Walt Kelly, the creator of the iconic comic strip Pogo, was born in Philadelphia on August 25, 1913. When he was two years old, he moved with his parents, Walt, Sr. and Genevieve, and his sister, Bernice, to Bridgeport. The Kellys settled in a house at 457 East Avenue on the East End a short distance from the sprawling General Electric plant, where both his parents were employed.
In many interviews he did over the course of his life, Kelly fondly recalled the Bridgeport of his youth as a rich ethnic stew full of colorful characters who, whatever their differences, found a way to get along. In We Go Pogo: Walt Kelly, Politics, and American Satire, a book about Kelly published in 2012, author Kerry Stoper wrote about Bridgeport’s “colorful dialects, casual tolerance and working class solidarity,” themes that Kelly would feature prominently in Pogo. Kelly and his parents were supporters of Jasper McLevy, the Socialist who was elected to the first of his twelve terms as Bridgeport’s mayor in 1933 when Kelly was 20 years old..
It was Kelly’s father who taught Walt, Jr., to draw and he developed his skills during the many hours he spent confined to the family home recovering from a series of serious childhood illnesses. At Bridgeport’s Warren Harding High School, he honed his art further by drawing for the school newspaper and yearbook. He was also involved in the theater club, an experience he drew on in the skits the characters in Pogo performed on a regular basis.
Kelly was also a school correspondent for the Bridgeport Post while at Harding, contributing articles to the paper about sports and school news. Not long after graduating high school in 1930, he was hired by the Post as a crime reporter. He drew cartoons for the editorial page as well including a quite detailed comic history of P.T. Barnum, who lived much of his life in Bridgeport. The Barnum motif was another that Kelly used in Pogo in the form of a circus impresario named P.T. Bridgeport.
After the Post, Kelly worked for a time in the Bridgeport Welfare Department. We can imagine the impact that experience had, occurring as it did in the depths of the Great Depression, and the influence it had on his outlook and on Pogo. Kelly left Bridgeport in 1935 when he fell in love with Helen DeLacy and pursued her to California, where he also landed a job at the Walt Disney Studio. He worked on a series of Disney’s cartoon productions, married DeLacy and returned for a time to Bridgeport, where the couple’s first child was born in 1942. The Kellys soon moved to New York City and Walt shifted his focus to comic books, where Pogo made its first appearance.
In 1948, Kelly went to work for the New York Star, a left-wing daily newspaper that was the successor to Marshall Field’s PM. Like PM, the Star was a bold venture: ad-free, pro-New Deal and unstintingly supportive of the CIO at a time when virtually all of New York City’s eight mainstream daily newspapers (nine counting the Brooklyn Eagle) were rabidly hostile to labor and wildly enthusiastic about the Cold War and the concomitant suppression of domestic dissent. In addition to a wide array of great writers and its revolutionary use of photos, PM had featured Barnaby, a satirical comic strip drawn by Crockett Johnson, whose influence can be seen in Pogo. It was in the pages of the Star that Kelly made Pogo, with its assortment of anthropomorphic animal characters, a regular feature.
The main character was an opossum named Pogo and other regulars were Albert the Alligator and Churchy LaFemme. The strip was set in the fictional Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia and Kelly used it in part to send up the powerful and bullies of all persuasions. Animal characters represented easily recognizable figures of the day such as Senator Joseph McCarthy, who was satirized as Simple J. Malarkey, a blowhard, shotgun-toting bobcat.
Like PM, the Star (and its short-lived successor the Daily Compass) was overwhelmed by the reactionary politics of the time. When it went under in 1949, Kelly syndicated Pogo in newspapers throughout the United States. The strip was enormously popular and ran for 26 years. Beginning in 1951, Kelly published the first of over 20 books of Pogo reprints.
The Kelly family lived for a while in Darien, Connecticut until Walt and Helen divorced in the early 1950’s. He returned to New York City, married Stephanie Waggony, and became a regular public speaker who was especially popular on college campuses. During this time, Kelly also maintained close friendships with fellow cartoonists Milt Caniff, the creator ofTerry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon, and fellow Bridgeporter Al Capp, creator of Lil Abner.
Though by 1970 Pogo had fallen somewhat out of style, it experienced a revival of sorts when environmentalists organizing the first Earth Day adopted as their own the most famous line from the strip: We Have Met the Enemy and He is Us. Recognizing the sentiment of the event as akin to his own, Kelly illustrated a widely-circulated poster advertising Earth Day and its many events.
After his second wife Stephanie’s death, Kelly married Selby Daley, an illustrator who carried on with Pogo for several years after Walt’s death. Kelly was in failing health for some years and died of complications from diabetes in 1973 at the age of 60.