from the Mr. Fish perspective. “Such white-knuckled loyalty to dull and patriotic bullshit, particularly by a man you might assume should know better,” he ruminates, after the call is terminated, judging the good congressman’s stance “asinine.” And yet? To his credit, Booth counts himself in the next breath as a fellow passenger on that Ship of Fools. He faults his own “moral cowardice” for having failed to challenge a similarly dodgy spout of sentimental “hero” rhetoric from a fellow leftist — an Iraq veteran speaking against the war but defending the honor of his fellow soldiers. “How can we support the troops and call them heroes when we abhor what their duty requires them to do,” he wants to know. This is the unanswered question that outlives his abortive chat with Kucinich: “Isn’t that a little but like supporting the word motherfucker and being against the obscenity?”

Empowered by the mask and cowl of Mr. Fish, Booth answers this question for himself in drawing after drawing. Please get me a subscription to the New York Times, blares the placard held by a grieving Iraqi mother, so I can understand how to celebrate the murder of my three-year-old daughter. This ghastly, pithy plea is as unanswerable as his question to Kucinich, yet so indelibly embodied by his visual art that its mystery and horror live on in one’s own imagination long after his book has been shut.


Asked who he saw as the target audience for his comic strip Pogo, Walt Kelly once replied: “The guy who’s drawing it.” He wasn’t trying to be cryptic, or rude. “You either sink or swim on your knowledge of how to get your thoughts across to other people,” he explained. “You have to decide on one audience guy who’s your test, and that’s you.”

By the time of this pronouncement — the mid-1960s — Kelly had been writing and drawing his charmed circle of magnificently choreographed, dazzlingly articulate swamp creatures every day of every year (putting in three times the effort on Sundays) for close to two decades. Pogo had always wielded a playful satiric edge. Kelly honed his style through years of work as an animator for Walt Disney, and the early narratives of Pogo, when he commenced the strip in the late 1940s, were gentle and allegorical in the tradition of Aesop’s fables. But as 1950s American political hysteria with its black-list persecutions and pressures to conform gave way to the turbulence of the Vietnam era, Kelly grew more direct in his attacks on public folly. He caricatured Senator Joe McCarthy as a rogue wildcat; FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover as a bulldog; Lyndon Johnson as a rowdy centaur, galloping into battle against a Chinese dragon on whose back rode a beaming baby Mao.

This won Pogo a selective but fervent public, drawn from all walks of life. As one who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s and originally set out to become a cartoonist (publishing in Boy’s Life at ages 14 and 16), I remember engaging in conversations with all kinds of bright people — teachers; our family’s pediatrician; cousins in college; the high school girls who babysat for my sisters and me; mothers and fathers of the friends I ran with — each of whom found Kelly’s sweet drawings and gumbo-thick dialogue a pleasure, even as his wordplay grew increasingly as challenging as anything in Lewis Carroll. Wherever his readers might stand in the political spectrum (and many of my neighbors favored Barry Goldwater), Kelly’s liberal politics were taken in stride. He wasn’t aiming punch-line thunderbolts, the way Al Capp did. He wasn’t soliciting agreement from his readers. Instead, he was breaking the fourth wall like Pirandello or Groucho Marx. For all the silence and intimacy with which we experience them as readers, cartoons are in essence a theatrical medium; publicly performed, dependent on flashes of dramatic impact. By acknowledging the world outside the funny pages and including our so-called leaders in the radius of his swamp, implying they are “creatures” too, Kelly was teasing us to rethink and thereby freshly judge our relations to them in a more down-to-earth perspective. Any further comment was gravy.

This was a sly and subversive approach. This was why late in the sixties, supposedly provoked by a letter from a concerned citizen, the flesh-and-blood Hoover ordered his agents to pore over the strip, scrutinizing the fine print; counting every boldly emphasized word; looking for hidden meanings in Kelly’s invented slang that might be transmitting coded messages to Moscow. This politically aware cartoonist’s aim was not for those frontal lobes of the brain where opinions are formed, but deep at the back of one’s imagination, where memories are made and an idea can grow to be as haunting as any poltergeist.

Kelly had a well-developed sense of his long-term value. He fought early and successfully to retain his copyrights at a time when few other cartoonists bothered, and others woke up late to the need. (Al Capp was obliged to very publicly battle his syndicate over Lil Abner.) Kelly was also more frugal than most about hanging on to his original drawings. In 1971, I visited a collector whom he had favored with the rare gift of several Sunday panels: “Walt only tends to give away dailies,” he told me, “and that’s only when he’s in the mood.” That Kelly was handing out his daily strips at all feels astoundingly reckless, in retrospect. But then most cartoonists were free with their originals in those times, breezily obliging anybody who requested one. What was the use of keeping them? They were considered junk. At least Kelly recycled most of his work before he gave it away, weaving the best of any given year’s strips (along with new material, to smooth out the narratives) into the dozen and more durable and popular large-format Pogo books which Simon & Schuster published annually between 1951 and 1973. He shunned the pulpy, easily-yellowed paperbacks which were then the only afterlife for any successful comic strip, and foresaw that people would cherish what he drew and want to keep some polished version for their libraries.

What Kelly could never have foreseen — if he had, he would have judged it absurd — was that someday the public of a subsequent century would want an edition that presented his life’s work chronologically and in full, day by day and year by year, with a scholarly introduction and notes to anchor some of the now more obscure references in a solid historical context. Fantagraphics Books have served this appetite many times over with their encyclopedic renderings of Krazy Kat, Lil Abner, and Peanuts, among others. Pogo: Through the Wild Blue Wonder is the first volume of a projected 12 that will painstakingly recreate Kelly’s achievement in something like real-time. This is long overdue.

“Hard and painful as it may be to believe today,” Kelly’s daughter Carolyn and her co-editor Kim Thompson write in their introduction, “there was a time when the common assumption was that once a strip […] had appeared in the newspaper, no one would ever be interested in reading it again.” This maiden volume has taken decades to properly organize, and required close consultation with those “indefatigable fans” that for 60 years preserved vast personal archives of the strips, clipped from daily papers. Foremost among these is Steve Thompson, whose biographical essay on Kelly makes for a fine-grained, scene-setting introduction to the work. Another is R.C. Harvey, who appends the historical notes that decode, with a helpful precision, odd comedic echoes of the 1948 election, or China’s conversion to communism, or a stray reference to Virgil’s Aeneid — or whatever else was impacting Kelly’s imagination on this or that day.

Kelly’s Pogo Sunday panels were massive compared with most in my friend’s collection, second only to those of Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant; like Foster, Kelly was passionate about space and detail. His training as an animator was also more visible to the naked eye in his original sketches, daily and Sunday. He penciled his figures in blue, first — blue didn’t photograph in those pre-computer days — then would ink even the finest lines using a brush, as opposed to a nibbed pen. Such a choice requires extreme confidence and dexterity, and this explains why Kelly’s shadows and watery surfaces bristle with such wavy life in image after image. The glow of the pencil-work beneath allows one to see how freely and yet precisely Kelly blocked his creatures, and their movements, from panel to panel. Each individual strip is staged and organized so that one’s gaze moves in pleasurable circles, reading and re-reading, then finally ignoring the words to enjoy the madcap energy of the characters in their daily dance. One of the treats of this book is that, owing to digital reproduction, a selection of Kelly’s originals, complete with their blue halos, are shown between chapters.

We are also given — at the very back of this book, to spare confusion — the ur-Pogo, from its 17 week dry-run in late 1948 as a not-yet-syndicated strip in the New York Star. These buried samples give an illuminating sense of what was ripening in Kelly’s head as he found his footing with a daily deadline. After the Star folded, he quickly regrouped, re-drew those hundred or more strips from scratch, and launched Pogo afresh on May 16, 1949. This subterranean foreground served him well; for most readers Pogo appeared to be born full-grown. The visuals which had been scratchy and primitive in the Star strips grew layered (Kelly’s frameworks of flowing trees entered the picture, as did more the playful lettering in his word-balloons) when remade in the year-and-a-half sequence of dailies and Sundays, through December 31, 1950, that make up the bulk of this volume.

Right from the start of its syndicated life, Kelly created jokes that could stand alone in four panels or less, but the atmospheres around these gags were busy with bits of light continuity that would accompany a set of chiming gags along a little stream that might run a week, often more. A lady frog tricks Pogo the Possum into babysitting for her offspring: a pollywog in a jar of water. This chore escalates into crisis when Albert the Alligator, a lawless fast-talking appetite on hind legs, greedily gulps down the water, pollywog and all, forcing Pogo to fetch a ladder and make a head-first expedition into his friend’s cavernous mouth. Such acrobatics are good for a week, until the pollywog gushes out of Albert’s stomach and escapes into a muddy swamp bottom — and the search party that ensues takes us from May to late June, across which days we meet Howland Owl, Beauregard the Hound, Boll Weevil, and many of the busy crew of other characters who will become staples of the strip in years ahead. Each of them rolls in billowing needs and gags of their own. (In time, upwards of 500 characters will be introduced and drafted into action.) A ladybug hides in Albert’s hat, and he is instantly convinced he is hearing a malign voice in his head. He mutters: “Us is doomed!

Albert’s snapping jaws and ready appetite will prove a steady resource of storylines. Something is always getting into his system that doesn’t belong there. A year after the pollywog, in July 1950, it’s a butterfly on a string that flies in while he’s yawning. It’s still alive (Wish he’d stop a flippin’ and a flappin’, Albert sighs), gives him a raucous case of the hiccups, against which Pogo and gang attempt two weeks of home remedies, and does not emerge until mid-August when Albert blows into a set of bagpipes. The butterfly — a talkative critter — sticks around for a pancake breakfast and accompanies Pogo fishing over the next week or two, having decided to become his guardian angel.

These gently interlocking sequences work as delightfully now as they did then. They make a perfect introduction to the Pogo world for any newcomer, while connoisseurs can relish the tremendous energy with which Kelly’s wit and inventiveness are asserting themselves. After a highly successful year of six daily strips a week, editors were clamoring for a Sunday spread — a demanding task for a cartoonist of such exactitude. To accommodate the various requirements of hundreds of different newspapers Kelly had to design his narratives and punches to work just as effectively in six panels as 12 — but he rose to the challenge by spinning even wilder and more intricate plots that would operate independently of the daily stories.

For example: Albert falls asleep, using moss for a pillow and a tartan picnic spread for a cover, and when two satyr-like goats chance along in the climactic panel, they mistake his blanket for a skirt and his crown of moss for a fetching head of female hair, declaring: “Behold! Us li’l natural born fauns is found a BEE-yootiful lost maiden! These fauns — whose physiques remind us that Kelly worked on Disney’s Fantasia; this will be their only appearance in the strip’s history — are hunting alligators, whose meat they think delicious. It is thus very much in Albert’s interest to be mistaken for The Queen o’ the Woodland Sprites. This deception leads to a full eight week of romps, closing out the book in high style. (If it appears I’m partial to stories about Albert, I plead guilty as charged; but this ‘gator is the natural engine of much of what’s most alive in Pogo-land.) He is only rescued when Pogo rides in, armored like Don Quixote with Uncle Antler the local moose serving as his steed.

Kelly sustained this level of prime creative quality for a quarter of a century thereafter. He lived fully, traveled widely (managing a trip to Saigon, in the midst of the Vietnam War, among many other places) and drank with an appetite to rival Albert’s. When he lost a leg to diabetes, he was stoic. His pal Jimmy Breslin, whose foreword brings him to life in quick passionate brushstrokes, recalls Kelly eyeing the empty space on his hospital bed and saying: “I’m just going to have to stay here until it grows back.”

He died not long after his sixtieth birthday in 1973. His widow Selby, his son Steve and two fine production artists — Don Morgan and Henry Shikuma — all of whom had worked closely with Kelly over the years, kept an expert forgery of the strip going for a year and a half after he died, but the soul of it had fled. That is what has grown back here, thanks to the labor of love and scholarship that is this book, and surely that will continue to win Walt Kelly the devotion of all who discover him.



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LARB Contributor

F.X. Feeney is the author of Orson Welles: Power, Heart, and Soul, published in May 2015 by The Critical Press. As a filmmaker and critic based in Los Angeles his screen credits include: The Big Brass Ring and Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession. He has previously published two book-length essays for Taschen: Roman Polanski and Michael Mann.


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