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An Interview with Kerry Soper About His Book, We Go Pogo: Walt Kelly, Politics, and American Satire

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I first came across author Kerry Soper when I noticed somewhere that he had written a scholarly book about Doonesbury, one of my favorite comic strips ever. I asked if he could give me a copy and would be interested in doing an email interview about his book and his thoughts on the series.

He agreed to both and was very patient as it took me a while to getting it all together since this transpired around the time I moved from Maryland to Austin, Texas and then ran into some problems like having my apartment burglarized and finding work that made it hard to focus on an academic book. Yeah, I know–excuses, excuses.

I published the finished interview here at Blogcritics. If you like Doonesbury you should pick up the book: Garry Trudeau: Doonesbury and the Aesthetics of Satire. It provides insight into not only the author and series but satire in general.

About a year ago Soper told me had written a new book but this time it was on a strip of which I was quite unfamiliar since it was before my time. But I agreed to read his new book, We Go Pogo: Walt Kelly, Politics, and American Satire.

I learned a lot from the book, not only about artist Walt Kelly but also about how he impacted, mostly positively, the comics industry. There are interesting parallels between Trudeau and Kelly, such as that they had their strips moved, at times, from the comics page to the editorial pages by editors nervous about the strips being too political.

Here is the result of my new interview with Soper.

Scott: Why did you decide to write a book about Walt Kelly and Pogo? What makes him important enough to be worthy of such a thorough biography?

Kerry: I’ve been a fan of Walt Kelly since my college days (at a time when I aspired to be a professional comic strip artist myself). As the cartoonist for my university newspaper, I set the goal to learn from the best cartoonists of the past; after a few months of poking around in old collections, I found myself spending the bulk of my time poring over the work of George Herriman (Krazy Kat) and Walt Kelly. In particular, Kelly seemed to excel at every aspect of the craft: fluid brushwork, dynamic characters, genuinely funny dialogue, and challenging satire. I came to the conclusion that he was perhaps the best artist and writer to ever work in the medium.

If the general excellence of his work isn’t justification enough for the book length treatment, he was also a significant cultural figure in the 1950s and 1960s. He challenged and satirized McCarthyism in his strip, ran successful mock-presidential campaigns several times, and excelled as a pundit and general representative of the craft of cartooning

A few years later, in grad school, I had set aside dreams of being a professional cartoonist, but I remained interested in comic strips and their place in our cultural history.  I wrote a dissertation about satire in comic strips and one of the chapters ended up being about Kelly and his great work.

One clarification: I’m not sure if this qualifies as a thorough biography of Kelly.  It is a thorough, scholarly treatment of various aspects of his career and work, but I can imagine that someone close to his family could write a more focused and accessible book about his life. I should also mention that it’s a more densely written book than the one I did on Trudeau, and it ranges more widely in using Kelly as an entry into talking about larger issues related to mid-century American culture and the evolution of several comics mediums. If readers simply want to enjoy Kelly’s humor and great art directly, they should purchase some of the collections of his work that are now being published by Fantagraphic Books.

Which came first–your plans to write this one or the Doonesbury one?

I was originally hoping to write We Go Pogo book about six years ago, but at that time there was another writer under contract with my press (Mississippi) to do a book length treatment of Pogo. So I ended up writing the Trudeau book first.  When I found out that the Kelly project had opened several years ago, I jumped at the chance.

Did you intentionally set out to write books on two satirical cartoonists? Is this related to what you teach and study? Are you planning a third book and, if so, about who or what?

Part of that decision is based on the structure of Mississippi’s great cartoonists series—the books focus on one particular cartoonist’s work and career. I think my impulse would be to write a more complicated book that would explore the history of satire in the medium across a number of decades. (But that would probably be a bit too long and unmanageable in the end.)

I teach classes on the history of comedy and satire in popular culture, and so these books do overlap with things we study in the classroom.  I’m currently starting work on a book about some of the controversies and debates surrounding comic strips when they were first printed in big city newspapers at the turn of the twentieth century. The public tumult surrounding the arrival of this new medium reveals a lot about anxieties over class, race, and religion at that time.

What similarities did you find between Garry Trudeau and Walt Kelly? What differences?

Both of these cartoonists were famous for including topical satire in their comic strips, and both of them achieved a form of auteur-like independence in the way their conducted their craft and careers. They were bold iconoclasts on the comics page, in other words, securing control over their work and resisting pressures to flatten or censor the content of their satire.

They differ in their approach to the satire. Kelly was layered and indirect, couching his criticisms in an animal-driven allegory and reveling in wordplay and irony; Trudeau was much more direct, using everyday people, contemporary settings, and direct attacks to skewer the politicians and values of his age. The two different strategies reflect both the personalities of the two cartoonists as well as the demands of their eras: Kelly had to navigate the dangerous waters of McCarthyism with that coded and indirect approach, and Trudeau had to speak candidly to (and for) a youth generation that was tired of polite comedy or overly censored popular texts.

What did your research for your book on Kelly involve?

It involved trips to archives in Washington D.C., New York City, and Ohio State University.  It also included some discussions with Kelly’s children and correspondence with a few people who knew Kelly personally. Visiting the Ohio State Cartoon Library was especially helpful since all of Kelly’s official papers are located there. It’s a fascinating collection of fan mail, personal papers, newspaper clippings, unpublished essays, professional correspondence, etc. I also benefited from the pioneering work of other Kelly scholars such as Steve Thompson, a writer who has long been close to the Kelly family—and who will probably succeed in writing that more focused treatment of Kelly’s life someday.

What were you most surprised to learn? What were you most pleased to learn and what were you most disappointed to learn?

I was surprised to learn that Kelly had such a long and tough career before he had his big break in his mid-40s. He worked in a number of fields—animation, political cartooning, and comic books—before finding his mature voice and methods. I was most pleased to learn that Kelly was an incredibly funny and generous man in his personal and professional lives. He had a hard time saying no to any speaking invitation, and he was continually sending gifts to friends and readers. Some of his funniest writing is in personal correspondence with professional colleagues, and by all accounts he was hilarious at giving impromptu speeches at dinner parties and professional meetings.

Initially I was disappointed to learn that he wasn’t more of an advocate for progressive reforms in his field when he was the president of the National Cartoonists Society. But after framing his tenure within some of the larger pressures he faced at the time—such as dealing with the public hysteria over the alleged connection between comic books and juvenile delinquency—I was better able to understand his efforts to simply legitimize and protect his field.

You suggest in a few places in the book that Kelly helped pave the way for other cartoonists you respect and admire like Trudeau and others. What are some examples of how he did that? Who are some of the beneficiaries of Kelly’s life and work?

Because Kelly worked in several other comics mediums before tackling the comics page, he was able to expand the visual and verbal range of the medium.  For example, he was the one of the first cartoonists to include topical satire on the comics page, thus opening the door for later satirists like Berkeley Breathed and Trudeau. He also expanded the aesthetics of the craft by introducing methods borrowed from animation (cinematic backdrops and fluid character construction and movement) that made his strips visually dynamic. (Some of that dynamism and fluidity can be seen in the work of Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes.)  And then the continuity of storytelling that he brought from comic books set the stage for later strips such as Doonesbury and Lynn Johnston’s For Better or Worse. There were other cartoonists such as Al Capp and George Herriman who had also helped to expand the vocabulary of the medium, but I’m betting that Kelly has had the greatest impact on the largest number of artists.

You suggest, if not outright state, that while Kelly was progressive in some areas like attacking McCarthy he was not beyond being sexist or at least ignoring sexism. Do you think that says something about his character or do you think it has more to do with the times…. or both?

I think it has something to say about both the times and his character. The newspapermen and professional cartoonists of his age often pursued hard-drinking lifestyles, and sexist attitudes and behavior were prominent aspects of that world. The National Cartoonists Society was slow to include women among their ranks and even persisted in some sexist practices—such as including nude drawings of female characters in internal publications—well up into the 1970s. To Kelly’s credit, he never participated directly in the worst of those activities, but he didn’t do much to discourage them either when he was at the helm of the organization. And he was known among his cartooning peers for being an incorrigible flirt.

There were some mildly sexist aspects to Kelly’s treatment of female characters in the strip as well. For example, there’s a stereotypical narrowness to his principal female character, Mam’selle Hepzibah.  She primarily behaves as a two-dimensional object of desire for the funnier and more complex male characters in the strip.

Lastly, if there is one fact you want people to take away from your book about Walt Kelly and Pogo what would it be?

Perhaps that Kelly’s work illustrates the potential comic strips have to be a highly engaging and verbally and visually complex medium. The current comics page is such a pale shadow of what it used to be up in the early and middle decades of the twentieth century. The medium has declined in cultural importance and creative complexity in recent decades because of several factors: multiple size reductions over the years, the use of crude means of popularity polling, and the imposition of draconian rules about appropriate content. On top of that, the collapse of the newspaper industry has further undermined the health and cultural viability of comic strips.

Reveling in Kelly’s great work reminds us of that lost potential and perhaps points to what the medium could still become in emerging venues on the internet—or in the hands of artists equally interested in melding topical satire with great comedy and art.

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About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.