A Comic strip character that once caused a riot reflects the power of art to convey significant messages.
When I was a little boy, I had two animal toys sitting on my bookcase. One was an alligator standing up on his hind legs and the other was a little gray furry thing wearing a striped shirt. I had a vague sense that the two came from a comic strip, but I really wasn’t sure. I knew their names, so I—or my parents—had to have been familiar with where they came from. The alligator’s name was Albert. The grey thing was a possum named Pogo.
Pogo was a comic strip drawn by Walt Kelly that ran in newspapers from 1948 to 1975. Kelly was born in 1913 and worked as an animator on the Disney films
Fantasia, Pinocchio, and Dumbo. He left Disney in 1941 during an animators’ strike and landed at Dell Comics. There he developed a cast of animal characters into a comic strip that could be both philosophical and political.
In 1952 against the backdrop of that year’s presidential campaign there was a quirky “Pogo for President” movement that emerged from Harvard University, nurtured in roughly equal portions by the campus newspaper and a general displeasure with both the Republican and Democratic candidates for President that year.
The Harvard Crimson distributed 3000 buttons that said “I Go Pogo,” a rather less than subtle jab at the ubiquitous “I like Ike.”
The whole thing resulted in an invitation to Walt Kelly to give a talk at the university. As things transpired, when he was late to arrive for his speaking engagement, a growing crowd became restless, blocked traffic on Massachusetts Avenue and began detaching the power cables for the trolley lines. Cambridge police moved in.
28 students including 5 editors of the paper were arrested and numerous others beaten by Cambridge police, in what, of course, became labeled “the Pogo Riot.” Looking back, the Harvard Crimson chalked up a lot of the unrest to the regnant McCarthyism of the day and a consequent impulse to defy the establishment, an establishment against which Pogo was already turning its dry irony.
The next year during the height of Joe McCarthy’s influence, Kelly introduced into the strip a bobcat character named Simple J. Malarkey who quizzed, investigated, and browbeat the other characters over the content of their subversive dreams. It wasn’t hard to tell who the character was based on.
In comparison say to Philip Guston’s cartoonish figures that have recently caused a major exhibit of his work to be postponed, Walt Kelly’s comic strip was far less ambiguous.
Humor can be subversive, and images can be powerful. Good art can often let you see reality even clearer than you otherwise could. That’s how the humble comic strip can rise to be something more.