Walt Kelly Biography
Claim to Fame: Artist
DOB: Aug. 25, 1913
Date of Death: Oct. 18, 1973
Diabetes Type: Unknown
Walt Kelly was born in Philadelphia, PA. As a child, his family moved to Bridgeport, CT where his father was employed at a munitions plant. Kelly grew up to become a crime reporter for the then-Bridgeport Post. At the Post, Kelly began cartooning and and illustrated a biography of Bridgeport native P.T. Barnum.
Kelly eventually relocated to Southern California, where it is said he was following his future wife, Helen DeLacy. Walt Kelly landed a job at Walt Disney Productions in CA, working on the Donald Duck cartoons and other shorts. Kelly worked for Disney from January 6, 1936 to September 12, 1941, contributing to films including Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Fantasia, Dumbo, and The Reluctant Dragon. During 1935 and 1936, his work also appeared in early comic books for what later became DC Comics.
During World War II, Kelly worked in the Army's Foreign Language Unit illustrating manuals, including several on language and one manual on the use of tools depicting his Walt Disney friend, Ward Kimball, as a caveman.
This period saw the creation of Kelly's most famous character, Pogo, who first saw print in 1943 in Dell's Animal Comics. The initial stories, probably influenced by Joel Chandler Harris' Uncle Remus stories, pitted a human boy named Bumbazine against wily Albert the Alligator, with Pogo Possum in a supporting role. Albert eventually supplanted Bumbazine for the lead role, and Pogo supplanted Albert, with the sole human character - whom Kelly ultimately considered less believable - disappearing from the series altogether.
Pogo was almost unrecognizable in his initial appearance, resembling a real possum more closely than in his classic form. He gradually assumed a rounder and more appealing shape and construction, much like Mickey Mouse's, including a black nose that he would retain until the eve of his transition to the comics page in 1948.
Kelly's work with Dell continued well into the successful run of the newspaper strip in the early fifties, ending after sixteen issues of "Pogo Possum" (each with all new material) in a dispute over the republication of Kelly's early Pogo and Albert stories in a special comic book called "The Pogo Parade". Having grown tremendously as an artist and writer, Kelly no longer wished to see his earlier work in print.
He returned to journalism as a political cartoonist after the war. In 1948, while art director of the short-lived New York Star, Kelly began to produce a pen-and-ink strip of current-events commentary populated by characters from Okefenokee Swamp. The first Pogo strip appeared on October 4, 1948. After the New York Star folded on Jan. 28, 1949 Kelly arranged for syndication through the Hall Syndicate which relaunched the strip in May of 1949. Kelly eventually arranged to acquire the copyright and ownership of the strip, which was uncommon in that era.
In 1951 Simon and Schuster issued the first paperback book collection of the strip, simply titled Pogo. In 1952 and later, a "Pogo for President" campaign, with followers wearing "I Go Pogo" buttons, became an expression of political protest. Then came The Pogo Papers (1953) and his daily and Sunday strip went on to be distributed by King Features Syndicate to hundreds of newspapers for many years. The individual strips were collected into at least twenty books edited by Kelly, reprinted editions of some of these remain available today. He received the Reuben Award for the series in 1951.
Kelly died in 1973 from complications of diabetes, following a long and debilitating illness that had cost him a leg.
The following is from a Washington Post series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.
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