After more "false starts" than a typical (fill in your least favorite NFL team here) game, Fantagraphics' long, long, long promised hardback POGO reprint collection is well and truly underway. The opening Editor's Note by Kim Thompson and Carolyn Kelly promises us a dozen volumes, each of which will hold two years' worth of daily and Sunday strips. The X factor, of course, is the frequency of the releases. If FG can manage two volumes per year and close the deal before I turn 60, I'll be more than content... but I'll continue to keep at least a couple of fingers crossed until we move beyond the period 1953-54, which was the unfortunate stopping point for both the 1990's FG paperback reprint series and the chronological daily reprints in the Simon and Schuster paperback series which began with THE BEST OF POGO (1982).
The quality of Walt Kelly's work, even at this early and comparatively rough stage, goes without saying. The ancillaries, however, will definitely have to improve in order for this series to match what FG is presently providing in its first-class "Disney Masters" collections. Steve Thompson provides a decent general overview of Kelly's life and career, while R.C. Harvey's "Swamp Talk" gives a potted summary of some of the notes Harvey wrote for the 1990's reprint series, but there could have been so much MORE immediately relevant table-setting matter included here. Where is the discussion of Kelly's development of the POGO concept in ANIMAL COMICS, for example? If the FG folks were unable to whip up a new one from scratch, then perhaps they could have prevailed upon Craig Shutt to reproduce or expand upon his article on the early POGO in HOGAN'S ALLEY, or R.C. Harvey could simply have modified his comments on ANIMAL COMICS from the 90's FG series. Perhaps an ANIMAL COMICS discussion is planned for a future volume, but the point is that it belonged here. For a project four-odd years in the making, its absence troubles me a bit.
I must admit to getting a chuckle or two out of the poker-faced "table of contents" that followed the Editor's Note. POGO is a "continuity strip" only in the loosest sense of the word, so trying to pin down what passed for plots in these early strips is not unlike nailing jello to the wall. The heavy-duty slapstick, chase scenes, mistaken identities, etc. that clutter these early dailies would, for the most part, get shunted over to the Sundays as the dailies devoted more and more space to political riffs.
If they ever gave away a prize for "not throwing things away," then the Kelly of 1949-50 would be one of the finalists. Virtually all of the material that Kelly produced for the NEW YORK STAR gets recycled in the syndicated POGO during the first year-and-a-half, sometimes at a considerable remove from the time at which it originally appeared. For example, the gags with Pogo having a butterfly as a "bow" on his head, originally used in October 1948, didn't show up in the syndicated strip until August 1950. (I would have thought that such a simple gag would have been fodder for one of the very first syndicated strips.) Kelly didn't simply repeat old business here, but apparently gave quite a bit of thought to reformatting the gags in light of decisions that he had made about his characters. Though Pogo is still a butt of a good deal of physical humor in the early syndicated strips, his transition into the calm center of the strip is clearly underway, much as Walt Disney gradually honed the sharper edges off of Mickey Mouse in the short cartoons of the 30s.
The inclusion of the Sunday strips affords us a clearer picture of how Kelly's art style developed during this period. It's still a little on the inconsistent side; Rackety Coon Chile looks pretty much like his cute li'l future self at some points, like a wind-up toy at others. But compared to how, say, the PEANUTS characters changed in appearance, Kelly preserved his early character templates with remarkable faithfulness, adding only refinement in the future. The main exception would be Miss Ma'am'selle Hepzibah, who is actually shaped like a petite skunk (and acts like a flirtatious Minnie Mouse) in her earliest appearance but got better and better looking over time.
The heavy-duty political material, of course, is still to come. The "trial of Albert for 'eating' the Pup Dog" sequence of mid-1950 is just vague enough, and zeroes in on targets sufficiently absurd (the well-past-it Colonel Robert McCormick and William Randolph Hearst), that it's not surprising that Kelly apparently received little negative blowback from it. The idea of a comic-strip artist caricaturing real human personages in animal form was so new that it may simply have zoomed over many readers' heads. Just one year later, a similar storyline involving Churchy La Femme would have a much darker tone, and, from there, it was but a short bound to Simple J. Malarkey and all that such a move implied.
All in all, a decent start, but one that could be improved upon.